What’s in a Good School?


The Harbour School since 2010. My background is in both regular and special education, but rather than my university and graduate degrees and my teaching and administrative experience, what best qualifies me to speak here today is the fact that I am what some of you might already know as a Third Culture Kid.

According to Vicki Labiri, referencing Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, “mother” of the term TCK, and her work from the 1960s, a TCK is an expatriated individual who has grown up “rooted in the home culture, lived out in the host culture, but in the end, neither fully one nor the other.”

My father worked in finance which meant we moved every 3-4 years. I moved five times from four to eighteen, and attended different international schools, one of them a “top tier” school here in HK. So, I’ve been in the shoes of many of our students or your clients‘ children and I’m here to talk to you about what matters to us in terms of school.

For sure, I’m grateful to be a TCK: Statistically, we’re four times more likely to be awarded a Bachelor’s degree. We’re usually born in Hong Kong and move an average of four times between the ages of 5 and 18. We speak two or more languages. We’re known to be excellent observers because we’re perceptive, and sensitive and we’re generally more open-minded and less prejudiced. We’re typically high achievers and we’re used to bridging between cultures because we have multiple frames of reference. United States President Obama is a TCK and I’ve read that his administration also has many TCKs. There are a wealth of advantages and opportunities, but there are difficulties too.

The question “Where’s home for you?” confounds us. We belong everywhere and yet nowhere. Transience makes it difficult for us to commit emotionally to people, schools, experiences. We can feel powerless and out of control because people that you love and connect with can be taken away that January or the very next June. We struggle with who we are wherever we are. Whether it’s summer with cousins in your birth country or off with friends traveling in your host country, there’s that perpetual feeling you’re an outsider. You don’t know the same TV shows, the same music; you don’t even speak the same lingo. But most interesting is that we experience what David Pollock, author of “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” calls “unresolved grief” about the people and places we’ve lost along the way, whether they be favourite teachers, best friends, first loves, “Ayihs” or “Aunties”.

My brother and I always knew when we were going to move because my parents would take us out to a fancy dinner and right between allowing us to order dessert and a second Shirley Temple, it would drop. “We’re moving to (a new country),” There’d be a silence and then a sharp inhale, followed quickly by a “But don’t worry you’ll have a bigger room, a better allowance (because of the exchange rate), we’ll be flying first class, get a new car, a club membership…and once, my personal favorite, you can finally get a dog!” So as a seven or ten or twelve year old processing this, your emotions are redirected- because, let’s be honest, a new dog, a bigger room? Whose wouldn’t be? The exciting prospect of new experiences followed by the flurry of moving boxes and lengthy hotel stays for new school or flat hunting are all amazing experiences that distract from appreciating that you’re about to lose everything that has been your world in the last three years.

I didn’t realize how true it was that I had unresolved grief until I was back here in Hong Kong, decades later, this time as a parent. It was my first year working at The Harbour School. At the time I was a teacher. I felt reasonably settled about three of my four children (at the time ages 8, 7, 5 and 3) and I was particularly ecstatic when Maya, my 7 year old befriended a girl named Catherine in her class. Catherine was sweet, imaginative, generous, kind, and best of all for someone without a car, she lived right across the street from us. Despite the unpacked boxes, the lack of a helper for six months, her mother starting a full time job again, it seemed all was right in Maya’s world because of Catherine that September.

But then January happened and I got a call on my cell phone during my lunch hour from Maya’s teacher. Maya was under my desk in my classroom and wouldn’t come out. I went over to see what was wrong and between pinched eyes and quiet sobs, Maya told me that Catherine was moving to Singapore that Chinese New Year. I coaxed her out, comforted her for as long as I could, felt terribly about things, but then I dusted myself off and went about my business the rest of the day teaching my class.

A month later came soon enough and eventually it was Catherine’s last day. She came into my classroom where Maya was having a snack and gave us each one of her goodbye cupcakes. They exchanged hugs, signed photos and addresses and Maya was quiet but otherwise seemed fine. I thought nothing more of it until later that night when I left the school. I packed up my stuff for the Chinese New Year holiday and got in a taxi holding Catherine’s cupcake. Staring at the cupcake in the back of the taxi, I don’t know what came over me, but I just began to cry. All I could think of were all the Catherines I’d lost as a child and I thought helplessly, What in the world have I gotten my daughter into? No sooner than I’d try to stop crying then I’d start all over again. Finally, I got home, mascara all streaky, eyes red, a complete total mess to my husband who opened the door with a very concerned “What happened?” And all I could do was look at him and bawl again, “Catherine’s gone!” Though he tried, he just couldn’t understand why such a thing could grieve me so deeply. Now I realize that except for some tears at graduation, it was probably the only time I ever really cried about a move and it wasn’t even about me and this was decades after the fact. So that grief? It was had been waiting all along.

As someone who has lost many Catherines, I can tell you that in children, even with the best of intentions, resilience and apathy can look the same. Because children usually don’t want to seem ungrateful- yes, of course this is an amazing adventure! Of course it’s a privilege to have friends who are half Peruvian half Greek, to have school trips to Nepal and Australia when other kids are just going to the next county to visit the zoo. But the cost is there and for some, this means a crust called apathy forms- Apathy about friends or lack thereof, about school performance, about your future. Because, who wants to dig in and get enthusiastic when you’re just leaving again anyway?

So, why am I telling you this? What does this have to do with this event, with The Harbour School?

Because all of us live in this wonderful city called Hong Kong, which is home to most TCKs and where schools and schooling is on the top of everyone’s to do list. Parents feel that kids are sorted once they’re in a “good school”, and I would argue that the common definition of a “good school” especially with such a transient population needs some re-examining.

You might have come here this morning thinking, what possibly could a school with commercial urban premises, a fairly relaxed Admissions policy (What? They don’t have a serious admissions test because they don’t believe in it?) and a diverse learning demographic offer amidst all the other grander international schools? Right now, THS doesn’t even have our own playground, or pool or basketball court. And, there’s a sprinkling of kids with needs mixed in with kids without needs! How possibly could a school have a curriculum that both stretches and accommodates?

In fact, WHY would anyone in their right mind send their kid to such a school and even keep them there (despite seat openings at other schools)? Something doesn’t compute because the school doesn’t even have a cafeteria!

Because, as one who has attended some of those “good” schools, I’ll tell you why:

A good school is honest about the reality that children don’t come in one size fits all packaging and creates a curriculum and system to address, not run away from this because a good school is one in which every kid learns, including the super bright ones. Period.

And a good school is one in which every kid matters and they and their parents know it; they know it because their teachers adjust their work to make sure they’re learning and exchange emails to try to figure out why they’re not. They know it because their teachers and administrators receive feedback with an open ear because it represents a willingness to improve as a community on matters both big and small.

A good school is one in which a child who has already lived on three continents, speaks three other languages, but none of them yet English, who needs a year to get his bearings because he doesn’t know where home is or where the next friend or goodbye will be, feels that school is there FOR you, rather than AGAINST you.

A good school prepares you for your future by working patiently with your strengths and weaknesses like family rather than making you feel like you’re forever going to be a permanent benchwarmer watching from the sidelines in life. It’s not easy to go from one school system or calendar to the next (and I’m not even talking about IB to non IB or UK to US just going from one school to another!), and it’s even more difficult to excel and feel confident at doing this every few years. Feeling like your teachers understand you’re not a complete utter failure because you’re good in math according to one school, but not in writing according to another school or great at art but not in reading is worth its weight in gold when you’re ten, because here are adults working with all you’ve got at that point in time- whether there’s an indoor pool or a state of the art basketball court in the picture is really besides the point.

And in each of these qualities, The Harbour School excels.

Look don’t get me wrong, I do believe our time will come in terms of brick and mortar surroundings, but brick and mortar surroundings, do not a “good” school make just like they do not a good family make. Schools are our children’s second families. In fact, many kids spend more time in schools than at home with their parents. When we’re judging parenting, we don’t sit around and say “Oh my gosh, what an amazing parent! She made sure to pick a flat with a fountain out front and a tennis court in the back!” We may appreciate the fountain or the tennis court, but we’re more likely to say, “What a great dad, he took his daughter and five other screaming nine year olds to their first Taylor Swift concert on the MTR.”

So we already readily accept that there are wonderfully nurturing families living in cramped flats with poor facilities and we also know that there are absent or estranged families living together in gorgeous penthouses with heated pools and bronze scrolled gates. What makes a family “good” is about what you do with the time and resources that you’ve got; it’s about how your family handles rough times; whether your kids trust that you’re there for them when they’re falling short; whether you’ve equipped them with enough experiences and pep talks that empower them to work harder and more confidently on their current challenges and propel them to push even further in the areas in which they feel they already succeed. These are the measures of a good family life which prepare children for a solid future. The house you live in has very little to do with it. It’s the same with what we have at THS.

So the reason why I’m here, at The Harbour School, and why I work hard at this school is because its mission sits well with me as an educator, as a parent, and as a Third Culture Kid who has attended larger schools with more exciting campuses. This school succeeds in many ways with far fewer resources, sometimes even where other larger schools have failed!

The school succeeds for super bright academic achievers like Emma* who moved from New Hampshire to Hong Kong. Emma was a driven perfectionist who would have aced any entrance exam at any other school but she attended THS from 2011-12 because we accepted the modest school stipend her mother was allowed as a visiting Fulbright scholar to HKU. Emma was a sixth grader who, after that fateful year, when her mother’s sabbatical was over, moved back to the States and declared that her old school which was perfectly fine before, was homogenous and narrow minded and this meant that she would then set her sights to applying to Philipps Exeter Academy, where she wrote in at least one of each of her applications about living in Hong Kong and attending THS, and then was accepted.

It succeeds for quiet, conscientious, well-mannered, book-smart sorts like Arthur who attended THS from 2010 to 2014 and who came in quietly and shyly and left a Student Council representative, a poet and an advocate. Arthur had taken part in the STARS** mentoring scheme we have here between THS and TCI*** students and decided that upon returning to Scotland, he needed to recreate the experience for kids in his school mentoring kids with cerebral palsy in another school.

It succeeds for rowdy bouncy sorts like Arthur’s brother Adam, who with his thick glasses and wandering philosopher mind, would probably not made it past the first round of entry exams because his handwriting at age five was so terrible you couldn’t appreciate how intelligent his thoughts were; Adam, who kept every teacher and his wrestling coach on their toes, whose mother affectionately calls him “my child who couldn’t sit still” and who I’ve no doubt will successfully be on stage or behind a film camera at some point in time.

And it succeeds for someone like Valerie, who moved from Russia to Hong Kong at 8 years old speaking perfect Russian, but not a word of English, but in her silence that first year, doodled a world of illustrations instead, who after a year of intensive English Support at THS, ended up discovering Judy Blume and Jacqueline Wilson books and after graduating from support 18 months later, began writing short stories and film scripts as a fourth grader. Whose parents, in fact were ecstatic that there was a school which accepted her despite an initial lack of English proficiency, but also that it had a sister program and services too for her brother Ethan, who is autistic, and that the same school later offered advanced math services for now first grade sister Felicia, who is bossy and confident, complicated and calculating.

I’m going to close now with telling you about my two defining “school moments” which strongly influenced who I was, what major and degree I’d eventually seek and what successes I later allowed myself.

In the first memory, I remember being asked to work a homework problem out on the board. I had struggled with it that night and I didn’t know how to work it out, but I was willing to try. As I wrote and erased and wrote and erased in front of the teacher and the class, it was clear I didn’t know how to do it. After a few painful minutes, the teacher tapped his pencil impatiently on the desk and finally said, “Oh forget it. It’s wrong. Don’t bother.” And you know what? I listened to that and I didn’t bother, with math for many, many years.

And in the other memory, I remember my English teacher, Ms. Brandel, a young, quiet, awkward, bird-like lady with librarian glasses and frizzy hair who passed me in the hallway one day and said, “Why don’t you join Creative Writing Club after school? You write well, you know.” I blew her off, sort of half nodded, half-shrugged but I didn’t show up. But then she did something I didn’t expect: She noticed and she persisted! Because the following week, there I was minding my own business in her English class, while she passed out papers, and when she passed me, she gave me my paper back and then she dropped a neatly folded note. I looked around, not believing my own teacher had passed me a note. And I opened it and it said, “Christine- Creative Writing Club today, after school. Be there!” And I listened to that and I was there for writing and writing classes for many years.

And there you have them: Two simple, defining, powerful moments with only two ingredients: A classroom and a teacher.

As you can see, the indoor swimming pool and the fountain had very little to do with what shaped the person I am today. And with that, I say, we’re glad you’re here. Welcome to The Harbour School!

*: Names have been changed

**: STARS is an acronym for the Social Training And Relationship Skills, which is an after-school program wherein a student from The Harbour School mentors a student with support from The Children’s Institute of Hong Kong.

***: TCI is The Children’s Institute of Hong Kong which is a 1:1 program for children with special needs who have inclusive opportunities alongside typical peers at THS. For more information, see www.tcihk.org

Sources:

Hill Useem, Ruth. Third Culture Kids: Focus of Major Study: TCK “mother” pens history of field. TCKWorld. 11 Apr. 1999. Web. http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art1.html

Kennedy, Vivi. “Third Culture Kids- Privileged or Rootsless Global Citizen?” Mommy for Dummy: We Give Guidance on Survival for Parenting. 19 Sept. 2013. Web.

Natario, Eleina. Infographic: The Modern Third Culture Kid. 2011. Infographic. Denizen Mag. Web. http://www.denizenmag.com/2011/09/infographic-the-modern-third-culture-kid/.

Lambiri, Vicki, “TCKs Come of Age” (Unpublished essay). March, 2005. Web. http://www.transition-dynamics.com/pdfs/TCKs%20Come%20of%20Age.pdf

Pollock, David. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009. Print.

Van Reken, Ruth. “Obama’s ‘Third Culture Team’”. The Daily Beast. 26 Nov. 2008. Web.

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