Our family goals are pretty simple this year: no broken head/face bones in 2019, please.
It’s that time of year… where moms in our expat chat groups find themselves in a panic because they’ve just found out that NOW is the time to have their 2 year old start interviews in order to register for school next year.
It’s not quite as simple as heading down to the neighborhood public school with your water bill to prove you live in the district. There are a lot of options, and you have to decide it while your baby is still in diapers!
So what do you need to consider when choosing a school for your child?
This often comes as a surprise – Arabic is not the educational language for most private schools in Lebanon. So the first question you need to ask yourself is which language do you want your child educated in – French or English?
We chose an English medium school, which means our children take Math, Science, English of course, and all their specials (PE, art, etc) in English. Arabic is taught as a language, as is French, and eventually (starting grade 4 for us, this depends on the school and the system) social sciences such as history and geography are taught in Arabic.
For us, this was an easy choice – neither of us speak French and we wanted to be as involved with our kids’ education as we could be. For others, the language you choose might not be quite as simple.
You need to decide on your budget for education. School fees can range anywhere from $3,000 – 20,000 per child per year. Be aware that the fees change depending on your child’s grade, sometimes doubling from kindergarten to grade 12, so it’s a good idea to ask for fees for each grade to make sure the school will still be in your budget in a few years.
Make sure to also ask about other supplemental fees (books, stationary, uniform, activities, etc) and whether the school offers discounts for siblings.
Another aspect of cost to consider is the atmosphere that comes with a school being very expensive or very cheap. How comfortable are you or your kids in different socioeconomic groups and what comes along with that?
This is a huge consideration that I can’t stress enough… in our opinion, the closer you can be to the school the better! Traffic in Lebanon is notoriously terrible and inconsistent. It could take you 20 minutes to get to your kids’ school or an hour and 20 minutes with no rhyme or reason. Of course all schools have buses at an additional cost that will save you time on the road, but not necessarily your kids.
We’ve always lived within walking distance of school, and it’s honestly been the best decision we could have made. That’s not always possible of course, but location should definitely be something you consider as you choose a school for your kiddos.
This is the piece of the equation that we didn’t really do a lot of research on – because we had no idea we needed to! Not only do you have several languages to choose from, but there are multiple educational systems each with different curriculum, requirements and theories of education.
Every school in Lebanon is required to offer the Lebanese curriculum. But if your child has a foreign passport, you have the option of registering for the French Bacc, High School, or International Baccalaureate (IB) program.
The school we chose for our kids only has the Lebanese system. When we chose it seven years ago, all we really knew about it was that it meant our kids would have to do Arabic with all the native speakers (as opposed to taking a special Arabic for foreigners class) and they would have to sit for the government exams in grades 9 and 12. We wanted our kids to learn Arabic, and figured that because they were born here, they should be able to do what any other child can do, academically speaking. And that has proven to be true.
What we didn’t realize were all the other things that entail being enrolled in the Lebanese system. It’s not only about the curriculum, but educational styles as well as values play a huge role in the education your child will receive. For example, the Lebanese system is very math/science heavy, rote memorization is still highly valued, and the brevet (grade 9 exams) are notorious for putting a lot of pressure on students to memorize a lot a lot a lot of useless information. Some kids will thrive in that kind of system, others won’t. For us it’s not a question anymore of IF our kids can do it, because we know they can, but more of a question of if we WANT them to. We love our school, but the jury is still out on how long our kids will continue there.
I’d highly recommend doing research on the different systems – what does the IB offer? What classes will a student in the high school program take? What are the education styles employed in the French bacc system. I wish we had known more about the options, although to be honest, we likely would have ended up at the same school because of it’s location and cost. (And we are very happy there, thankfully!)
Other important questions to ask
Of course every family will put different value on the 4 major considerations – maybe budget is not an issue because your employer will cover your kids’ tuitions, or maybe you only have a Lebanese passport so the Lebanese system is your only option. Every school has it’s pluses and minuses and what makes one family happy will drive another up the wall. But the choice can be overwhelming, especially if you are new in the country or didn’t go through the school system here yourself. A few other questions to ask once you’ve narrowed down your choices are:
- What kind of special education services are offered? (Not all schools are equipped for or will accept kids with special needs)
- What kinds of activities are offered both during the day or after school?
- When do kids start having homework? How much per day? (This might be a question better asked of parents with kids in the school than the school itself)
- What place does religious education have in the school? You’ll find a wide range – from not religious at all (including Christmas/Ramadan celebrations) to mandatory chapel or religion classes.
- What percentage of the school are expats?
I was reading a report recently that one of the main reasons that expats return to their passport country is because of children’s education issues. While there is no perfect school, and you will find things you love and hate about any school, finding a school that is a good fit for your family will go a long way in making your experience as an expat in Lebanon a positive one.
For those of you here in Lebanon, what have I left off? Any questions you would add?
I was on a blog break when Luka had his infamous school interview. The school changed the interview process a bit – now the kids head up to the classroom alone while the parents fill out the paperwork downstairs. I get the idea behind it, but I also think it is quite traumatic… and you don’t want a child’s first experience of school to be negative!
It wasn’t an issue for us – Luka was so so ready for school. I actually had to downplay the interview quite a lot because he still had to wait nine months before his first day. We got to the lobby and while I was still greeting another mom I know, he was halfway up the stairs. Apparently he played a little basketball and the teacher asked a lot of questions. When I tried to quiz him about the type of questions, his response was consistently the same: “blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Part of the reason he was so comfortable was that he’s been doing school pick up since a was just a few days old. He knows the campus, he knows the teachers, he knows the kids. But the bigger reason is, he’s a year older than the girls were.
The cutoff date to start school here is January 31. This is set by the ministry of education each year. There are a few schools that set an earlier date, but most follow the ministry. This means that your child can start his first year of kindergarten when he is 2 years and 8 months.
Luka has a late November birthday, so instead of starting him when he was 2-almost-3, we decided to wait an extra year and start him at 3-almost-4. Best decision ever.
I get a lot of pushback – mostly from moms who decided to start their kids on the early end: “It depends on the child!” And my response in my mind is always, “no, it doesn’t.”
I’m not saying that a kid who starts on the early side is destined to fail. Isla is one of the youngest in her grade (if not the youngest!), and she’s excelling academically. Ruby started at 3.5 years and is doing great socially.
But the difference in awareness of a 2 year old, a 3.5 year old and an almost 4 year old is huge. The girls did fine, they were generally happy, but they cried every morning for weeks. They came home exhausted, needed naps but couldn’t have them, and just in general seemed so young to be in school all day.
Luka has been a totally different story. He understood what school was, he was itching to go. First day, he waved good-bye and marched up the stairs so so happy. No tears, no looking back. Days 2, 3, and 4 were more difficult… because most of the class spent the whole day crying for their moms. Which you would expect from a class full of 2 year olds! He’s frustrated because he wants to do school things, but other kids were crying and scribbling and throwing their food on the ground.
We could have started him straight into his second year of kindergarten because of his age which would have been a smoother start, more like what Luka was expecting school to be like. But, because they start French and Arabic from the first year, I wanted him to get the full benefit of the three years of KG before starting the much more serious first grade. So much research says that it’s much better for kids (especially boys) to be on the older side of their class, so we decided to start him from the first year, even though it means he’s more than a year older than some of his classmates.
The one thing I wish I would have done was had him skip the entire first week. He’d miss a lot of the crying and tantrums, which up until this point have been the only source of stress in his school experience.
Can a child do well in school if they are young? Of course. But I’d start Luka late a million times over again, and if I could go back in time and delay the girls’ start, I’d do it as well!
It’s been 2.5 years since I last blogged. At the height of my blogging days, I was getting thousands of hits a day with readers all over the world. That’s exhilarating in a way, but at the same time it’s incredibly stressful. My posts ranged from silly to sweet to deep to controversial, and the latter two often brought out the masses. And I discovered that the more strongly I believed in the cause I was blogging about, or the more vulnerable I was being in my struggle to do life in Lebanon or readjust to America, the more the attacks came. People can be mean from behind a computer screen, but I discovered that it’s not just strangers, but supposed friends as well that are seemingly out to draw blood.
So I tried to scale back, tried to blog about funny cultural mishaps or triumphs in the kitchen. But when bombs were going off in our neighborhood and pain and suffering were at our doorstep, writing fluff pieces felt disingenuous. So I just stopped writing.
But I’ve been itching to get this baby up and running again. I have no idea where it will go…. but I expect it will be a little light and a little not, because isn’t that how life is? Frivolity walking down the sidewalk hand in hand with suffering. Lemons and lemonade. We can’t live our lives ignoring big issues, but we also can’t feel guilty for enjoying a day at the beach.
I’m very excited to kick off the return of my blog with a giveaway because, let’s be honest, no one gets offended by a giveaway!
Part adventure, part mystery, part fairy tale, The Keeper and the Compass is the first book of the Keeper Chronicles written by my dear friend, Katie. It’s suitable for ages 10 and up and will delight both the young and not so young. Plus that cover art is just gorgeous. More info on the book can be found here. I’ll be giving away one copy of the book, shipped to anywhere in the world!
Giveaway is open until Sunday morning, 7am Beirut time. You can enter by clicking on the link to Rafflecopter below. Every day you check the Rafflecopter, you can a free entry, plus an extra one for commenting on the blog and another for visiting Katie on Facebook. Best of luck!
Giveaway is now closed!
‘Bu’ arrived in Lebanon at the age of 19 with a simple dream – to dress nicely. The chance to work seemed to be the first step to fulfilling that dream. It got her out from under her alcoholic father’s hand and away from the piece of canvas that was her family’s only shelter from the Sri Lankan elements.
A chance to work. To support her family. To break the cycle of poverty. To fulfill her dreams.
Those dreams were dashed when she arrived in Lebanon. As with many domestic workers, her passport was confiscated upon arrival. She was never paid for her work, barely fed, and refused all contact with her family.
For a year she lived like this. And then one day she picked up a phone to call her neighbors back home, hoping to hear a familiar voice, to pass on a message to her family. When her “madame” found out, she grabbed a kitchen knife, forced Bu against a wall and stabbed her just below the neck. Fearing for her life, Bu fought back, and is now serving a life-sentence for murder. She’s been in prison for 19 years.
Bu’s story doesn’t end in a prison cell. In the midst of the darkness her newfound faith has given her comfort, peace, and hope.
A friend of mine has also helped give Bu a sense of purpose. She and some other prisoners (both from Lebanon and abroad) have started making soft soled shoes for babies and small toddlers. Not only is it a source of income – many of these women still have families depending on them – but the act of working, of creating, of doing something worthwhile is life changing for those whose futures seem hopeless.
Soft soled shoes are actually the only kinds of shoes my kids have worn until they were about 18 months old. Barefoot is best for early walkers, and these shoes bend and flex like a bare foot would, while protecting little toes from cold hard floors or dirty sidewalks.
The shoes come in three sizes. Size 1 comes with felt soles and is perfect for a new baby. Size 2 and 3 have genuine leather soles and fit pre-walkers and walkers.
Shoes are $15 a pair and come with a gift bag.
Pick up is in Hamra or Mansourieh.
To order, contact Steph at firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp 009613242914
Years ago I was reflecting on culture shock, and reverse culture shock, and reverse reverse culture shock with some other expat women who have been doing this whole back and forth between cultures much longer than we have. One gave some excellent advice that I have found so helpful. She recommended making a list of everything that shocks you – whether it’s about your passport country or the country you live in – and looking over that list before you travel to remind yourself of what was difficult.
I found that super helpful because a big part of culture shock is the… shock. It’s the things you don’t expect, the feelings that come out of nowhere with seemingly no explanation, that cause such a feeling of dissonance.
I remember the last time we were in the US, driving was such a strange feeling. I felt oddly claustrophobic. It makes no sense, really. I rarely drive in Beirut, and the hours I’ve spent in a car in the US far outweigh the amount of time I’ve spent driving in Lebanon. But Lebanese driving has become my new default, and it’s jarring to feel uncomfortable driving here in America. But by reminding myself of how weird it feels before my feet even touch American soil, it has been less of a shock this time around.
Another new default I find myself fighting is the tendency to… to put it plainly… hoard. When I see black beans (for a reasonable price!) at a supermarket in Lebanon, I buy them. All of them. As in, every single can there is. Because we love black beans and just because there are six jars on the shelf one week doesn’t guarantee that they will be there the next week, or the six months to follow.
So you can imagine what walking through Target is like. It is so hard to reset the default of “oh, I see it, I am gonna need it eventually, I should buy it right now.” It’s especially hard when things are so so so cheap here. Like baby wipes for $1.97, vs. the $8 I would pay for the exact same wipes in Beirut. In the almost month that we’ve been here, I’ve only been in to Target once, and basically I put my hands on the side of my head like blinders so I wouldn’t see the kids clothes or household items. I’m sure my mom really enjoyed that shopping trip, haha!
That’s not to say we don’t go back with three times as many bags as we came with. I keep a running list of things all year that we either can’t get in Beirut or that are so much cheaper here that it makes sense to stock up when we can. Shoes for the kids, clothing in the next size up for Luka and Isla, toothpaste and mascara are all things that we can get so much cheaper here. I want to be wise with our resources and if I can save money by buying things here, I want to do that. I know it seems a little ridiculous to save space in my bag for 3 years’ worth of mascara, but it’s even more ridiculous to pay $20 a tube in Beirut when it’s only $5.47 here. This is when Amazon becomes my best friend, because I don’t have to actually walk through the store and see all the things I didn’t know I needed… or you may in fact see me on next month’s episode of Hoarders.
It’s been less than a year since we were last in the States, so the culture shock hasn’t hit us as hard this time around. The kids have made some funny observations and proclamations about the US (“I hate America because it makes my nose bleeeeed!”), and of course jet lag was a beast, but for the most part, I felt like the transition this time around has felt a lot smoother.
And then we drove past a shopping mall in Colorado and Isla shrieked with joy, “an American Girl BOOKSHOP!!!!!” A few months ago, my sister sent her some of the old school American girl books, and she absolutely loves them. So when she saw a huge store full of the books she adores, she was so excited.
I was a bit too old for the American girl craze when I was a kid, but my memory of them is a set of books about a little girl living through an important part of American history. You could get a doll and the doll had several different outfits to go along with the different books in the set – a Christmas dress, a school outfit, and whatever else. So I thought we could go in and see the doll that goes along with the books she’s already read, and maybe get her a new book.
Hello, culture shock. This store is the epitome of the way America can take things to the absolute, most ridiculous extreme. First of all, the salesgirl had absolutely no clue what we were talking about when we asked her about Felicity, the character Isla has been reading about. Um, okay. And then we saw the hair salon. Four adult women, whose only job was to style their customer’s – A DOLL’S – hair.
It’s a little girl’s dream and a parent’s (read: wallet’s) nightmare. We made a quick exit and headed into the mall. At the entrance they had those little cars that you can push your kids around the mall in. But instead of a steering wheel, so that your child can feel like he’s actually driving the car, there was a tablet. For your toddler. To play with. While you walk around the mall.
Hello, culture shock. Hello, America. Where something that was perfectly fine when it was simple gets take to the extreme.
It’s overwhelming. Super overwhelming.
But to be honest, sometimes I am really grateful for the extreme-ness of the good ‘ole Us of A.
Last Sunday night, we headed to a splash park with some friends. To make a long, very bloody story short, Isla fell and needed stitches in her chin.
She’s had stitches before and it was an incredibly traumatic experience for her, so even the mention of them put her into a tailspin. So we headed back to where we were staying so I could get Ruby and Luka dinner and Caleb and Isla headed over to Urgent Care to get her chin stitched.
But she was freaking out so much that they couldn’t stitch her without sedation, so they sent them to the ER. There is a children’s hospital super close to where we were staying, so that’s where they went.
And this is the part of the story where I’m thankful for the way things in America just can’t be left simple. As soon as they walked in the door, Isla was presented with gifts – a book and a craft to work on while she waited. No need for wheelchairs in this hospital, a happy red wagon will wheel you to your room! She had her choice of movies to watch while she was stitched up, but since she couldn’t settle down enough, a quick squirt of something in her nose knocked her out for the stitches…. and the rest of the night!
Compared to the last time she got stitches in Beirut… when I had to hold my 2 year old down screaming bloody murder because they wouldn’t give her any pain relief until after violently cleaning her wound… this was a dream (said the person who sat at home with the sleeping littles while Caleb did the whole ER thing!) Now getting the stitches out…… that’s a whole ‘nother (6 hour long) story!