As an old Chinese proverb puts it: “Reading ten thousand books is not as useful as traveling ten thousand miles.” There’s no teacher like experience, so we asked our friends on social media to tell us what their experience of the city’s schools might teach others, when it comes to those all-important decisions about our children’s education. This is what we learned.
“How long has the current administration been in charge?”
“The head teacher whom we really liked was replaced with a less experienced head teacher who didn’t inspire quite the same confidence.”
“Is it a profit or non-profit school?”
A school’s leadership sets the tone for the whole institution, as well as deciding on the strategic direction. If you don’t vibe with the principal or head teacher, then you may not feel at home in their school. It’s worth too checking the school’s management and ownership structure. A non-profit organization might have more resources to put back into facilities and staffing, but it’s probably most important to reassure yourself the business is on a sound footing, and isn’t at risk of closing unexpectedly.
“How does the school communicate with the parents?”
“A big deal is made of the parents’ network and community support, and I can see why it inspires commitment.”
How much you want to get involved with the life of your child’s school depends on your availability and inclination. However you need to know how often you’ll receive reports and meet your child’s teachers, and who to talk to if there’s a problem.
Many schools have active parent-teacher organizations, and these can enhance both the learning and the community spirit of a school,as well as providing purpose and friendship to newly-arrived parents. However, if a small clique dominates, this can become a cause of tension. And parents as fee-paying customers, can sometimes have too much say over educational matters which would be better left to the professionals (see Homework on page 12…)
“How long have teachers been with the school (especially foreign teachers)? How long on average do teachers stay with the school?”
“In one year, our child had three different teachers as each new recruit fled in alarm at the Beijing lifestyle they were expected to adopt. One begins to ask: Had they been properly recruited? Had they been properly prepared? Were they being paid enough?”
“One thing I found enlightening was to look at glassdoor.com to see how the teachers rate their working environment without the PR filter.”
“International Schools Review (internationalschoolsreview.com) is another good website for what staff think about their school.”
A good teacher can have a positive impact, not just on a child’s learning, but on their whole life. And unfortunately, an incompetent teacher can not only waste their students’ valuable time, but also demotivate them. Many Beijing schools have extraordinarily impressive facilities, but in the end, it’s the quality of the teaching staff which makes the most difference.
International schools will always have a higher staff turnover than local schools. This effect is exacerbated in Beijing, which is an exciting, vibrant city, but can be a challenging, even shocking environment to the unprepared. Stability is important for children, but on the other hand, longevity in staff is not necessarily a sign that they are the best teachers; they may be sticking around because they can’t get work elsewhere, and are too well-entrenched to be “managed out”.
It’s well worth finding out about a school’s recruitment and retention policies, but you should also visit the school, look at the work on display, speak to teachers if you can. And ask other parents what their experience has been. WeChat groups are a valuable resource for this.
“If they have special rooms like a STEAM room*, can you tour when they are actually having a class? (Some are there for show and kids never get to use them).”
Many of Beijing’s international schools have facilities which would put some universities to shame. Sports stadiums, music studios, maker spaces, theaters, VR suites… the opportunities are extraordinary. But what matters to kids is what they learn from using those facilities. Sometimes schools get locked into an “arms race” where they’re competing to build bigger and flashier facilities, and the educational purpose can get lost along the way. While you’re being wowed on a school tour, make sure to find out what the students have done. Are the teachers being properly trained to use the spaces? Do the activities there form part of a coherent educational approach, or is it use for use’s sake?
* STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics. It’s an approach to teaching technical subjects in a creative way, currently hugely popular in global education.
“We are living in Shuangjing and she takes the bus all the way to Shunyi… we considered moving, but in the end she likes to play with her friends on the bus.”
Many of Beijing’s international schools are located along a corridor leading out to the north-east Shunyi district. The location of Capital Airport, it has long been seen as an “expat-friendly” area, and has the space for schools to grow and sprawl. However if you’re living in the central area, or (worse) out to the south or west, then the journey can uncomfortably extend an already long school day.
Some parents make the move to be nearer their child’s school, but this can take you away from your own work and support networks. Of course, you may find, like the parent quoted above, that your kids enjoy the journey, or that you prefer life out in the ‘burbs, with less traffic and cleaner air. Or you may find a downtown school that suits you. Whatever your situation, Beijing is a big city, and location is a factor you will need to take into consideration.
Orientation and transition
“What systems are in place for new students to adapt?”
“What flexibility is there in the school’s educational approach to support those transitioning into and out of that system?”
If you’re new to Beijing, you’re probably struggling with some degree of culture shock. And the change can be much tougher for kids, who may have had little say in the decision to leave family, friends and the familiar behind. A proper program of orientation to help new students settle can be crucial to success at school.
And even if your children are used to moving around, they might be faced with switching between different curricula and approaches. The move from Grade 6 in the US system to Year 7 in the British curriculum may not be a smooth one. The school should have plans in place to help not only students who are arriving but also those who are moving on.
This article first appeared in the beijingkids School Choice Guide 2018-2019
Photos: Adobe Stock