School Choice in Addis Ababa

We carefully constructed our life in Addis so that our children wouldn’t live in a privileged expat bubble. The neighborhood we live in, our housing situation, our transportation, how we spend our free time is calibrated so the children wouldn’t be sheltered from everyday life in Ethiopia, but would have enough familiar touchstones, so they’d be comfortable and enjoy their new home. Thanks to some planning, friends and family in Ethiopia, and some good luck, we have a lifestyle which consists of being transported by Ermias’ cousins who drives a 1984 Toyota taxi or walking when he is not available, rather than having our own car and driver; living in a house that we share with the owners, rather than having our own fully staffed villa; living in an older, mixed income neighborhood in Addis rather than one of the neighborhoods that expats more typically reside in (although in honesty, all neighborhoods in Addis are historically mixed income, but the city seems to be trending away from this and any neighborhood in the center of the city is now full of expats). We balance our time on weekends between hanging out at home or visiting Ermias’ relatives (what most Ethiopian families would spend their weekends doing) and going to overpriced swimming pools, eating out, attending circus classes or bazaars (more expat-type activities). We also drag the children on long walks around the neighborhood whenever we convince them to go with us, which neither expats nor Ethiopians would typically do.

It has all worked out exactly as I’d hoped. We’ve found the elusive middle ground

The children are making friends across languages and cultures. They have come to understand how relationships work in a complex and different kind of household. They are slowly, slowly picking up some Amharic, and even if they don’t have a large vocabulary, they know the deep essence of a few words in that way that comes from hearing and using them every day. They are learning to see differently; what were foreign smells, sounds, sights and tastes are now familiar. Their whole sense of aesthetics, space, time and how people move through them is shifting.

The children’s school has been an important part of this experience. They’ve been attending an Ethiopian private school. In Addis, there are at least 150 private schools. Despite the fact that most of the local private schools have the word “international” in their title, the local private schools are not to be confused with the half dozen or so International Schools. Ethiopian private schools cost roughly between 1 and 3,000 USD per year. International Schools cost between 10,000 and 30,000. International Schools are typically where foreigners send their children. I’ve met almost no foreigners who send their children to local, private schools. Many International Schools are formally or informally attached to an embassy and serve as the “community” for that particular expat community. They tend to be more than a bit insular.

One of the key differences between the local private schools and International Schools (other than the massive tuition differences) is where the teachers are credentialed. Private school teachers tend to be locally trained while International School teachers are required to have international credentials. Even among the best Ethiopian-trained teachers, teaching methods are quite different than what we are accustomed to. Methods are rote. There is a heavy emphasis on testing, information dissemination, competition as an incentive, and discipline. Parents tend to send their children to private schools to increase their chances of doing well on various national exams thereby enabling them to secure a rare place in one of the country’s few high quality universities and eventually get a good job. I have a lot of respect for what parents want for their children. It’s not so different than what any of us want, after all. I also have a great deal of respect for teachers trained in Ethiopia. They are hard-working, principled and care about their students, but the way they are taught to teach comes from fundamentally different notion of what a child is, how a child should be spending their time and what learning is. What I think of as “good” education looks like playing around to them.

I really think our children’s current private school is one of the best in Addis, and probably one of the most progressive. It is a warm and loving environment. Class size is small. The teachers know the children well and care deeply about them. Attention is paid to building community in the classes. Still, this is, at the end of the day, an Ethiopian school. Yona (9) spends a great deal of time copying from the board and being tested on the material. Sami (5) complains about the lack of toys in the classroom. It has been a deep cross-cultural experience for the children as they’ve learned to navigate and negotiate different rules, different teacher expectations, and boredom.

In many ways, they have thrived. Yona is repeating grade three because grade four was not a self-contained class and we didn’t think he was ready for a rotating cast of teachers for different subjects. As a result, school is quite easy for him and he finds himself near the top of his class. His teacher adores him and says he is his “star.” His teacher admires the way Yona thinks, and often tells us that “he is different.” But his teachers also complain about the sloppiness of his handwriting and his atrocious spelling and tell us that we need to impress upon him that he needs to work harder to be neat and attentive to detail. Yona is mildly dyslexic meaning that copying neatly and correctly from the board is extraordinarily difficult for him. I explained this to several of his teachers who responded, nodding and saying, “still, we expect to see improvement in this area.” Interestingly, his handwriting is vastly improving as a result of hours spent copying from the board. But mostly, he talks about the friends he’s made in his school and seems to look forward to recess and P.E.

Sami has had a harder time, but is also settling in, finally. For the first month or so, he only knew one child’s name in his class, conveniently a child with the same name as his brother. He mostly played by himself. He complained about some children pinching him. The children in his class mostly speak Amharic and know little spoken English. Meanwhile Sami has been slow to grasp even a few Amharic words. However, he is, apparently, behind the others in his class in reading English. According to his teachers, all of their students should come into his grade knowing the English letters and their sounds, reading some C-V-C words, and be able to read a Dr. Suess book by the end of the year. Sami didn’t completely know his letters until about a week ago. The teacher’s response was to tell us, the parents, to: “teach him the letter sounds and he will read easily!” We’ve been trying, but, for whatever reason, he just doesn’t seem quite ready to read. Still, he’s making some progress, and when I met with his teachers last week, they gave him a glowing report, praising his math skills. When we left the school his classmates all enthusiastically waved goodbye to him. He knew all of their names. He gave his teachers huge hugs.

The school has been, in many ways, harder on Ermias and I than it has been on the kids. It’s been difficult to get information about the procedures to meet with teachers or administrators to voice concerns or provide input, to find out about after school activities, and generally to feel in synch with the school. Pick up and drop off times are chaotic. Parents, or taxi drivers, grab their children quickly and focus on negotiating the intense traffic around the school to get them home to do homework. There’s no opportunity for chatting or meeting other parents. The concept of a play date is largely unheard of. In many ways, the children have adjusted better than we have.

The combination of our frustrations and our concerns about academic boredom, pressure and lack of learning support for reading, led me to reach out to some of the International Schools. We visited one of them last week. I did not realize how much strain the children’s current school was causing me until I walked into this International School and felt the weight lift. I almost cried from relief. There is a gym and a playing field. The primary classrooms are large and designed for various different kinds of learning activities. They are decorated with children’s renditions of famous artists’ work. The music teacher actively welcomed us into his spacious classroom, which was full of drums and other instruments. The librarian said that children can come to the library any time and borrow any book they want to.

The school was also one of the most truly international institutions I’ve ever been in. It is 60% Ethiopian and 40% international hailing from 50 different countries. The teaching staff is phenomenally diverse. A few minutes through the tour, I wondered where this school had been all my life. Half way through the tour, I’d decided that I not only wanted to send my children to school there–I wanted to work there! Towards the end of the tour, I chatted with the Primary School Director during his tea break. He articulated our own beliefs about education exactly, without my even asking, and, furthermore, talked about the school’s deep commitment to engaging with the local community through service activities. Meanwhile, a United Nations of teachers wandered around, chatting in the mid-morning sunshine, sipping tea while an equally diverse student body clustered in small groups in the same space as their teachers. By that point, I’d decided that I wanted to move to Ethiopia permanently so they could go to school there forever.

Later that day, I sobered up. I reminded myself that all schools have their quirks and problems, no school is perfect and a one-morning visit never reveals all. I reminded myself that a transition to any school is hard on families and we’d just gotten through a transition to one school, a school that the children seem to finally be comfortable in even if it makes the parents a little crazy. Do we really want to go back to square one?

In my gut, I know what choice we are probably going to make, but I am disappointed with my gut.

Mostly, what I found myself feeling after our visit to the International School was loss. For days, I cried every time I thought about moving the children. Why was this so hard?

I had a vision of how this year in Addis would go. We’ve built the scaffolding for the children to have an intense cross-cultural experience and they are filling it in with deep friendships, new routines and profound understandings. Why am I breaking down a key piece of that by even thinking of changing their school? Why did I open this Pandora’s box of new possibilities that now can’t be closed?

By nature and by training, I believe in cultural relativity. I have written about teachers in this part of the world with what I hope is a deep respect for, and understanding of, the beliefs, economic issues and social structures that shape the way they teach and explain why they believe that approach to teaching and learning is in young people’s (and society’s) best interests. More broadly, I reject the idea that there is one best way to educate or raise children; there is ample evidence that the vast majority of people turn out well even though they are raised and educated in a wide variety of ways. I reject the idea that there is one right way to educate or raise a child. In fact, I married a man who was raised and educated in Ethiopia and he turned out great. (Incidentally, he is also not nearly as tormented about the decision to move the children as I am.)

As a parent, however, I am discovering that I am a product of where I come from. I am a product of a highly-privileged, progressive, private-school education which taught me that the learning process is more important than the product, that curiosity is more important than accomplishments, that love of learning is more important than scores on tests, and that finding your true calling is more important than professional success. My expectations of what teaching and learning should look like are framed by these beliefs. Thus, I’m having a harder time stomaching differences in pedagogical philosophy when they are applied to my children than my children themselves are.

This has become a sort of existential crisis for me as two of my core values—cultural relativism and a progressive educational philosophy— clash and collide. Although we haven’t decided yet, I strongly suspect that progressive education will win out over cultural relativism, but this is clearly the value that reflects privilege. There is something deeply humbling in this and a deep sense of loss. The children, of course, can and will weigh in on this decision. Yona is incredibly sensitive and aware of the trade-offs and sees the benefits of both schools with a clarity that surpasses his years. Sami has not been entirely happy at his current school, but knows he’s starting to fit in. And mostly, he wants to go where his brother goes. So we’re still not quite sure how this will play out. As I said above, I think I know what my gut will lead us to do, but it feels like my gut is betraying a big part of me.



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