August, 03 2014 20:17:00

New school year, but age-old lessons

by Nguyen My Ha

As the summer heat subsides and families return to the city after vacation, schools are starting to call students back for revision before the academic year begins in September.

Students in big cities go to school during the summer because their parents can't take care of them at home. Sitting inside the classroom, they review what they learned during the year.

I never sent my daughter to study reading and writing ahead of the school year, like many parents do, because I can't afford to take her to class at 4 or 5pm, then wait and take her home. My work does not allow me to do that.

So I was glad when I went to the first parent-teacher meeting for my daughter, who is entering first grade, and the teacher said, "All children will learn how to read and write from the beginning."

The teacher is very young and progressive in many ways. For example, in the 1990s, teachers had to train left-handed kids to switch hands, but she said that it's absolutely fine for kids to be left-handed.

However, she also said that all kids must be promptly on time. At 8am sharp, the gates will be closed.

In a school whose motto is "Every day at school is a happy day", this rule and the way the teacher said it left me feeling a bit uneasy. First grade is a transitional period. It's the first year when kids really study in school and the lessons are not games any more. They have to learn; the teacher is not there to babysit them.

But the transition should be smoother. During the first semester, they should be more tolerant about kids being late, as it's hard for 6-year-olds to get up at 6.30am to get ready for 8am classes, particularly in the winter.

However, we still have to follow the rules and not try to make an exception that fits our needs.

My elder child told me a couple of years ago that one of her friends couldn't control his bodily functions in class and everyone else was disgusted. They sneered at the kid and ridiculed him. I told her that it's not the child's fault. One reason he might have "used the restroom" during class is that the toilet in the school smells horrible! So children usually want to hold back until they can't take it anymore. During five- and 20-minute breaks, the restroom is overloaded.

I was dumbfounded when I learned that an international school in Ho Chi Minh City made it clear that all two-year-old kids must be able to eat by themselves. In my own parent-teacher meeting, the principal of my children's school said, "I believe that some of you still literally spoon-feed your children, but in this school, they will have to do it themselves!"

Children will feel proud if adults place trust in them and assign them tasks that they can perform. Still, in a school known for its progressive educational approach, these are remnants of a backward mentality.

Sometimes teachers ask the crowd to jeer at students who make mistakes. Of course, in a class of more than 40 energetic children, you need to assert some sort of discipline. The average classroom has more than 60 children. But this is such a public embarrassment and for children that I disagree with the practice. The only possible good side is that the child will have to find a way to co-operate with others and will not be too sensitive when being criticised.

One of the skills you learn at school is how to deal with problems. School is educational, but it's also brutal. When you're hit by a boy, you cannot always go to the teacher to report it, because it will happen again behind the teacher's back. And the fact is that you hang out with your peers more than with your teacher. So my trick is to make the children friends. I ask to be introduced to the violent boy, give him a high-five and talk to him. I call his parents and talk to them, invite them over for tea and try to get to know them.

How does one deal with the smelly toilets? If the water still flushes, go if you need to go - just remember to pinch your nose. And when you grow up and you travel, you may see that despite the smelly restrooms in some world red-carpet concert halls, people still talk about music and play great music there.

These days if you read newspapers, you may find people complaining about our schools. But school is a pivotal time in one's life. You're young and you make great friends for life. When you're middle aged and you look back, it's mostly the stories the teachers told you and the friends you made that you remember. The lessons somehow vanish.

Have a good time at school, my dear, I'll tell my daughter. No matter how tough your teacher may seem, you will love her dearly and remember to do as she says! Enjoy your time at school while you can! — VNS

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