RELOCATION: Was I expecting school to be the same here as back home in Australia? Of course not.
The fact that there are differences doesn’t necessarily make them all bad, just different. In fact some of the dissimilar things in New Jersey schools are so excellent that I wish we had them back home.
But there are some which I have been pretty lukewarm on. These were also, not surprisingly, the hardest things to get used to when we first arrived and this is my focus for this blog post.
Rather than seeing this as a complaint-fest, I hope you will see this as an honest view from someone who initially struggled to adjust. A part of expat life has been trying to overlook the things you don’t like and finding the good things to focus on. I promise to write about the good things in a future post so you can see that there is more to life here than a few potential negatives.
So what are the biggest differences in NJ schools?
1. US School holidays
Most people would be aware that the American summer is in the middle of the year, and that’s when the biggest school holiday period is. It starts around mid-late June for most schools. Until I got here though, I didn’t realize exactly how long that break could be. In our first year here, it was 13 weeks long. The equivalent of three months!
If you’ve ever wondered why American kids are always being sent to summer camp on TV shows and movies, this is the reason why. Most US workers get between 2-3 weeks annual leave, sometimes a bit longer, depending on your work. They have no hope of being home with their kids during the entire summer break, even if they share their load with a spouse or partner. Camp is really the only alternative if you work, of keeping your children from getting over-bored but well looked after over such an extended time.
Beyond this, there are other breaks e.g. there is a school break of a week or so in Spring, Fall and Winter. Because these are pretty short, there’s not a lot of time for kids to relax much before they’re back at it. As you might have guessed, I would prefer they shortened the summer break and lengthened the others but that’s the way it is here.
2. Public School students don’t wear uniforms
Look, I’m all for making school life as productive as possible and the lack of uniforms certainly allows children here to develop their individuality. However, there is a downside that’s not too hard to guess. That is, the need for children, even from a young age, to dress up to meet peer standards, even if that includes expensive clothing, makeup etc.
This happens in Australian society too but my view is that it would happen slower and to my mind, more desirably, if they wore school uniforms instead of everyday clothes. It’s one of those polarizing issues no doubt. Here my bias becomes apparent, as my experience in Australia weighs my opinion heavily. But that’s the system here and you go with it.
3. Primary (Elementary) and High School are broken up by Middle School
The primary school equivalent, known as elementary school here, often finishes in Year 5 (5th Grade). Children then move onto ‘middle’ school for their ‘tween’ and early teen years between Years 6-8, after which they enter high school in Year 9 (9th Grade).
This is one difference that some have opposite opinions on: is it better to break the kids into a middle school away from their younger and older school peers or keep the old system of primary and high school? There is no simple answer but middle school is definitely not for the light-hearted.
Just imagine if you can, those lucky (!) middle school teachers here. They get a whole school full of kids who are going through puberty and making the transition between being children to young adults, all at one time. A tough job, make no mistake.
With the social emphasis here more on individual rights, this can make for some challenging student behaviours to manage. I stand in awe of the teachers who not only manage this but do a great job at the same time. Fortunately, we have had the best experience here with our son’s teachers.
These years are tough for most kids, even when I was at school in the Jurassic period. Not only are you sorting out who you are as a person, amongst raging hormonal changes as you step into puberty but your choice of friends often changes radically at this time too. So much upheaval….so many up and downs.
I remember my English teacher, a proud Indian lady, saying how she would love to throw us all out the window at this stage of our lives because we were so unpleasant to teach. And that was at a strict Catholic school! I can’t imagine how she would have coped here in the US!
Our child is just finishing middle school and it has been a pretty tough time. Mostly, this has been due to trying to fit into the new culture which has been a huge challenge and although we are not through it yet, I’m pleased to say we at least have come out on the upside.
4. School safety and the need for security
I came to New Jersey, as a parent from an Australian school where one is free to walk openly into the school’s entrance foyer, and even walk (with permission) across to my children’s classrooms to drop off that forgotten lunch, hat or jumper.
Wow, was it a shock when I came here to find that parents arriving at the office are not welcomed in many cases? Absolutely! The staff made it quite clear that it is definitely unacceptable for a parent like me to take something up to my child’s classroom unless it had been previously arranged with the teacher. Not only that but as you approach the school entrance, you are on camera, and need to talk through an intercom if you arrive after the start bell has been rung.
My biggest shock though was being present at my daughter’s school during a lockdown practice. There we were, all huddled into the classroom’s adjoining ante-room. The kids scrunched down onto the floor, practicing with strict instruction to be absolutely quiet. I stood with the teachers as if I was really hiding from someone. I found this a very disturbing experience but one I well understood and was grateful for when I heard how this drill saved children in real life at Sandy Hook.
While these were cultural shocks, of course they made sense. Needless to say, since the Sandy Hook shooting last year, all schools have tightened their security further and no one would want it any other way. Nothing is as precious as your child’s safety and that should always come first.
It is an experience, however, that makes you realize American society, deep down, is just a bit different in one way that I will never be able to accept, no matter how long I am an expat. Hopefully, the need for higher and higher levels of school security will change for the better in the future, as a more sensible approach to guns is achieved.
What about now?
I don’t think I will ever get used to the idea of gun availability here as a principle. Fortunately, we live in a very nice town where you hope this type of violence will never occur.
Most of these things, as strange or even shocking, as they may have felt at first, are now just part of our life. It is amazing how you adapt to whatever the norm is. It hasn’t made these things unimportant but it does mean we have at least some flexibility to change, not only to survive but to prosper in a land beyond our home.
What sort of things did you find very different to home in US schools?
This has been the third article in a series on New Jersey Public Schools