I’m sorry, that’s not a very creative title, is it? But really, it’s a post that I’ve been sitting on for a long time, and just didn’t feel confident enough to share. Now that we are almost halfway through the year (GASP!), I do feel like we have gained a little experience with primary school life – enough for me to share – and it’s also a good time to talk about this, as many K1 parents are probably losing sleep over this issue as 1 July draws nearer…
Two years ago, I was you.
Giving up a guaranteed spot for David at my alma mater Tao Nan was not a difficult decision, since I have never been particularly sentimental towards my primary school. (The hubby’s primary school was not an option since it is on the other side of the island.)
Of course we had a lot of explaining to do, especially to our parents and well-meaning friends who were critical of our choice – no hard feelings – but as we explained our rationale, we found ourselves even more convicted of the decision we were making.
We had originally wanted to put the boys in a school right opposite from our home, since it had a good reputation and would be just a stone’s throw away. However, it is a hugely popular school, so much so that I wasn’t even able to register as a volunteer, because they had too many applicants! Balloting was a guarantee, and without the advantage of Phase 2B, chances were really slim. As we prayed about it, we eventually decided to look for someplace else.
Finally, after a few weeks of scouring the web for reviews, scrolling through forum boards, talking to a few friends and analysing past year statistics of student intake – yes, my high-C mode sprung into gear – we narrowed our choices down to two schools. I applied to both as a parent volunteer, and only one accepted me. So that decided it for us.
Truth be told, at this stage, we weren’t completely sure of our decision yet. But the way we saw it, volunteering at the school would allow me the precious chance to step inside the compound and see for myself what the school culture was like. Perhaps we would love it, or perhaps we would change our minds. It was certainly a step of faith.
I think that, personally, I felt quite pressurised to make the best possible choice for the boys especially because I knew I was giving up that coveted space at Tao Nan. I feared the “I told you so”s should I regret our decision further down the road, and I frequently asked God to please direct us clearly even as we took these baby steps into unknown territory.
I still remember the very first day I stepped into the school foyer. Driving through the school gates, I remember praying that He would show me something that day that would speak to me clearly about our choice.
The space was huge and light and airy, and there weren’t many students around since it was class time. My responsibility for the day was to chaperone the kids in the play hub, a side room off the canteen which is open to students who want to come in for some board games or craft activities during recess time. I entered the room, and right in front of me was a whole wall painted with dinosaurs.
I think I might have literally gasped. Everyone who knows our boys knows they are CRAZY about dinosaurs, and seeing this sight really took my breath away. Right away, I could imagine them loving this space.
Over the 10 months that I volunteered in various capacities, I was glad to have many opportunities to interact with students, teachers, fellow parents and even the canteen stall owners. Along the way, God continued to affirm our choice and provide us with personal assurance as well as the encouragement of friends. By the time it was time to register David in July 2016, we were ready.
There were several observations I made during my time as a parent volunteer in the school that cemented our choice, and for what it’s worth, I thought I would share them with you. Just in case you are planning to begin volunteering and aren’t sure what to look out for, or are still stumped about how to go about choosing a school from your list.
Children don’t normally pretend to be happy – what you see is what you get. And what I saw was a whole lot of joy. Laughter in the canteen, friendly conversations in the games room, polite exchanges between teachers and students in the corridors, pupils walking into and out of school. I saw smiles and warmth, not stress and worry lines. I saw children happy to come to school, not complaining about their teachers or dragging their feet to class.
If our children enjoy going to school and learning, I think that sets a great precedent for how they will view all of their school life. I want our boys to like going to school and look forward to it each day, not to make up excuses to stay home or dreading Mondays. To me, if they enjoy their school experience, they will definitely learn much better, and consequently, do as well as they possibly can in their studies too.
There are students from well over 15 countries represented at this school, and we love that. The air is colourful with their conversations, and I am thankful that our boys will get to “meet” the world without even having to take an airplane. The children are friends not just within their class but with friends from other classes as well, and even across levels. I’m not sure how the school fosters such a culture, but it’s heartwarming to see. From my understanding, this is not something you get at every school, and I am all for it.
While volunteering, I joined the Primary 6s on a field trip, and really enjoyed chatting with a couple of the teachers on the bus. I was pleasantly surprised that I could also have a conversation with some of the children, and was impressed by their confidence to speak with me, a stranger and an adult. That aside, I also liked how the teachers spoke to the children, treating them as friends while still maintaining their authority on important issues like safety and punctuality. There were no fierce ultimatums or threats to behave, which I know are the norm in some other schools.
Just last week, I was again assured of the care that the teachers have for their young charges. On one of the days, David was very tired because he had somehow woken up the night before and couldn’t get back to sleep. By the last period of the day, he was barely staying awake, and burst into tears from sheer exhaustion and feeling helpless to focus on the lesson. It was the Chinese lesson, and he couldn’t find the words to explain to his teacher why he was crying, so he just kept crying. Thankfully, it was the last lesson of the day, and when he didn’t come out of the gate, I went in to the general office to look for him. There I saw his young teacher holding his hand and gently talking to him, trying to understand what was wrong. Not scolding him for disrupting the lesson or demanding to know what he was upset about. I am thankful that he has such a teacher.
From the uncle who stands at the gate each morning to greet the children as they enter, to the canteen aunties who always try to help the Primary 1s who don’t know how to order, to the security guard who always welcomes me with a smile… this is a family that doesn’t just talk about caring – it truly cares.
I love that there is so much S P A C E. Within the school building, the ceilings are high and the foyer is spacious. There are basketball courts and a sizeable field for the children to run in at PE and during recess. And right outside the school is another huge field, where the boys play with their friends for a while every afternoon when school is over.
Knowing my boys, I don’t think they could enjoy studying in a building where all you have are classrooms and more classrooms. Over here, they will have more than enough space to explore, koi to watch and blue skies to run under.
For a school that seems relatively carefree, you might think that discipline might be an issue, but hearing from the principal herself during Orientation assured us that she is as no-nonsense as she is kind. She did not mince words in her address to us parents, even chastising us for being over-protective or over-indulgent at times, and for not setting good examples to our children in terms of our screen time. I needed to be reminded of these things, and I greatly appreciated her candid manner with us.
In case you are wondering, no, academic excellence was not one of our main criteria in choosing a school for the boys. Not that we don’t value such merits, but rather than looking for a “top school”, we prefer to go for an average school, knowing that if our boys should choose to shine academically, it will be thanks to their own hard work. That said, we did leave out schools with very below-average PSLE scores from our list, since that is the only academic benchmark to fall back on.
No school is perfect, of course, and David’s school has issues of its own, as we are also discovering along the way. But the “big rocks” for us are settled, so we are content to deal with the nitty-gritties along the way as they come.
These five months since Primary 1 began, I have watched as our firstborn has adapted to primary school life. Sure, there have been some bumps along the way, and we as parents are very much also learning the ropes of managing a whole new world of school stresses and little-people politics. But overall, we really couldn’t ask for more. 🙂
Dear parents who have this decision weighing on your hearts and minds, take heart that your efforts to make the best possible choice are not wasted. You know your child best, and you know yourselves. My only advice would be to make a choice that is not dependent on what others think or on academics alone. Take the time to get to know the school a little better, discuss the decision with your child, and pray, pray, pray. All the best!