The Balancing Act of MK Education

by Amy Medina on July 31, 2016

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I can still picture them:  Miss Eager, Mrs. Sacra, Miss Davis, and many more.  They gave up a good salary and a steady career to teach missionary kids in an unstable African country.  And I was in their classrooms.

It was the investment of teachers like these who inspired me to pursue education as a career, specifically MK education.  And that’s exactly the path God has taken me.

My 7th grade class at ELWA Academy in Liberia, 1988 (I am front right)

My 7th grade class at ELWA Academy in Liberia, 1988 (I am front right in pink)

As a child living overseas, I experienced both MK school and boarding school.  As an adult, I’ve been involved in MK/TCK education for 12 years.  I’m passionate about MK education, and over the years have spoken to many missionaries about schooling decisions for their children.  Here is what I’ve learned.

 

First, what are the choices?  Some parents have many to choose from, others have only one.  Each has their own advantages and disadvantages to overseas life.

Homeschool:  Maybe you are called to it, no matter where you are living.  Or maybe it’s really the only option available to you.

Pros:  Homeschooling gives you complete control of your kids’ education, and gives the family a lot of flexibility.  It can make travel and transition easier, and it can be a great way to get the kids into the community and include them in your ministry.

Cons:  Homeschooling overseas tends to be more isolating than in your passport country, where there are lots of groups to join.  It also can be challenging for the homeschooling parent to get into the language and culture; and it limits external ministry options for that parent.

 

Missionary school (or Christian international school):  MK schools are not available for many missionaries, but it’s great when they are, because they are specially created to meet the needs of your kids.

Pros:  MK schools can be a great “bridge between worlds” for your kids, especially if the school includes local children.  Usually, MK schools provide good academic and social preparation for returning to your passport country and a safe, nurturing environment that doesn’t require a lot of cultural transition for your kids.

Cons:  Sometimes MK schools create a missionary “bubble” that keeps the children (or even the family) separated from the local culture and language.

 

Boarding school:  Even though boarding school sometimes gets a bad reputation, many wonderful boarding schools exist, and there are good reasons why it is the best option for some families.  I’ve known many families who said they would never send their kids to boarding school, but relented in the end because they could clearly see it was the best option for their kids.  And their kids thrived.

Pros:  For families in cultural settings where kids don’t get to experience any of western life, or if the culture doesn’t allow them to make peer friendships, boarding schools are a wonderful blessing.

Cons:  Pretty obvious:  Being apart stinks.  But often it’s worse for the parents than the kids.

 

Local school:  This is a diverse category!  There are local government schools or private schools, both in English or the local language.  These type of schools have a huge range in cost, resources, academic options, language, discipline style and social dynamics.

Pros:  Local schools can be an amazing way for a family to get into a community.  They are also one of the easiest ways for kids to learn another language and make local friends.

Cons:  These schools are often very different than western schools in culture, language, and teaching/discipline styles.  They can put kids on a huge learning curve, and parents will need to work closely with their children to know how far to push them and how much to support them.  Many times, parents will need to supplement their kids’ academics to make sure they will be ready to eventually assimilate into their home culture.

 

Some considerations when choosing:

  1. Know yourself and know your kids. 

You know yourself and your kids better than anyone else.  Regarding yourself, you need to ask:  Given my ministry calling, language learning requirements, and my own wiring, how much time and energy can I devote to my kids’ education?  Unless your kids are at an effective MK school or boarding school, you will likely need to be highly engaged with your kids’ learning.  More parents can effectively homeschool or supplement their kids’ education than they might realize, but it is important to consider how your kids’ schooling will balance with your ministry.

Regarding your kids, you need to ask:  How adaptable are my children?  Would they be able to handle school “cold turkey” in a new language?  How far can I push my kids in a hard situation without breaking their spirits?  How many transitions have they already gone through?   How will this type of education affect my child’s ability to make friends?

You might not always have the right answers, and even the right answers might change from year to year or kid to kid.  Every year and each child is different, and it is totally okay for each child to do school a different way.

As a side note, let’s remember that this is true for every family, so let’s make sure to support other family’s educational choices, even if they are different from our own.

 

  1. Remember that you are always your child’s most important teacher.

You, Mom and Dad, are the most important teachers in your children’s lives, whether or not you homeschool them.  Keep this in mind when considering their education.  Does your child’s school ignore the history of your passport country?  Then make the effort to teach it to them yourself during the summer months.  Is your child going to school in a different language?  Then you need to supplement their education with your own English lessons.  Is your child being indoctrinated by a secular worldview?  Then make sure you are actively and intentionally training them in a biblical one.  Don’t just sit by and fret about the gaps in your child’s education.  These days, there are a plethora of resources available to parents; take advantage of them.

 

  1. Don’t worry so much.

I attended seven schools growing up.  So much change was hard at times, but each school played a part in making me who I am today, and I’m thankful for those experiences.  A missionary friend told me how both her girls were held back a grade due to so many transitions, but eventually both graduated from college with honors.  As a teacher who is now raising her own kids, I am far more concerned about my kids’ social and spiritual progress than I am about their academic grades.  I know that the academics will come; the other stuff is a lot more important.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t worry at all.  Your kids’ education is a big deal, and you need to take it seriously.  But if they lose three months of school because of a move, or the homeschooling shipment doesn’t make it on time, or your kids’ MK school has a substandard substitute for six months, don’t panic.  In the older grades, it does get more complicated, but especially when they are young, your kids will recover.  As long as your kids are at least average learners, they will catch up.  It will be okay.

There is an exception:  If your child has a diagnosed learning disability, or if you have any suspicion he or she might have one, then you must take it very seriously.  Some learning disabilities absolutely require early intervention to have the best results.  So find a specialist to Skype with, and don’t put off getting help quickly.

 

  1. There’s never going to be a perfect situation, so trusting God is important.

Perhaps the best question to ask yourself is:  How can I best balance the needs of my children with the ministry God has called us to?  At times, you might feel like that balance is like standing precariously on the top of a sharpened pencil.

No matter what educational road you go down, there are going to be bumps.  There are going to be things your kids miss out on, there are going to be many transitions, and you will probably make the wrong decision sometimes.  Thankfully, God is holding our children, He knows what is best for them; and He can redeem even the hard circumstances of our kids’ lives.

 

This is a big issue; really too much for one blog post!  So let’s get the conversation started.  This is a great place to ask questions or share your advice.  What works for your family?  How about we hear from some MK’s themselves?  And if we broaden this discussion to non-missionary TCK’s, we can bring in other types of schooling as well.  How can you add to the discussion?  Lots of people want to hear! 

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About Amy Medina

Amy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001. Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality. She and her husband worked many years with TCKs and now are involved with theological training. They also adopted four amazing Tanzanian kids along the way. Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.
  • Hannah

    My husband and I don’t have children yet, but have discussed this topic a lot. We are most interested in sending our children to a local school, but don’t know anyone who has done this. Currently I serve in West Africa training teachers to improve the education in local schools. If I didn’t send my children to the schools in which I am working, that could communicate that I don’t believe in the quality of our schools or trust the teachers I’m working with to educate my children. Has anyone sent their children to local schools and what was your experience?

    • Cheryl Gibson

      HI Hannah – we know of a Belguim family who sent their child to a local school (french speaking) in the capital in an W.African country – this family were in the bush and there child lived with a local family who they were good friends with. This worked very well for this family, and the “child” has just graduated from High School. Certainly not an easy choice or one for everyone, but it certainly seemed to work for them!

    • Amy Medina

      I think this could be a great experience for your family, Hannah, especially since you are already so involved and working closely with the people who will be your kids’ teachers. You will obviously need to supplement academically but your kids would potentially gain so much!

    • This must be the most isolated-feeling option, because everyone that I “meet” online who is doing local school says that they don’t know of anyone else doing it.

      Before we had kids I definitely thought we’d do at least some local school, mainly for language. I also worked in schools, and it just made sense to try, at least for a while. But then, as our children were born and started to grow up 1) they didn’t need any more Russian. That turned out to be their first language, so we needed to homeschool to give them some English. And 2) I just couldn’t face the idea of letting someone else teach them. I enjoy them and I enjoy teaching so much. So we homeschool. 🙂 That’s just how it worked out for us. But lots of families do local schools.

      Actually, our version is a hybrid. We get the best of all worlds, I think: homeschooling in the morning, public/government music and private art school in the afternoons.

    • This is a big topic!! In some places it’s not an option, in other places it’s not a big issue. And it is so different from country to country, and even family to family. I know a number of families who put kids into local schools in different countries (and interviewed a number of these kids). If you speak the language school is taught in that helps a lot – otherwise you can’t understand, let alone help with, a child’s homework/assignments. It’s very different for a child who moves into the local school system after being schooled elsewhere; a child who grows up in the host school system doesn’t have anything to compare it to. Parents’ attitudes also make a HUGE difference – kids notice if parents speak positively about the school system, and they pick up any negative attitudes (ways in which it is lacking, or concerns over whether it would be better to go to an international school, etc.) No matter what school option you choose for your kids, the best thing you can do is be involved – as Amy says, know your child, know that YOU are an important influence, and relax. Be willing to make a change if something doesn’t work out, but don’t let fear make choices for you. Things can go wrong in any school, but they can also go RIGHT!

      • Amy Medina

        great advice!

  • cheryl gibson

    A really good article! I am at present in my passport country..and over the years we have chosen a variety of schooling options. We have done homeschooling (there was no other option, but also discovered i really quite enjoyed it!) boarding school (I don’t think i ever said “My kids will NEVER go to boarding school…” but it wasn’t my ideal option, and yet, my kids LOVED it, thrived and have VERY positive memories of their time there…definitely the parents who have a harder time with that one! We have also done some online school too. We have also been part of our local christian school, have put our kids in an expensive fee paying school in the UK (God lead and provided for this in an incredible way!) and then also state schools. I would completely agree with your comment about their social and spritiual wellbeing being far more of a concern than their education…Is there one way better than another? NO. Each family has to look at each of their children and situations and make wise choices. Not always easy, some days just incredibly hard, but i look at the choices we made and don’t regret them at all.

    • Amy Medina

      Thanks for sharing, Cheryl. I’m so glad that these different options worked for your kids and your family!

  • Crystal

    Thanks for writing this article! I agree we must support one another and not allow our educational choices to divide us. I did want to mention one other option out there that has been a huge blessing to us and that is online schooling, specifically through The Potter’s School. They offer live classes in different time zones across the world. We home school and live on the other side of the world so when we found TPS we were so excited and I was relieved! It’s a great school concerned about the character of our kids and their ability to think biblically and critically of the world around them. There are other online options as well but TPS is what I know. It has also been great for my midle school student in connecting him with other kids just like him. I hope this encourages someone out there!

    • Amy Medina

      that sounds like a great option, Crystal. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jan Stevens

    Thank you for this blog! My family is headed to the United States this week to take our son to boarding school. Hard decision that many do not understand, even other missionaries. I have gotten “well my kid does fine here” or ” wow never heard of anyone else doing that”. Our son is Imersed in the culture and speaks better than any one of us, but he misses his Highschool years. Wants to play ball and not sit in his room to do school. So thank you for the refreshing article! What great timing!

    • Good for you, making the decision that suits your son’s individual needs. I hope all goes smoothly with the transition – for him and for you – even when it is difficult.

    • Amy Medina

      I’m glad it could encourage you, Jan. Blessings on all of you as you go through this big transition. (And you are most definitely not the only one who has made that choice!)

  • Amy Medina

    I wanted to add this comment from my friend Alisha who homeschools in central Asia, who wrote to me while I was researching for this post.
    “The best part of home educating our children has been the being there for the ‘ah-ha’ moments of teaching them to read, how to write a paper, and how to get through that difficult math problem. We see the path they’ve traveled and know their strengths and weaknesses and how to change things to help them learn via their strengths. We have also been the primary teachers in their spiritual and character development during those tough moments in life that we all have, and I wouldn’t want to lose that time with them. Finally, it’s also allowed us the time and freedom to have a language helper come into the home and our children to learn the local language, in a fluent way. Hardest part, my selfish nature comes out on a regular basis and I want more time to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. It’s a constant struggle to give up my wants and desires for these fleeting years and moments that I have with my children, and to know that the sacrifice I make, the exhaustion and impatience I often feel after learning language myself for several hours a day, running a house in a 2nd/3rd world country, home schooling my children, and helping my husband run a business will all too soon be a memory, but the time I invested in them will prepare them to run the race He has mapped out for them as well.”

  • Thanks for this article! My husband and I have always wanted to homeschool our children… even before they were born. Our choice is for the flexibility due to travel (also customised education). In the UK we’re not allowed to take our children out of school for longer than a certain time. Homeschooling allows us to go on home assignment for months at a time without having to worry about school attendance rules.

    • Amy Medina

      That’s definitely a huge benefit to homeschooling, Chrysti. I hope you are able to do it!

  • Love this post – lots of good, balanced advice on choosing the right school for each child. Thanks!

    • Amy Medina

      thanks, Tanya. And thanks for what you are adding to the discussion!

  • Anna Wegner

    Great article! Nothing is ever going to be perfect, and I appreciate the way you presented the pros and cons of various educational opportunities.
    I didn’t really want to homeschool, but we were in a place where homeschooling was the only option. Now we could do boarding school, but have continued to homeschool. We have found that it works really well for our kids, and it is a good fit for our family. We didn’t realize that our schedule would include so much international travel/ international moves, almost always at a time that would disrupt the school year. Homeschooling has let us keep an aspect of life consistent for our kids in the midst of lots of other changes and uncertainties.

    • Amy Medina

      That’s great! Our kids go to an awesome MK school, but as I think about trying to work in our home assignment next year, I realize how much flexibility homeschooling offers a traveling family!

  • Jodi Lynn Bunn

    As an mk in the interior of Liberia, I was home schooled to grade 7, with a couple of furlough years where we attended US public schools. When we moved to Argentina for my grade 8, my sister and I were placed in a private national school, where we learned Spanish and made friends. This worked for me, and I continued to attend Argentina school until we repatriated to the US for us to finish high school. It did not work as well for my sister, and after a trial year, my parents hired a tutor and let her homeschool for the next 2 school years. I love that they let each of us decide which system worked best for us. We were both active in youth group, choir, and other activities and had plenty of Argentine friends.
    After marriage, I went on to raise 5 mks of my own. We loved our little mk school in Brazil through grade 8, and I was principal and taught at all grade levels depending on the need. When my children reached high school, I home schooled my teens, along with several others. Each family chose their own curriculum, and each student did their own lesson plans and worked independently. We called them Independent Study, and I was the Class Monitor. The structure of the school schedule and building, combined with my careful oversight, was a good hybrid. My children all loved their mk experience, and are fluent in Portuguese, although English is their dominant language. My three oldest have received academic scholarships to private Christian schools and are thriving in college. (I still have a 16-year-old at home, making a 4.0 in high school, and a 12 year old still getting the hang of school and responsibility.)
    I agree that there are pros and cons to each of the options listed. If you are going to immerse your children in the local school, they may lose a school year gaining fluency in the language, especially if you move them into the school system in junior high or high school. However, the advantage of academic fluency in a second language can be well worth it in the long run. I agree with you, Amy, a positive attitude by the parents is essential for this to work. Thank you for blogging on such an important issue!

    • Amy Medina

      This is a great testimony, Jodi, of how the various choices really can be successful, and that the most important thing is considering the needs of the individual child. Thank you for sharing–I think your story is an encouragement!

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