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Ever Dream of Living Overseas? Read This. 33847

This is a guest post from Launa Schweizer, who wrote a great story in our current issue about what she, as a former principal, wants parents to know about discipline. She experienced a very different kind of schooling when she and her family (at right) moved to France for a year, as she details here:

In the September 2013 issue of Parents, I tell stories about my years as a principal, giving parents the inside scoop on effective ways to work with schools to support their children.

As the final authority on discipline at my daughters' school, I had a unique vantage point on conflicting points of view among teachers, parents, and kids. Despite everyone's good intentions, it was challenging to get us all on the same page to help children learn -- and learn to behave.

I gained plenty of experience reassuring parents from behind the principal's desk. Then, everything changed when our family left Brooklyn to spend a year in southern France.

Our two daughters, age 7 and 10, didn't speak French, yet my husband and I believed that they would somehow thrive in a school where nobody else spoke English.

I know: What were we thinking?

If you think it's hard to understand your kids' school, imagine it in a second language, with no PTA, and an enormous steel gate called "le portail" to lock kids in, and parents out. As we gradually came to understand, there were no mechanisms in place for letting outsiders in on crucial information. We didn't even know the names of our kids' teachers, and in fact never learned them all year.

The French principal gave our daughters the traditional friendly kiss on each cheek the first day of school, but he was stern with us. Along with being the principal, he also taught full time and could not answer any of our questions except on Mondays. We should bring the girls on time, and leave them at the locked gate. No parents were to come into the school. Ever.

After years as a mom with full access to the secrets of school, I was suddenly an outsider with no relevant expertise.

I tried to trust the school's approach, but in the first months, my kids often came home feeling confused, miserable, and misunderstood. The teachers seemed unyielding and the other kids unkind, although honestly the girls had no idea what anybody was saying. They got by by falling in line with the other kids, and copying over their shoulders, which the school seemed to encourage, but fitting in socially was much more challenging. When we did get the courage to ask the school for help, we learned that our daughters weren't doing what was expected of them in terms of making friends.

Before we left for France, we believed it would be great for our kids to experience another culture while they were so young. But in the day-to-day, when their classmates were lobbing erasers at them and they kept breaking school rules unknowingly, I was sure we had made a mistake. Maybe I should have been sent to the principal's office, for putting my kids and their well-meaning teachers in such a difficult situation.

Ultimately, we ended up homeschooling our older daughter, while the younger one did just fine at school. They both learned some French, although it was almost time to go before they could communicate. Most importantly, we discovered that the girls were more resilient than we had imagined and we all learned a lot.

And, my experience as an outsider reinforced my fundamental belief that when parents don't understand what is going on in schools, it is harder for them to support their children's learning.

When teachers and parents communicate, kids benefit. It's up to all of us -- principals, teachers, and parents -- to bridge the gaps on their behalf. Ever dreamed of moving overseas with kids in tow? Read more about Launa's family and their discoveries in her new book Home Away: A Year of Misapprehensions, Transformations, and Rosé at Lunch.