A well-rounded education

A well-rounded education

In this April 21, 2011 photo, students represent Tuvalu at the National Model UN Conference at the UN Headquarters. Model UN is a popular activity wherein students debate current international problems. (PHOTO ap, Tim O’Brien)

July 20, 2012, Friday/ 17:57:00/ ELLE LOFTIS

Once upon a time, I was a music education student at a conservatory of music. Although I switched programs and universities after my second year, I still kept up with many of my friends who graduated and became music teachers throughout the US.

News from them these past few years has been grim. Economic problems have forced many public school districts to cut back on perceived “extras” like music, art and sports in their curriculums. This saddens me, as these programs were personally invaluable growing up in the US. Now, living in Turkey with my own child, I can look at both my native country’s education system as well as my adopted country’s system with a critical eye. Both are very different, and offer both positive and negative aspects worth considering.

First, I don’t believe there is an example of a perfect school anywhere in the world. There are too many variables at stake. I look back at my own experience and what I took away from my education. I was generally a “good” student, getting decent marks in almost all subjects. I excelled in creative arts, literature, history and English. I participated in many extra-curricular activities like band, choir, color guard, orchestra and dance. Each one of these activities required participation as a member of a team.

At 10 years old we were assigned instruments, given basic instruction, and then put together as a band. Even though it must have sounded awful, we gave concerts regularly from sixth grade onwards. We learned to listen to one another, to play in harmony, gradually becoming a cohesive unit that sounded wonderful and won multiple honors for our school at various competitions.

In color guard I learned to work together as well, but also to push my body physically. We would rehearse throughout the summer for at times eight hours a day under the hot sun. I learned to fight physical discomfort and “suck it up” as we used to say. It meant to tough it out. From hot summer sun to cold rainy fall, we would perform during halftime at football games or weekend competitions. Our costumes were designed more for appearance than withstanding the frigid Michigan elements. One show we danced barefoot, which even I thought extreme at the time. It would have been every Turkish person’s nightmare. We learned how to work together, and also good sportsmanship when losing. Focused so much on steps or notes, I didn’t realize the importance of those lessons until much later, when I moved abroad.

When I first met my husband Can, he offered to help me study for the GRE exam, a standardized test used for admission to some graduate programs. I was so frustrated. My math and science skills were not up to par. I had always struggled with math, ever since I could remember. I did OK until my last two years of high school when one of my teachers finally caught on to how weak I was in the subject. Like many others in my class, I lacked a lot of the basics.

In the US, we do not have a central educational system. Each district, each state, sets their own curriculum. There are standardized national tests that every student has to take, that then show how successful or unsuccessful a district or state is. For kids like me who relocated more than twice during their academic career, this made things challenging. The district I had come from did not match the district we moved to, and I was woefully behind in math. I barely scraped by, and opted to take only the bare minimum of required math and science classes in college.

While in college I was a nanny for many families in the Midwest and on the East coast. They were foreign professors and academics for some of the top universities in the US. I constantly overheard them bemoan the lack of skills represented by their American students. One even went so far as to say that the university had to keep a few spots open in various programs for American students, because they could not make it into some of the departments based on merit alone. Students from China, Japan, India and Turkey inundated such departments as engineering and were leaps and bounds ahead of their American counterparts. My husband, Can, was one of those students. He got a job through the university as a tutor, and was alternately shocked and horrified with the lack of basic math skills displayed by my countrymen.

Teaching in Turkey

When I moved to Turkey and became an English teacher, I once was asked to stand in for the math teacher of a sixth grade class. The teacher had to leave early, and they basically just needed someone to monitor the class. Problems to solve were written on the board, and the students quietly solved them. Occasionally a student would come to the desk to ask me for help, and I looked down in dread. I had never seen the symbols that they were using to solve the equations. I was mortified to realize that I could not even hope to solve a typical sixth grade math problem of a Turkish student. The lesson was very humbling for me.

On the flipside, teaching in Turkey showed me that the students and population in general here are not exposed to teamwork building exercises often. Most of the work environments I have found myself in here have been extremely toxic, with everyone looking out for themselves instead of working together for a shared goal. Creative and team exercises in my classroom were really challenging for my students. I can honestly chalk that down to the lack of music, art and sports programs typical of most of the schools here.

Ideally, the perfect educational system would have a strong mix of everything, but that is impossible and I think we all know that. For my own child, I really want him to learn math and science skills the Turkish way. This can be done even at the most mediocre school. Most schools in Turkey offer extra activities like sports and music, but I have found them to be very different than what I had in the US. Even in those classes, where teamwork should be taught, emphasis is still on the individual. Creativity, crucial in music and art, is viewed vastly different, at least in the schools that I worked at. I did meet several Turkish teachers who wanted to encourage creativity and team building skills, but they were squashed by the administration. It was disheartening. From those lessons I learned that if I want my son to learn these qualities, it would have to be through extra-curricular activities that I would enroll him in after school.

No one educational system is perfect. All have their strengths and weaknesses. As a parent it is important to look at what is available, and also what is important to you and your family. I don’t want Eren to have the same education as I had, but there are certain parts of it that I hope he will experience, too. I hope that America keeps its music programs, as it taught me so many skills that have been crucial in my day-to-day life. Skills that I want my son to learn, too.

*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer, and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.