Missionaries living abroad rightly rank the education of their children as a major concern. Some home school while others put their children in national public schools; some opt for local Christian schools while others place their children in boarding schools. A survey of missionaries serving in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe conducted by the author in March 2000 provides insights into educational options available in this region.
Location typically plays a major role in the decisions of missionary families. The available options in urban areas may not necessarily be available in rural areas. In cities, one missionary noted, the possibilities include national public or private schools, Christian schools, international diplomatic schools, boarding schools, as well as home schooling and correspondence programs. A few missionaries still choose to leave their children with relatives back home. In some cases the entire family may leave the field to allow children to receive some portion of their education, usually high school, in their home culture.
Missionaries surveyed do not often choose national public schools. Respondents from Moscow, Kazan, Irkutsk, and Rostov in Russia and from the Czech Republic noted that from a Western perspective, national schools are "rigid and have one way of doing things." These missionary parents did not wish to place their children in settings where they felt they would be "ridiculed, belittled, embarrassed, shamed, and humiliated." Another reason some children are not placed in national schools is the language barrier. David Broersma, a missionary in Moscow, said that some children easily learn the language because they start their schooling in a national school. In addition, learning a second language allows children to socialize with nationals. However, older children, who have already had many years of schooling in their home country, come to the mission field unable to speak the language in their new home. Without extensive help from language tutors they are unable to cope successfully in national schools. Cynthia Storrs also points out that some teachers in national schools will not work with missionary kids (MKs) to help them learn a second language.1
While many missionaries object to national schools for their children, others, such as a missionary in Serbia, note that "putting your children in the national school not only enhances ministry but helps both parents and children in their own cultural understanding and to be more well accepted in their community." Although it may be difficult for her children, she believes it is good for them because it "helps them grow into more realistic people who are willing to take on challenges and look for solutions." National schools allow children to learn a second language so they can stay on the mission field longer; the family is more readily accepted by the community; and the family is at ease in its surroundings and has larger ministry opportunities. On the other hand, children with learning disabilities may not do well in national schools.
Many missionary respondents are engaged in home schooling, an option open for those living in urban and rural settings alike. One missionary volunteered, "I know that our kids are better able to handle the culture stress that they have because there is so much security in the home." Schooling at home seems to help the transition from one culture to another. Also, Dr. Paul Ridgeway, a missionary in Sofia, Bulgaria, commented that "home schooling gives a solid family foundation and closeness that cannot exist in other educational systems." But this closeness does not come without a price. Families have to work hard to always "maintain healthy and peaceful relationships" because of the many hours they spend together. On the positive side, home schooling allows children to receive individual attention that they could not receive in other types of schooling. However, parents may not have adequate skills to teach their children everything they need to know. In addition, several missionaries noted that either the mother or the father had to step out of ministry either partially or fully to teach their children.
Not only do parents lose time in ministry, but they also may lose the respect of the people they are trying to reach because home schooling, as Kara Moran observed, "is socially unacceptable in Russia." Two missionaries conceded that their children lacked friends because of home schooling. But Mark Harris in Ryazan, Russia, shared that his daughter was still able to have friends, just "in a more controlled atmosphere." In Russia some Westerners believe that national schools still evidence a strong "influence of the Soviet, atheistic past." For this reason, these parents see home schooling as a way to provide for their children's education while sparing them exposure to values and influences that run counter to their beliefs. Simply put, some respondents favoring home schooling just do not want their children "influenced that many hours a day by another adult or other children."
Some missionaries remarked that they favored a combination of home schooling and national schools. Since home schooling must contend with parents ill equipped to teach at least some subjects, and since home schoolers lack libraries, science labs, and extracurricular activities, some missionaries place their children in national schools for certain classes. This can help children develop skills in socialization as well.
Schooling by correspondence is an option that two of 28 families surveyed had adopted. According to David C. Pollock, correspondence schools have "good instruction" and are "academically sound."2 This type of instruction gives parents more time for ministry because much of the curriculum is self-guiding. But one family surveyed noted a rash of computer problems and lost E-mails. Even without computer glitches, correspondence programs require "children to be exceptionally self-motivated or parents who can provide the motivation and oversight."
Some missionaries who live in larger cities place their children in Christian schools because, as one respondent shared, their child received strong spiritual nurture there. Also, missionary David Broersma explained that Hinkson Academy, which his children attend in Moscow, "is an oasis in a fairly stressful life in a big city." The spiritually safe environment notwithstanding, does such schooling limit missionaries from knowing the people they are trying to reach? This possibility did not emerge in any of the survey responses.
Another type of schooling involves the recruiting of a Western teacher to instruct the children of one or more missionary families. The Nielsen family, missionaries serving in Moldova, at first taught their children themselves. But in their second year of service, they hired a teacher to instruct their children at home. The Nielsens were happy to have the help because previously it had been draining to combine teaching and ministry. Heather Godfrey, a missionary to Irkutsk, Siberia, shared her desire to locate a teacher willing to work with 12 expatriate kids in a one-room schoolhouse. This type of education can have some of the same drawbacks as home schooling, such as limited socialization and limited facilities, but it does allow parents more time for ministry.
Missionary opinions on the longstanding option of boarding schools are mixed. On the one hand, most of those polled favored other alternatives. On the other hand, while the Christian boarding school option does not appear to be popular in Budapest, the number of boarding school students at Black Forest Academy in Germany is growing. Loneliness, the bane of boarding school students separated from their families, has been minimized to some extent with the advent of E-mail. One missionary family surveyed reported that their daughter attended boarding school for her last two years of high school before entering college. For her, boarding school was a positive social and educational experience and prepared her for post-secondary studies. Black Forest Academy, according to Academic Dean Richard Derksen, has hired a Korean-American educator to help ease the cultural transition of its increasing number of Korean MKs.
None of those surveyed chose to leave their children at home with relatives. All options chosen shared one common characteristic: an unparalleled cross-cultural experience. Four respondents noted that their children's international opportunities had broadened their worldview and perspective. Living abroad is seen as an "educational experience that is better than what they would have had" in their home country.
Weighing the Options
Missionaries must continually weigh the pluses and minuses of various educational options. Learning disabilities and children's personalities must be taken into consideration, and older children need to be involved in the decision-making process. One missionary family reassesses the educational needs of its children on a regular basis, making a fresh decision each summer about schooling for the upcoming year. According to survey responses, families evaluated their options with the help of other missionaries, their sending agencies, pastors, home country friends, and friends in their country of service. Many of those surveyed mentioned SHARE, a ministry based in Budapest, Hungary, that helps missionaries weigh various educational options for their children. Besides providing information about schooling options, SHARE also administers achievement and diagnostic tests and participates in conferences where it addresses curriculum, learning style, member care, and transcultural kid issues.
The decision on how to educate children is not easy for missionaries. They must consider the needs of their children, their own needs, and the Lord's leading. It is clear at least that no one option is best for all. Above all, with each type of schooling, missionaries must balance the benefits and sacrifices for children and parents, recognizing that decisions affecting their children's education will also affect their ministry.
Laran Lofton is a student at Samford University, Birmingham, AL, majoring in human development and family studies.
Editor's Note: See also Martha J. Strickland, "National Schools and Missionary Kids," East-West Church & Ministry Report 2 (Spring 1994), 6; Children's Software Review; Interact Magazine, published by Interaction, Inc.; Brian V. Hill, "The Educational Needs of the Children of Expatriates," Missiology 14 (July 1986), 325-46; Cathy Duffy, Christian Home Educators' Curriculum Manual, Grove Publishing (16172 Huxley Circle, Westminster, CA 92683); and the ACSI Directory, published by the Association of Christian Schools International (Box 35097, Colorado Springs, CO 80935-3509).
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report