Arriving as an expat in Denmark, it’s easy to be lured into thinking that things will be smooth sailing. People speak English! People are friendly! Everything works! But after a bit of time in the saddle, you also start to realize that actually, if you’re not Danish, you’re kind of an outsider. And it takes time – lots and lots of time – to get a little closer to the inside.
This isn’t a judgment on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing since I can see it a number of ways. It’s just as from my own experience, I started to notice that there are a lot of things that no one really tells you. Yet somehow, everyone else knows them. Or seems to anyway. It must have taken me a year to figure out that there is a fruit time in the afternoon that you have to pack a separate fruit case for; even longer to figure out that a few Friday’s a year, you’re supposed to volunteer to bring fruit for the whole class. And even longer to figure out that actually, you’re also supposed to bring a nutritious bread along with that fruit. No one really takes you through all the things that you need to know, most people seem to know them – or learn them a lot quicker than I did, anyway.
At our school, we’re changing the tide on some of that – as it turns out, once I started speaking up about not knowing about one thing or another, there were other parents in the same boat. It’s not just the outsiders that are on the outside! So we’re trying to do a better job of welcoming new parents to fill them in on what’s what at the school.
However, I also came to terms with the fact that part of the reason I was on the outside was because I made myself comfortable there. It was easy sometimes – especially on the harder days, the more tired days, the rainy days – to just shrug your shoulder and think, “I don’t know, I’m not from here.” To change that, the school could really only do so much; some I would have to set out and learn for myself.
Our first year here my corporate schedule was a killer – it was not uncommon to be traveling 3-4 days a week even though I was doing my best to be involved. That probably explains why it took me so long to learn basic things. But still, I wanted to make a change so I thought I’d list out a few of the ways that helped me be more involved and more in the know in our daughter’s Danish school. After all, this was her life now, and I had to at least try to be part of it. Some of the things that enabled that, like maternity leave time, are circumstantial, so not everyone will be able to do them at any time, but if you are a foreigner and have a child in the Danish school system, try to look for ways just beyond the circumstance to get involved. I promise, it makes a big difference.
Ask more questions
Perhaps the simplest thing anyone can do. It’s hard with this one because sometimes the American tendency is to ask a barrage of questions, especially up front, and it can appear to come from a posture of offense, putting them on the defense. A lot of things will come out of the woodwork if you just ask from a point of natural curiosity. Once you get settled into the daily routine, continue to ask natural questions. Not as an interrogation, but as a conversation. Plus, I guarantee that somewhere is the parent of another student who has the same question.
Ask questions to other parents
If you find that the school sometimes is busy or non-responsive, ask some of the other parents as you catch them on pick up or drop-off. People were always friendly at our school but everything was always quite perfunctory. I noticed if I made a little more effort towards a brief, efficient conversation, I could sneak in a question or two. Often times, another parent had a same question. First, it helped us share information; second, it gave us a little more of a relationship beyond just the “drop off hello”, and third, on the things that we really saw were common threads, we decided to change the way we went about it in our own school community which benefited the group as a whole.
Invest some time
The long and short of it is that it takes a really long time not to be considered an outsider. In fact, your child will probably reach the status of insider long before you do (if you do at all). Again, not a judgment here, just a bit about what’s been our experience. But, things can really change if you take the time to learn about how they do what they do and why they do it. What ended up shifting that for me was my year of maternity leave. Because I was around, I had a lot more time to observe, be involved, and also just to be seen on a regular basis by those at the school. I also set aside some time to undertake some of the things below – it doesn’t have to take a ton of time, but it does need to be consistent.
It probably took us a solid year and a half before someone invited my daughter over for a play date, but then again, it was a year before we asked someone over to ours. In retrospect, I wish I had done it sooner. It’s hard in the daily grind when you have work and travel and this and that and the other, but having playdates really does pave the way for children to make friends faster in their school environment. It’s interesting because in the US, it’s often the new person that gets invited first simply because they are new. But here our experience has been that the new person needs to invite first. Take the first step.
Volunteer a little of your own culture
At some point, you come to terms with the fact that you will never be entirely Danish, which is actually a lovely realization because you see how there is room for your roots and your new home at the same time. One of the things that really made a difference was when we offered to share some of those roots. We invited the class over to the American Embassy for a visit, we hosted a Halloween get together, we brought in a copy of the Gruffalo’s Child for the English reading hour… little things that would allow the school to see that we’re a little different but that’s okay.
In many preschools, parents are there for the first couple of days and then you don’t get too much involved in the day beyond that. But our school actually encourages parents to come back after a year or so and “tag along” so that you can really see how far your own child has come. I did it right at the tail end of my leave and was truly amazed, just as they promised. But I also learned a lot about their day and their structure and their cadence in way that was quite different during those overwhelming first days. It answered questions I didn’t even yet know I had.
Join a Parent’s Group
At our school, there is a big annual parents meeting in September. They were taking volunteers for the “lokalrad“, the equivalent of the PTA, and takers were few. I didn’t dare raise my hand because I don’t speak Danish but since silence filled the air, I went for it. It scared me to do it, just like I’m sure it scared them to accept me. But the group has been great with being flexible on language (one of the parents often translates for me at meetings and my friend google translate fills in the rest), and I hope that I’ve been able to contribute my share with volunteering and organizing efforts, and ideas. What I lack in language, I can hopefully make up for with some enthusiasm and elbow grease, and it’s been a wonderful learning experience.
Use change as an opportunity
Lastly, one of the biggest things that shifted in our school was something completely external to me. We had a change in directorship. While that dust settled, it paved the way for some overall changes in communications, structure etc, and many of them for the better. The change itself didn’t have anything to do with me, but often times, when there is a bigger change going on, there are a lot more natural opportunities to speak up, ask questions, get involved…in short, to do more of what’s already on this list. Keep eyes and ears out for any changes that might be on the horizon, there’s a chance that it might just open up the door a little wider.
So that’s a little bit about our experience and what’s made it easier over time but I’d love to hear from others, did you feel like an outsider at all with your kids in Danish school? Any tips of your own you’d share with other parents?