August 21, 2013

Hosting an Exchange Student Feeds the Teacher (and Mama) in Me


Anyone who knows me well knows that I love teaching. I love facilitating learning experiences, and I love presenting ideas and information in ways that illuminate light bulbs and allow for aha-moments. I love answering questions and being “in the know” (and truth be told, this interest goes well beyond the formalized classroom environment). Present me with a teachable moment, and I am on the ready and at your service! 

This type of enthusiasm is not necessarily a good match for my tween and teen kiddos (who have all of the answers they need, thank you very much). Enter: Teenaged exchange student with infinite questions for host mom--and seeming interest in answers provided to questions that weren’t even asked! Welcome!

There were questions about culture and language and pronunciations. There were questions about people in photographs and the particulars of our family tree. There were questions about school and architecture and social customs, the places we visited and the places we planned to visit. There was even a polite curiosity (minus the standard-issue eye rolls I’m accustomed to) when I offered random factoids to “supplement” our various outings. (I think my kids even got some benefit from the bounty of information that was exchanged during these various Q and A’s . . . shhh, don’t tell ‘em!).

Closely related to my love for teaching is my love for mothering. Host families are instructed to treat their students as family members, not as guests (meaning they are looped into chores and errands and other ordinary happenings from which “houseguests” are more typically spared). For me, this also means that I mother these kids. I keep a close eye on them. I worry about them. I encourage them to try new things. I give them hugs. And I try to help if I think they might be hurting or uncomfortable.

I’m a firstborn, so I’ve been practicing my mothering skills on younger siblings since I was five. That said, not everyone that I attempt to mother wants to be mothered (read: younger adult siblings, and tween and teen kiddos). Given the ages and stages of my own two kids, they are (rightfully) focused on asserting their independence and establishing boundaries as they grow and spread their wings. Of course I want my kids to grow up and become independent, but that transitional phase where “becoming independent” means “please don’t hug me in public” can be rough on a mama’s heart.

In my experience, exchange students are willing recipients of their host mother’s love. Embarking on an international exchange provides the opportunity for uncertainty and even insecurity. The jet lag is unsettling. The diet is unfamiliar. The culture shock is jarring. And, although the exchange student might resist his or her own mom’s TLC back at home, the host mom can be a welcome bit of comfort and security, particularly during the earlier transitional period of the exchange.

Not only do I appreciate the emotional connections when teaching and mothering, I enjoy the tangible
outcomes. Yep, I like seeing the “results” of my influence. One of my proudest moments during our recent homestay was seeing our exchange student lost in a good book (a book that I’d put into his hands, no less). My kids are both avid readers and I couldn’t imagine them going on an intercontinental journey without a heaping supply of books (and/or e-books). Although our exchange student’s phone was loaded with games to help him pass the travel time, he did not bring any books with him from Spain. I made it my mission to get him reading while he was here.

Our family always participates in our library’s summer reading program. “Pablo” was not particularly keen on the idea of getting signed up for “summer reading,” but he obliged. He was even less keen on selecting books to bring home and read. I probed a bit and learned that the prospect of reading in English (in addition to talking and listening in English) was not appealing. So, we found several books in Spanish and viola! we had another reader on our hands! He read Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and he read a couple of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. I loved when it was time to go somewhere or do something and he said, “Just a minute. I’m almost at the end of a chapter.” Tangible reward. Visible proof of my influence on a young person’s growth and development. What a happy exchange!

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