Not as standard as it seemed

A glass of water, pen, paper, open laptop, and readiness to listen. The standard toolkit of a researcher who is about to have a one-hour interview with the person willing to share their experience. I expect it to be not much different from all the others that have taken place before. There is a list of questions to be asked, a certain time booked, regular procedures like confidentiality clause to be followed. One click, and the friendly voice of the Zoom application informs you: “Your meeting is being recorded!”. However, with these interviews where I talk to migrant parents, I realise that it is much more than a run of the mill interview. These are conversations with a whole spectrum of emotions, laughter, sadness, and lots of thoughts that need to be acted upon.

We (the team and me) need to hear about the experience of parents and children with migration background in Estonian schools for a big project, that is new and exciting for me on its own. We want to find out about the whole journey of the family – starting from searching for a school and to the emotions that the child has towards studying. The goal is to understand and improve whatever it is the parents have concerns about, so the interviews are a very valuable tool to get information.

Even though there are standard questions to stick to, I always wonder at how different each discussion is. Parents are more than happy to get things off their chest and talk about the journey of getting used to the new school system, interaction with the personnel and other parents, hardships encountered, and successes made. After conducting a couple of very first interviews, you realise that Estonia may be small but not in the range of practices that schools use in working with children with a migration background. Some of the practices make parents pleasantly surprised, some confused, and some make them change their kids’ schools.

While listening to the stories told by the parents, the patterns start to emerge and cluster together in my mind. I see what needs more attention or functions incorrectly in the system. Suddenly I become an expert and investigator at the same time and find myself saying things like “Only one extra lesson of Estonian provided by school? But there should be more!” or wondering at how complicated it may become to get the information from the school and how much trouble lack of communication causes.

Support – wished for, much needed, but scarce in many cases

Did you know, for example, that flowers and shoes can be a mystery? They are, if you come from a different system and learn about the tradition of bringing flowers to the teacher only during the ceremony on 1st September. Or when parents play a guessing game to establish what the kid should have: “You look at the shoes of the kids and taking mental notes on what your child will need”. And almost during every interview you hear that when being at school you eventually learn the customs, but it would have been so much easier to know them beforehand. And you sigh sadly because you have taken notes of so many “could-have-beens”.

There are also interviews when you realise how scarce words are to support the person and you find yourself frowning, clenching your pen, and being frustrated with how many difficulties the family has encountered when introduction to school could have been so much smoother. You hear all sorts of things: “My child did not know where the canteen was for the first two weeks”, “I brought my Estonian-speaking friend to the parents’ meetings to better understand the class teacher” or “My child didn’t receive any help from the teachers and was made fun of by classmates”. And as a silver lining in every story, you hear the word “support” – wished for, much needed and unfortunately scarce in many cases. The importance for the school to have skilled people who know how to help a newly arrived child and parents cannot be stressed enough. A bit of effort always makes a difference.

“My child did not know where the canteen was for the first two weeks”

However, there are stories that fill you with inspiration, that make you smile and almost tear up because no matter how difficult it is, kindness still prevails. “I didn’t ask but the teacher suggested to have extra lessons with my son until he catches up. She praised every little step of his”, “The social worker would come to class every week and then report to me on the progress of the child”, “The teacher just told me to let the child be and assured me that she will grow in her own pace”, “The school sent us copies of the book even when we were abroad” and so many more! There are moments when I forget that I am taking the lead and give in to the talkative parent who is telling a story – funny and sad, sweet, and bitter, very sincere and full of life.

And of course, the interviews make you go back in time to your own school experience, and you realise that you are a bit jealous of the pupils in Estonia. Like a little kid you gasp and, in your thoughts, utter in excitement “Wow! Robotics, dancing and cooking classes? I wouldn’t want to leave such a school if I had had so many activities” or you double check because it sounds too good to be true “Have I heard it correctly that children are learning to play the flute in the 3rd grade and go skiing in winter; and there is a swimming pool as well?”

Even though approaches to children with a migration background in Estonia are different and parents often find themselves at a crossroads, I notice how valuable  human connections are and how much benefit there is in communication between the kids and adults. Most parents want it, even more need it and unfortunately not all receive  it. “You kind of hope that your shy kid asks another shy kid for their number, so then parents would also connect” – this is often the state of art in a nutshell. And once again I write down “more opportunities to interact” in the interview notes. So simple: just talking, just sharing – and the world becomes easier.   

Exploring towns

With these thoughts I click on the “finish the conference” button. The recording is being processed, there is an empty glass of water on the table, scattered notes, list of interview questions that helped discover, ask about, listen to and understand the experience. If I had to describe what interviewing parents was like then I would say it is like arriving to a town you have never been to and exploring the surroundings. Once you walk out of the train station by listening to the summary of the person’s experience, you can see straight away if the town is busy, what kind of people inhabit it and how many roads it would take you to get a sense of what story the town has. There are bumpy roads, there are dead ends and there are those where you cannot keep track of the turns and end up somewhere on the outskirts. But what you do not realise until the very end is that when leaving the town you get the imprint of it, it may vanish in a few hours or it may stay for an indefinite period of time, making you think about it occasionally or resulting in a blogpost reflection.

Maria Khrapunenko
Junior analyst in the migrant children project

Find out more about the study on integration of migrant children here (in Estonian).

Cover picture: Mette Mari Kaljas (our collaboration with the young artist is supported by the National Foundation of Civil Society)