School Is Out (And I Still Don’t Understand the Canadian Education System)

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Feng kept all the silly notes I put with Mark’s lunch

“You do know that the school year ends soon, right?”


“Well, yes. Summer holidays are coming up. The school is closed in July and August. Then, in September, it starts again. And next year, you’ll be…”


“Not even close, sorry. This year, you were in Junior Kindergarten, so after you’ll be…”


“That’s right, in Senior Kindergarten.”

“But I want to be in Grade 3…! No, no … I want to be 34! Can I be 34?”

I’ve crossed over to the dark side. I’m no longer a student looking forward to two months of freedom, but an overwhelmed parent dreading the summer holidays. I suck at planning. Until this week, it was “somebody’s else problem”—how very mature of me. Last year, Mark was still at daycare and the centre was open year-round, and unfortunately, I can’t tell a four-year-old to go get a job. Merde.

I wish I knew what other parents, other kids are doing in July and August—Canadians don’t have much vacation time and certainly don’t take two months off. But I have no idea what was planned for Lucas, Callum, Eileen or Lucy because even though I know all of Mark’s friends, I have zero contact with their parents.

But beyond logistics remains a sense of unfulfillment. This first school year left me feeling somewhat frustrated. Back in September, I had many questions, practical and cultural, and I never got answers. The Canadian education system remains a complete mystery to me.

Each milestone feels confusing and scary for new parents. It’s normal, I guess when you’re confronted to unprecedented situations and a world you knew existed but never explored. For instance, I had no idea that you do get better at peeing in urine sample bottles when you’re pregnant. Before Mark, I didn’t know that installing a car seat was harder than to build a house, and I wouldn’t have suspected it was perfectly normal to pay up to $1500/month for a spot in daycare. But you do learn. I managed to collect ultrasound pictures, give birth, give Mark legal documents like a birth certificate, SIN card, health card and a passport. Through trials and errors, we finally cracked the daycare world. Sometimes, I even buy clothes that fit for Mark (hint: the number on tag never matches his actual age).

So naturally, I thought we would soon master the school system. It was just a matter of weeks, I stated in September.

Overall, it was a very uneventful year. In a way, it’s good, I guess. Mark seems to have friends, he learned stuff, no one pointed out major parenting flaws (although I was recently told that Nutella sandwiches were banned).

I can’t find the right word to describe this first year. “Meh,” maybe? The best way to illustrate it would be with a Gallic shrug. I shrugged a lot this year. There was the “oh, that’s how they do it?” shrug, the “come on, you can’t be serious” shrug, the “oh well, I ain’t going to homeschool him or run for the school board” shrug. Mark’s experience is so far from my own French “maternelle” and Feng’s communist China school that we just have to assume the district school boards knows what it’s doing.

Oh. There. I did it again—I shrugged after I typed this last sentence.

So, what’s so puzzling to me? First, the fact school ends at 3 p.m. Note that hours are not consistent from one institution to another, they are set according to … the yellow bus schedule. So X school, first on the bus route, may start at 8 a.m. and finish at 2 p.m., while Y school may start at 8:30 and finish at 2:30, etc. This is just weird to me and, of course, most working parents need to sign up for an after-school program because few jobs accommodate the early afternoon pickup. On the other hand, Canadian kids have very few breaks—one at Christmas and one week in March—while French kids have a week or two of holidays every six weeks. Days are short, the year is long.

I don’t really understand the school’s daily schedule either. It … lacks structure and yes, this is the part where, once again, I complain that kids don’t get a lunch break. Mark is completely lost. To the usual question, “why didn’t you eat today?” common replies are “the teacher said it was time to go home” or “I didn’t have the time.” Basically, the education system trains kids to 1) not take time off 2) work through the day without breaks. Sigh. Late capitalism.

Our experience this year was very impersonal—and I don’t really blame the teachers, who deal with a class of 30 four- and five-year-old kids. We had one meeting with one of Mark’s teachers—he has two, English teacher in the morning and French teacher in the afternoon—in October and that was it. Both teachers sent weekly recap of stuff we could discuss with kids on Sundays but these were both oddly specific and very general. Most of the time, they were a series of questions:

What have you been observing outside in the quiet garden? (A mother duck)

Did you play with the Moon Dough? What did it feel like?

It’s a bit hard to quiz Mark without context. It doesn’t help that JK and SK are mixed, so some of the activities were more for older kids.

We did get many emails blast from the school office. It never fucking ends. Volunteer, donate, volunteer, donate, bake sale, lockdown drill, walk-a-thon and puzzling messages like:

Dear Parents,
We had a medical emergency this morning and “Secure School” protocol was invoked to deal with the situation at hand.
The person in distress is now in the care of doctors.
Staff and students responded well to the unexpected circumstances.
Thank you.

And then, there is the school’s terminology. My two personal pet peeves are the “zones of regulation” (“being in a blue zone” = being sad, “being in a red zone” = being angry, etc.) and systematically calling children “friends” instead of “students” or “kids.” It annoys me when Mark reports that “a friend did this or that” when he doesn’t even know the kid’s name. It devalues the notion of friendship, I find.

“Lucas broke my heart,” Mark stated tonight. A long discussion later, I learned that Lucas didn’t want to be his friend, hit him with a yogurt container, threw sand at him, said a bad word (yes, it was “fuck,” and Mark wouldn’t even utter it) and generally was a pretty shitty friend.

I remember Lucas, from daycare. Their friendship has always been a bit one-sided.

“Sometime, some friends are just bad friends,” I advise. “Maybe Lucas is jealous of you. Maybe he’s just being silly all the time.” I sighed. “Maybe we all need a break. Three more days of school and then…”

And then, we’ll see.

Self portrait sorting out the notes, Ottawa, June 28, 2017


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Oy vey !! I’m not at this level yet and I am dreading it !!
    My daycare is taking a break for 2 weeks so hubby is taking over for me. Godspeed to him !! haha

    oh and I just realized the clothing size thing ! Danny is going to be 3 and started wearing 4. Crazy !

    p.s.: if you guys has no plans, we can hang out !! I have not planned any fucking thing! Let’s see how long that last haha!

  2. Well, ça ne me surprend pas trop ce que tu dis, et je crois que je m’y attends. La question des vacances me questionne aussi. Je pense les inscrire en camp hebdomadaire le moment venu, ma ville en organise. Est-ce que ton daycare ne parlait pas de “friends” pour les enfants deja? Moi c’est quelque chose qui me surprend depuis le début. Les éducatrices elles même appellent leur groupe comme ça. Genre Martine dit “les amis de Martine, on y va”. Au fait je suis étonnée, je pensais qu’il entrait en première année l’an prochain. C’est quoi cette affaire de SK? C’est quand l’équivalent du CP?

    • Martin Penwald on

      SK, c’est la Saskatchewan, c’est la dernière méthode que le gouvernement a trouvé pour augmenter la taille de la population. Une fois les mômes assez grand, hop, direction Regina.

    • “SK” c’est “Senior Kindergarten”, soit la grande section de maternelle. JK, Junior Kindergarten, c’est la moyenne section de maternelle, les enfants de 4-5 ans, donc, la classe de Mark cette année. CP ça serait Grade 1.

      Le daycare n’était pas super consistent avec l’utilisation de “friends”, sûrement parce que la plupart des employées étaient d’origine étrangère et que finalement, on avait pas mal de points communs sur l’éducation (par rapport avec les directives canadiennes :-). Je trouve ça bizarre aussi le fait que les prénoms soient presque tabou. Par exemple, jamais une maîtresse ne dit “oh, Mark s’entend bien avec John et Jane”, mais “Mark s’entend bien avec deux amis en particulier”. Genre, total anonymat…

      Du coup, ton aînée elle est à l’école?

      • Et non! Seulement dans un an. Le système québécois c’est : un an de maternelle (de 5 à 6 ans), puis la primaire avec la première année, l’équivalent du CP, à 6 ans. Le primaire dure un an de plus qu’en France.
        C’est vrai qu’il y a ce côté tabou, quoique je trouve que de plus en plus on voir apparaître des noms. Dernièrement j’avais “E. a beaucoup joué avec Thomas”. J’étais bien embêtée car je ne vois pas du tout qui c’est lol!

        • J’avais un doute, car effectivement des amis qui habitent côté Québec ont dû mettre leur fils à l’école française (le lycée français, quoi) sinon ils étaient coincés. C’est nouveau en Ontario le Junior Kindergarten pour les enfants de quatre ans, on a eu de la chance sur ce coup-là. Ça doit pas être facile, financièrement, d’avoir les deux filles à la garderie :-/

  3. Martin Penwald on

    Des vacances toutes les 6 semaines, pour les gosses, on s’en fout. C’est pour les profs que c’est important.

    • Tu m’étonnes… je ne sais même pas comment ils font avec des gamins de l’âge de Mark. C’est vraiment être sur le pont tout le temps, ils peuvent pas franchement leur donner des tests pour avoir la paix une heure.

  4. School is between 8 am to 3 pm for Mark’s age? that is long hour! in my country, for Mark’s age, it usually between 8-12 pm. Depends on the school as forl kindergarden’s level, are operated by private school.

      • ah! we do have different culture here. In my country, having a domestic helper (or two) is kind of affordable. I had two when my kids were small. It is not cheap, but affordable for most of middle class people. They are the one who take care of the children when the parents are away. And one thing, living with your parents even you are married is also common here. Some of the couple do asked their parent to take care of the kids.

        • I understand! Here, having help at home (a nanny, for instance) would be extremely expensive and that’s something only the rich and famous can afford 🙂 Grand-parents can be an option but Canada is a big country and they may not live nearby… besides, many immigrants have no family here.

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