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Margin Notes

Time away to learn and play

Sunset over the Adriatic.
Sunset over the Adriatic.

I’m back in the office after a recent three-month leave of absence. We’re often told that reflection facilitates deep learning, so in that spirit I wanted to use this space to reflect a bit on my experiences of the past three months. I generally feel that this blog is about higher ed and not the appropriate space to talk about personal matters, but I’m making an exception this time around. I was also inspired by fellow University Affairs blogger Melonie Fullick, who recently reflected on priorities and “productivity” in the wake of her father passing away.

The impetus for this post is admittedly more prosaic than Melonie’s. My wife and I felt it was time to uncouple from the daily routine to travel abroad and spend some quality time as a family with our two boys, aged 13 and 11 – as clichéd as that sounds. We’d originally thought we might take a full year off, but practicalities of work and budget soon suggested that a three-month leave would be more reasonable. I am acutely aware of how privileged I am to be in a position to even consider such things. However, if there is a workplace that offers the flexibility to travel and where it’s viewed positively, I submit it is academia. This should not be a particularly alien topic to many of our readers. As well, we preach to students to seek out international experiences in their learning process and a similar impulse motivated us to do the same with our kids.

The trip was not in any way work- or career-related for my wife and me – purely time off. The children, alas, were not quite so lucky. They were missing a full three months of school and we did feel the responsibility to school them a bit while we were away. They did homework for about an hour a day, which included math exercises, reading and writing a blog about their experience.

We travelled the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, Corsica and Croatia), coinciding nicely with our children’s school lessons, which over the past few years have included Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Nicolas and Alec were able to experience that history to a certain extent during our travels.

So how did it work out? The trip was everything we could have hoped for. We explored, we played, we laughed, we discovered, we learned. We created a whole set of lifelong family memories. Particularly fulfilling was seeing how our children responded with curiosity and openness to new experiences and how they made connections when confronted with new places, ideas and information. It’s almost as though you could see their brains expanding like sponges as they took it all in.

Whose education is it?

There’s a final reflection I want to share, related to the education system. Many people in Europe we spoke to during our travels were curious about how we could take our children out of school for three months. They were emphatic, every one of them, that this would not be possible in their country – it would simply not be allowed. That flabbergasted me. I must admit I don’t actually know what our legal obligations are in Ontario, but it never occurred to us that we might not be allowed to do this with our children. While we believe strongly in the value of public education, surely we must have the right to take them out for a period of time to offer them a different educational experience?

For the record, we did attempt to meet with the principal of our children’s school at the beginning of the school year to discuss the trip, but she never officially responded, leaving it to each of our children’s teachers to work it out. One teacher was very responsive, meeting with us beforehand and preparing a workbook and other assignments for our younger son that would be used in class. Our son even had a sealed set of final exams to do while we were away, which we scanned and sent back to the teacher. For our older son, we simply put together a teaching plan based on a math text we purchased plus several other exercises we devised on the fly. We don’t actually know if our son was given a final grade for the year or an incomplete. But we are pretty confident he did learn a thing or two.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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