Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Asian Parents vs. American Parents: Asians Win.

Why are American schools and American students falling behind? Because American teachers are not really allowed to teach.

Many American parents won't let teachers do their jobs--and yet, these same parents also feel free to complain about and threaten teachers for the pettiest non-issues, or for not working enough, getting paid too much, etc.

I currently teach a diverse group of students in a mostly non-American school. I have many Chinese, Korean, and East Indian students in my intensive writing/reading classes. That is not to say that all my students are first generation immigrants, ESL learners, etc. No, I am pleased to report that I've got a few white kids, too--and I say "pleased" just to explain that I am happy to see at least a few white American parents are just as concerned with education as are parents from the more achievement-focused cultures.

My students are all working in pursuit of one particularly lofty goal: a perfect SAT score (and admission to the best possible college or university).

They start early. They start years in advance (not the two-weeks-before-the-exam test prep schedule of most Americans).

If you want a perfect score on the SAT, you need to train hard and train long. It doesn't just happen. (Well, in some cases it does. We call those cases "geniuses.")

If you want to reap the rewards, you need to do the work, and along the way, you need to listen to your teachers. 

I know this, and I think and hope that I am effectively teaching my students. Nevertheless, something strange happened to me the other day, and I doubt this happens to most current American teachers: I was scolded for not scolding. In this case, not doing homework eventually equals expulsion. As it probably should. But first comes the scolding (and even scaring the slacker into submission).

I was seriously scolded for my own hesitancy to scold! But here's the deal: Having worked in regular, American schools, I have been conditioned to think that I have no right to say anything to a student who isn't doing the work. 

Why do I think this? Because typical American parents will quite literally attack a teacher who dares to point out the truth: that Junior needs to do her or his homework, or Junior didn't follow directions (or worse), and Junior is probably lying about the undone schoolwork...and probably a lot of other stuff.

To be safe and self-protective, an American teacher is usually worried about saying much of anything. Sure, we say a few little things (in "cover our ass" mode, mostly; we don't actually expect results from the parental end). But then we bite our tongues and let it go because we know one sad fact: It will just be very bad for us if we press the issue.

A few years ago, I had a person in class who--I swear to God--did nothing. No homework. No tests. No papers. Because I was always ridiculously busy (teaching four different classes will do that to you), and because I am neither a babysitter nor a prison warden, it took me a few weeks to see the clear pattern: the person was always absent on the day of a test or when an essay was due. 

I gave a few reminders. In private. Gentle ones. I reiterated my "late paper" policy (which I then tweaked to make more lenient, just in case I was being unreasonable). Still, I did not receive the papers.

Midterm grades were due. We had a faculty meeting (it was about October; we were all getting to know our new students for the year). A name came up. I explained that I'd seen Big Jack Nothing from this person in terms of work. I said I really did not know what choice I had but to give an F. Not because I enjoy giving Fs (nothing could be further from the truth). But only because I had zero work to grade. (Note: anyone who makes a sincere effort will never get an F from my red pen. Never. Hard work will always be rewarded in some way.)

Another teacher sniffed, "Failing ____'s child?  That's just wrong. I pray for you, if you do that."

I had no idea about the Important Parent here, but I thought, "Hmmm. That is a problem. Does having a connected relative mean a student doesn't have to do any schoolwork? Something is definitely wrong if we can't teach when we are being paid to teach."

I discussed the situation with Guidance. I was encouraged to fail the student (who, I was told, had a years-long history of pulling this particular stunt but somehow always got away with it). 

But I did not fail the person. I saw that it was too dangerous (besides, I didn't want to. It doesn't make me happy to give bad grades. I just want my students to do the work). I gave the student an I for Incomplete that would, by policy, be changed when I received the missing work.

Why did I do this? Because I saw that even as a teacher, I had zero authority in this situation. It wasn't worth losing my job here, just for trying to do my job.

How very American this situation is!

Later on, I dared to express "dismay" about work that expressly ignored my assignment, and I was threatened with death

I kid you not.

What happened? You can read all about it very soon in the upcoming Too Cool for School.

So is it any wonder that I am hesitant to scold now? 

There is a broad line--a chasm, even--between showing authority and causing humiliation, but in America, we treat it as the same thing, as dangerous territory. We won't even dare to go there.

What I have realized this summer is that I can't let my own culture's biases (namely, Americans' widespread, deeply ingrained disrespect for teachers) affect my teaching of kids from other cultures. 

Asian parents would never attack a teacher. Indeed, Asian parents expect and even demand firmness, the harsh truth, and penalties for late work.

Maybe that's why their children are better students.

We know we need to get back to basics and get back to the way things used to be in our schools just a couple of decades ago. Our Chinese, Korean, and East Indian students and their parents are lighting a path and showing us just how wrong we've been lately.


  1. Wow. I never thought being a teacher in America would render you powerless. Sadly here in the Philippines, we're slowly heading towards the same path. I have experiences with parents telling me that I'm wrong because I gave a failing grade to their child when that child neither turned in any work nor contributed to any of our class discussions. My school encourages the teachers to be nice and friendly with the students when in fact, the teacher should have the authority inside the classroom. Classroom management would just not be effective if teachers are too nice.

  2. Thanks for reading. Well, back in my day, teachers could, and did, do anything, and no matter what, we just dealt with it. I think it is the overly litigious American society that is the problem here (there is also a partisan divide, as I am sure you are aware, with one particular political party constantly attacking teachers and blaming teachers left and right).

    But what ARE you supposed to do when you have no work to grade?? I would never fail a child who sincerely made an effort. It's the utter lack of effort that is so disturbing.

    I agree about being nice and friendly with everyone. We can be firm yet nice; the two modes are not mutually exclusive. But yes, there is a time when "nice" has to go away, if only for the sake of keeping order.



  3. You are so right. So right! Had I known what hell awaited me as a teacher (from the parents end, not the students), I would have never chosen this profession. You can't win. It's impossible.

  4. It's particularly bad in private schools. Don't get me wrong: I like private schools. I went to a private school. But back then, no one even considered arguing with a teacher or attacking a teacher.