Browsing "Keeping An Identity"

Teaching the Law of Cause and Effect … work hard, or …

“That’s what happens when you don’t work hard!,” a silent but firm message, often in no unforgiving tones is regularly sent to young Chinese children.
In most cases, the parent quite openly and unashamedly points out to the garbage collector or the person sweeping the street or even the maid.

Whether or not the message is true is of little of often no consequence, the core of the lesson is to instil the ethic of work, and perhaps more importantly, the idea that dreams come true when you work for it.

Having lived in the UK for quite a while now, I had gotten used to the complete political-correctness of never talking down your fellow human. I had unknowingly accepted the Western notion that when someone is in a fairly low-level job, it may be because, a) he enjoys doing it (and that’s what matters) or b) he’s in a rough patch. Come to think of it, there’s even a song about “The Dump Truck”

Never in all my years here had this been a subject of conversation with any of my peers, who incidentally come from a wide range of professions, from Professors to cooks in a Chinese take-away.

So naturally when Georgia starts negotiating to ‘practise her cello tomorrow’ and ‘do five sums’ instead of ten, I turn to my mum and bemoan the fact that, she’s becoming lazy.

“Wait till you come back here (to Malaysia) for a holiday, then you can point out the cleaners in my building,” she mentions reassuringly.

And so the time comes, we pack our bags, lock up our house and fly half-way across the world, to see what lessons we can impart to our nearly 6-year-old.

In the whirlwind of meeting up with relatives and friends, we take occasional refuge relaxing in the swimming pool when we happen to chance upon a couple of cleaners, walking round with mops and brooms.

“Great! Time for a lesson,” I think to myself.

“Hey G, you see those cleaners over there? Do you know why they have to clean other people’s houses?”

“Dunno…” she nonchalantly shrugs of the questions and goes back to her game of shooting her water gun at various toys she’d arranged around the pool.

“Well you know how we always tell you, you have to work hard at school?”

“Uh-huh,” she becomes a little bit more interested now and turns to look straight at me, wide-eyed.

And the lesson hits, “Well, if you don’t work hard and do your best, well then you won’t be able to find a good job and buy all the things you like….and you’ll have to end up cleaning,” I try to say this with as much seriousness and conviction as possible, trying to sell the idea that being a cleaner is just not good enough.

And just as serious and with as much conviction comes her reply “But Mummy! I like cleaning!”

And there it is! Does it matter that our society defines the worth and value of an individual by their occupation or that, it is in Asian terms ‘losing face’ when one’s child does not succeed?

Wrapped up in G’s immediate responses, was my lesson “Love what you do”.

Keeping an Identity: Expectations of School

Over the past few weeks I had a revelation. It wasn’t the sort of revelation that hits like a ton of bricks that makes you go ‘Wow!’; it was more like walking through a deep dark forest, seeing nothing but a tiny glimmer of light, and eventually when you get to the tiny glint you find a paradise waiting there all along.

And this amazing revelation was nothing more than My perceptions and expectations of school were warped if nothing else. Generally my opinion of school was “after we do the hard work at home, she has time off to relax at school – school is boring, learning nothing new”.

You see it all started weeks back when we took Friday off, packed up to go to Brighton and London over a long weekend. As a parent, I’m a stickler for routine (a little routine), I like knowing what has to be done, by when and once it’s done it’s out of the way, we can get on with the day. Don’t worry, it’s not as if the entire day is scheduled, just some parts of the day.

Anyway, we generally have a morning time routine, in which she does some work (writing, reading and maths) and practises her cello. Usually we slack off during a holiday, although tiger mummy that I am, I do usually take along some books to carry on with a stripped down version of ‘work’.  On this Brighton trip though, we completely laid back (pretty much horizontal) and found getting back in to the routine, once we were home again, a big big struggle.

This was when I started to reassess what we were doing and why we were doing it, and I came to the conclusion that it was this great big disparity between what I expected of a  school and what was actually done in school.

Amazing as her class is, with all the loving, caring philosophies, I have found it more than a little frustrating that communication has been limited, nil, to say the least, apart from the ten minute sessions of Parent-teacher meetings.

To be fair, I have never found the need to go and tell them quite what she was capable of, writing short sentences, making lists and doing sums and times tables.

Being the typical Asian, I have not ‘rocked the boat’, kept my mouth shut, and basically done what I can from home. This included sitting with Georgia every day, working through things she is very capable of (in terms of learning) to ensure that she had some challenges, while she went to school for what seemed to be a relaxing play time, at least that is what she tells me.  (yes, I know they have this new thing called learning through play).

All this until we came back from that Brighton trip…and then nothing worked. No amount of coaxing, cajoling, bribery or threats could get her to pay attention for longer than a millisecond. Worried and frustrated, I decided to talk to her teachers (the TAs really as her class teacher was away that week) at school to see if she was doing the same thing at school. (Turned out to be a great conversation and a great deal more conversation followed but that’s for another post)

But this was when I realised: much as I liked and loved the openness, the encouragement to ask and question of the Western education system, I had seen and experienced enough to know that the issues with low achievement lay not in the methods of delivery for education, but the low, often unsaid, unverbalised expectation of children.

And this was where I fell in, I went along with the low expectations in school, figuring that I could very well just keep up the work and expectations from home. After an honest heart to heart chat with a friend, turns out my perception is completely warped.

After my chat with the TAs, Georgia came home the next day and mentioned that Mr A (the Headteacher) had been in to talk to her to ask her to read (a reading book) and ask if she knew her times tables (which she sang to him). How’s that for a quick response? I was certainly very grateful that the TAs mentioned it to the Head, who in turn took an interest to find out more for himself.

I had at that point, worked out that the next best thing to do was to request a meeting with the Headteacher, not to complain or to moan but to talk about parenting expectations.

So that said, we requested a meeting with the Headteacher, who very kindly met us the very next day. And we learnt that

We could and should ask more and expect more of the school – communicate.

The typical ‘Asian way’ was that you kept your mouth shut and just got on. This obviously wasn’t working. So Mr A very generously explained to us, that the best way forward was really to schedule weekly meetings with G’s teacher to discuss how and what she was doing in class and how we might be able to support her with that work at home.

In his own words, he (the Headteacher) said that the 10 minutes during the termly Parent Teachers meetings was really not enough time to know how she was doing and what she was doing in school.

Realistically though, although that was the advice, and I suppose in many senses the offer, I know very well that to demand that of the class teacher takes time out of her class, and time out of her preparation for class. I was happy to meet with her and chat and after that continue the communication with written notes within her reading notebook (as a friend suggested).

It turns out that she already is in the top set for Maths but not for Literacy, which was rather surprising given that she loves writing and spelling but is not keen at all on sums. I have since worked it out though that the differences lie in the fact that the class/scheme that they use have pretty simple and basic expectations for Numeracy and are pretty advanced for Literacy (which completely baffles me – but time for that in another post).

So anyway, moving forward with better communication and feedback, it has been 3 weeks since the above took place. And where are we?

Pretty much back at square one, I think. Communication has been slightly improved, after I’d taken to writing pages in to her reading book (it is tiny!) about the things we are working on at home. However, I am still really no better off and still do not know what she has been doing in class, or if there is anything that she could be helped with.

Is this really what the rest of school is going to be like? Is there anything else, really, that I can do? Are you absolutely happy with your children’s school?

Conversations with Georgia: Different Colours

Reading Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the second chapter talks about race and why we really should be talking more about the variations in our skin pigmentation more with our children.

I suppose it hit home, although I do have a lot of comments and opinions to add to that chapter, from personal experience growing up in a fluid multi-cultural society (read: Malaysia). So anyway, I thought I’d ask 5-year old Georgia, why she thought people have different skin colours. The conversation went like this.

Me: G, why do you think people have different skin colours? You know, like some people are really fair and some people are really dark.
G: Well, it’s because they get more sun and some people get less sun.
Me: Oh?
G: Like you know, in Malaysia, people are darker and there’s more sun than people here.
Me: Gosh, that’s a logical explanation….

Boy, we’ve got some explaining to do 😉

Keeping An Identity: On Expectations and Achieving

Before our time in London, I spent the past week reading two books. The first Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua) and the second To Miss with Love (Katharine Birbalsingh)

The first, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua in a straight sitting (about 2 hours – it was an easy read). It was exciting, riveting I suppose in a way, although completely unsurprising, being Asian and growing up in Asia, these sorts of expectations and need to achieve are completely commonplace.

The second though, To Miss with Love, I struggled, and I really struggled through. It was not that it was difficult to read, nor that it wasn’t interesting, in the end what I realised was that, I actually COULD NOT read it for more than a few pages at a time, simply because it was so shockingly awful and yet so shockingly true. It took me the rest of the week to finish it.

Although the contrast between the two books could not be any greater, one talks of success and high achievements, (a 14 year old performing at Carnegie Hall!) and the other describes blood-shed (metal pipes and knives!) in school, at the heart of both books lie a very similar theme….EXPECTATIONS.

What was interesting about both books was the way both confirmed and reaffirmed my thoughts that there is actually nothing wrong at all with the education environment in the Western world, but what is shockingly missing, and it’s glaringly obvious, are Expectations.

The comparison between the achievements of (broadly generalising here!) Eastern and Western children really boil down to one thing and ONE thing only, it’s the fact that in the East, Achievement is Expected, and Success Demanded, while in the West, it seems as if Achievement is Encouraged and Success is Preferable. The difference being Choice.

Readers in the figurative ‘East’ would not blink nor flinch at any of Amy Chua’s methods or thoughts, ideas and philosophies, indeed some might even think her mild, and yet the complete outrage and anger directed at her parenting methods, could really only have come from the ‘West’.

So what then of the Eastern family in a Western environment?

In more ways than I can count, I admire, Western children for the confidence, their ability to articulate, and yet, these same abilities so allowed and nurtured by their parents seem in part, to be the cause of the very same limits that hold them back from pushing the boundaries and achieving more.

We, as immigrants see so much of what is good in the Western culture, and at the same time we keep trying to reconcile that with what we know is good from our own experiences. And so for now, we strive to find the balance and walk that middle path between all the best in the West and the good that we know of the East.

Have you read the Tiger Mummy book? What do you think of it?