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Academic Success? College Readiness? Bring on our AVID Resource: Chinese Mothers!

What makes a great teacher?  Certainly, college readiness experts like Dr. David Conley would argue for strong content knowledge, the ability to deepen cognitive strategies, and skill at producing consistent academic behaviors.  Dr. Carol Dweck, famous for her research on effort, would probably focus on the importance of praising the work ethic—not how “smart” we are.

AVID’s founder Mary Catherine Swanson, once dubbed “America’s Best Teacher” by Time and CNN, has told me repeatedly that academic success is founded on hard work, individual determination, facing tough challenges, and practice, practice, practice.  And let’s not forget AVID’s support structure (more on that later).

Now, Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale University and author of “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,”  offers insights on parenting that I believe have implications for educators as well.  How about giving our students more classrooms with single-minded, no-excuses, relentless approaches to academics?  How about leveraging the fear of letting down the “family?” Sounds like the AVID academic elective class to me. 

In our blog last week, “The Brain and the AVID teacher: the key to it all,” the AVID teacher was praised for being the glue that keeps everything together and moving in the same direction for AVID students.  In my opinion, the qualities describing a Chinese mother fit the AVID elective teacher in so many ways.  Chua, author of a number of books (and I’ll bet one on parenting in the works), made me think of our best AVID teachers and site team members when she talked about the need for “tenacious practice” and noted how the Western emphasis on self-esteem weakens our approach to academics.  

The WSJ piece received more than 6,000 responses, many of them vitriolic.  Why?  Consider how Chua describes raising her daughters, Sophia and Louisa.  They were never allowed to attend a sleepover, a play date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than “A,” play any instrument other than violin or piano, and the list goes on.  She insisted that they repeat a lesson or practice their instrument until they had perfected the task. 

Is Chua out of line?  Are AVID teachers “over the top” with their demands?  Their students must keep organized binders, take notes in all their classes, use the notes to study, produce all their assignments on time and in good order, must participate in tutorials, must fill out their FAFSA and numerous college applications, must take AP courses in high school, and the list goes on.

Stressing academic success is one thing Chua and our AVID teams have in common.  This is at the core of what Chinese parents do, as Chua notes, “Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they know their kids can get them.”  And Chua allows that Irish, Jamaican, Ghanaian, and parents from other backgrounds can qualify as Chinese mothers.  She also says that some parents of Chinese background born in the West don’t qualify.  To back up her point, she cites research on attitudes towards academics, a study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese Immigrant mothers.  The findings included “almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that "stressing academic success is not good for children" or that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting.” 

I suspect that the vast majority of our AVID teachers and site teams would line up at least to some degree with the Chinese mothers, or at least embrace the philosophy.

To give us some guidance, Chua notes three differences between Western parents and Chinese parents, and I think to a large extent these are reflections in part on why AVID teachers and site teams are successful. 

  • Chinese mothers don’t care about self-esteem or their children’s delicate psyches (I am guessing these are really foreign concepts to them) while Western parents care too much.  In brief, Western parents treat their children as fragile, while Chinese parents focus on strength.  That’s a powerful AVID connection.  Good AVID teachers know that a student’s self esteem is tied in large part to their success, so they push their students and are sort of bullying angels, cajoling, guiding, and pulling the strength out of them by any means necessary, knowing the end result will mean achieving the goals they have set.
  • Chinese mothers and families develop in their children a “sense that they owe them (the parents) everything.”  Chua describes how hard the Chinese mothers work to support their children through long hours of tutoring, providing resources, and, she says “spying on their kids.”  That’s another AVID connection.  How many times have I heard AVID students complain that they can’t get away with anything, noting “It’s like having your mom at school!”  And I hear from AVID graduates that they stay in touch with their AVID teachers for years, and don’t want to let them down.  Go to our AVID Facebook page and look at the comments there.
  • Chinese parents believe they know what is best for their children and, Chua says, and “therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.”  AVID teachers know the school system, they are the navigators for their students, the experts in college readiness.  AVID teachers know they are dealing with teens who have many desires and preferences, but AVID teachers are adept at overriding wayward desires and meting out punishment as necessary, always with a relentless focus.  This means that AVID students will, on occasion, be spending lunch hours and early mornings with their AVID teachers until they have fulfilled their obligations.

Chua’s article prompted me to talk to a colleague who was born in China, raised in San Francisco, and brought up her two sons in California.  I asked her to read Chua’s article and respond as a Chinese mother.

“I am not a typical Chinese mother (as described by Chua),” she said.  I was raised in a traditional Chinese environment, and I promised myself I would never, ever repeat the same style with my kids.  I did allow my boys to choose their own extracurricular activities, including sports, did allow them to attend sleepovers, watch TV and play computer games.  I represent Chinese culture in that family values are number one.  In my opinion, kids need a very stable environment so they can concentrate in school.  We did not let outside influences affect them.  On the other hand, I am more Westernized to let them have their individuality; I wanted them to be well-rounded.  Good grades alone are not enough.  My sons graduated from universities (UCSD and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) in four years.  In my opinion, AVID teachers are not “Chinese Mothers.”  AVID teachers respect the student’s individuality and work with them within their abilities.  Most importantly they don’t put the students down.”


The relationship with her daughters described by Chua reminded me of comments made by AVID students who spoke about their AVID teachers during a panel discussion at our recent National Conference in Dallas.  Repeatedly, some students joked about their relationship with Joan Swim, the AVID coordinator at Berkner High School, and how, just when they thought they had done enough, she heaped more work on them.  “It’s never enough,” one young man said.  He went on to describe how Swim demands that they take at least 20 pages of notes per week, and when someone fails to deliver, the whole class suffers.  “When ‘mama’s’ not happy,” he said, “no one is happy.”

I sent Chua’s article to Joan Swim and asked her to reflect on her teaching life as a “Chinese mother.”

I never pictured myself as a Chinese mother,” she said, clarifying that the number of notes pages might have been a slight exaggeration by the student.  “This article did make me realize the similarities of the AVID mom and Chinese mom. One of my first speeches each year is that I believe in my students, and I have the highest expectations for them.  Failure is not an option.  My students work to "make me happy!!"  I always want them to rise to another level!”

Like other AVID teachers, Joan has resources that even Chinese mothers don’t have, including a site team of committed adults, trained college tutors who deepen knowledge in tutorials and help “spy” on the AVID students, and a dedicated principal, Ron Griffen, who supports the work of an AVID National Demonstration School.

Lauren Ramers, a long-time AVID teacher and staff developer for AVID Center, gave me an additional perspective.  “Our AVID students will do whatever we ask of them because they know we have their backs,” she said.  “And they don’t have to sacrifice their individuality to succeed.  Their effort comes out of knowing we will do anything for them.  We tell them they have limitless potential, now what are we going to do about it?”

AVID teachers are somewhat like Chinese mothers, and I think that’s a good thing.  It is my belief, that if more teachers acted like the Chinese mothers described in Chua’s article, students would be better served. 

Too harsh?  You tell me.

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