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My Take on Chinese Mothers - AVID Founder Mary Catherine Swanson

By AVID Founder Mary Catherine Swanson

Someone said that AVID teachers are “secretly Chinese Mothers,” but as I was reading Amy Chua's “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” I kept thinking “AVID and I are so NOT Chinese Mothers.”  After all, I named our program “Advancement Via Individual Determination,” not “via Mother's determination or AVID teacher's determination.”  The program's name came from the premise that all children have talents and it is the teacher's job to help them discover their talents and the student's job to be determined to develop them. I also believed that most AVID students had not been exposed to the many possibilities open to them and that if I could bring hope for a bright future to them that I could convince them to work hard to achieve that future.  This is how I worked with AVID students.

I remember “AVID talk.”  “You are really bright.”  No one in the education system had said this to the students before, and undoubtedly their parents had not either.  The students needed to know that I thought they could succeed -- that they didn't have to be failures.  “But you are not taking the courses or earning the grades that will get you very far.”  In other words, you may not know what it is that you need to do and you are not working hard enough.  “But if you will set college as a goal and take the courses to get there and work hard, I will be at your side to support you.”  I was asking for a commitment and hard work, but I was also promising to nourish them along the way.

They did not know what committing to going to college meant, but they would verbalize it, and then it was my responsibility to show them why college was important -- to show them what college life was like, what careers could follow, the fantastic possibilities for their lives.  It was my responsibility to provide role models for them through the college tutors, field trips, something we called “cultural events” such as stage plays, symphonies, museums.  It was my responsibility to bring hope to them so that they would want to work hard toward a goal.

In his research on AVID, Hugh Mehan, (http://www.avid.org/res_research.html#avidstudents) University of California 1996, says that AVID teaches a “hidden curriculum.”  And that curriculum is broad.  The students from undereducated homes do not understand the rules of society or the rules of school and that if they break them, there are consequences.  This realization prompted more “AVID talk.”  “You received a poor grade on an exam, and as you say the test may have been unfair or the teacher was unfair, but what was important about that test to you?”  The student would realize that he needed good grades to pass the class and that he needed strategies to achieve that.  “So if you confront the teacher and accuse her of being unfair, what do you think the teacher will do?  If you say to the teacher that you would like to do better and would like help, what do you think the teacher will do?”  We would role play that conversation for the entire class and then the student would report what actually happened when he carried out the plan.  Never would I have donned the Chinese Mother method of belittling the student or accusing the student of letting me down.  In fact, the cardinal rule of AVID is that we never belittled anyone.  Remember the AVID slogan of “All learning depends on respecting the dignity of the learner.”

Yes, I remember when students would apologize for letting me down, and I would feel guilt because they had really let themselves down and they did not owe me anything, but then I realized that I may have been the only one in their lives holding high expectations for them, and that it was my responsibility to help them through the situation.

Several stories came to mind as I read Chua's piece.  I, too, remember preparing for a piano recital at the age of 10 in which I had been given a piece to play that was really beyond my expertise.  The Saturday before the Sunday performance I went completely blank and could not play it.  My piano teacher asked if I wished to play an easier piece, but I refused.  Because my parents had instilled determination in me, I knew I must not back down.  As I walked down the long aisle to the piano, all I saw was black with red dots and my head buzzed.  I could not focus on the keyboard, but I played “Woodland Whispers” perfectly.  I had shown that with determination I could do anything.

As the AVID students struggled academically and socially, we celebrated the successes and looked for strategies to conquer the failures.  We always praised hard work as well as outcomes.  We did not celebrate simple "participation" in something.  The students never gave up.  I never gave up on them.  They knew that with hard work and determination they could succeed.  And they succeeded beyond my highest expectations!

And so as Chua says, “Westerners respect children's individuality, encourage them to pursue true passions, support choices, give positive reinforcement and nurture.”  But AVID teachers also act as Chinese Mothers to “prepare students for the future, see what they are capable of, arm them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence.”  We just do these things from a different premise and in a more gentle, supportive fashion.  Chinese Mothers go West!

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Reader Comments (6)

I couldn't agree with you more. As a 58 year old mother, grandmother, and AVID Teacher, the first thing I do with each of my AVID classes is tell them they are MY kids, that I am there for them, that I BELIEVE in them and that they are the BEST kids in the school. As they leave, I say, "love you!" It has come to me that's all that really matters - and you should see the results my students produce! I love them but fuss at them or call their mamas if I need to - but generally, they are GREAT kids believing in themselves and following their dreams. I have the best job in my school.

February 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Groome

Barbara, what a good AVID teacher you are! My AVID students would have told you that I was their "tough love" teacher, that I had very high expectations for them and made them work very hard, but that I always did it because I cared so much for them. When my son became a teacher, I told him there were only two things he needed to do to be a great teacher. 1) Always give the kids academic rigor because if you don't they interprete that to mean you think they are stupid and 2) Let them know that you are on their side; you want them to succeed, because when you do this, the kids will always perform at their best for you. My son is a great teacher as are you!

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary Catherine Swanson

It is so gratifying to see this dialog. I have known the Swanson family for almost 20 years, and I have had the privilege of watching Mary Catherine's son, Tom, grow into a great man and fine teacher. He currently teaches AP classes and has always embodied Mary Catherine's philosophy. I remember that, early in his career, he ran into some conflicts with some of his older colleagues who didn't agree with his philosophy of opening access to many students so they could take his AP course. They didn't fit the profile of the "traditional" AP student, but Tom, like his mother, looked for potential, supported and challenged his students, and has experienced great success as an AP teacher. Look for his blog here soon!

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob Gira

What an exactly correct and inspiring article to remind us of the mission and vision of AVID and our AVID moms and dads in the classrooms every day! Thanks so much both for writing and posting this for all of us.

Pam Cocke, DD Asheville City Schools, NC

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPam Cocke

What an exactly correct and inspiring article to remind us of the mission and vision of AVID and our AVID moms and dads in the classrooms every day! Thanks so much both for writing and posting this for all of us.

Pam Cocke, DD Asheville City Schools, NC

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPam Cocke


Thanks for adding to the discussion. Asheville City Schools is one of our great, long-standing North Carolina districts, and your opinion is important. Now, get back to your violin lesson!! From your Chinese Dad...

February 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob Gira

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