Wednesday 17th January 2018,

Bad Ass Asians

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Teacher Struggles to Serve Up Sugary Candy Over Bitter Vegetables

posted by Randall
Maya Thiagarajan

Maya Thiagarajan

The following is an excerpt from Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age.

 By Maya Thiagarajan


As a teacher in the US, I often felt nervous about critiquing my students’ work in an honest fashion. I would try my hardest to be as positive as possible about every piece of writing that my students turned in. I worried immensely about my students’ self-esteem: would honest criticism crush a student’s sense of self? Would it inhibit students on future assignments and prevent them from taking intellectual risks or trying new things? Would it make students less motivated? How on Earth do you tell a student that his ideas lack depth and originality without crushing him?


The private schools I worked at encouraged teachers to be as positive as possible when we wrote reports. (The public schools I worked at didn’t require us to write anything at all. We just chose generic comments from a drop down menu.) At one private school, teachers were instructed not to use the word “struggle” in reports because it sounded too negative. Instead of saying “When it comes to writing essays, Molly struggles to organize her ideas in a cohesive manner,” we were told to say, “In her writing, Molly is developing her organizational skills.” In another school, we were told not to criticize the child, but instead to rephrase every comment with a positive spin. Instead of saying, “Molly didn’t turn in her report,” we were urged to say, “Molly would benefit from spending more time on her homework.”


Q&A with  Maya Thiagarajan

After a decade of teaching in America, I had perfected the art of “positive feedback,” which I now think strongly resembles offering students a steady diet of sugary candy. Everything tastes sweet, and everyone’s happy. But it might not be so good for the kids in the long run!


When I moved to Singapore, I had to readjust to South Asian and East Asian expectations for feedback and criticism. From my conversations with Asian moms, I’ve found that parents and students want real, honest, critical feedback. These parents don’t want candy; they want vegetables. Spinach and broccoli flavored feedback, and it’s okay if the kids don’t really like the taste. In fact, the bluntness and honesty of Asian mothers and teachers sometimes surprise me. At one parent-teacher conference, an Indian mother told me to “feel free to be strict with [her] son because he needs a firm hand.” In a conversation with another mother, she told me that she gets very annoyed and angry with her son when he does “half-baked, rubbish work.” These conversations stood in stark contrast to the “always be positive” mantra that I had repeatedly heard in the US.


Words like “Awesome” and “Great Job” are not thrown around lightly in Singapore. While many of the students I interviewed from local Singaporean schools described the close relationships they had with their teachers, describing their teachers as “supportive” and “helpful,” most agreed that Singaporean teachers are not in the business of praising children unless they really and truly deserve praise. In fact, it is often quite hard for children here to really please their teachers and parents. One mother I interviewed said, “My daughter’s (Singaporean) piano teacher is never happy. No matter how much my daughter practices and how well she does, the teacher shouts at her and says, ‘You can do better. Aim Higher.’

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