How does teaching international high school students differ from teaching Americans of the same age? I retired from teaching social studies at Sumner High School after 31 years. For the past three years I have taught American history, government, and culminating project to primarily international students wishing to get their high school diplomas in America at Green River Community College in Auburn.
The international students I’ve taught are from China and Vietnam, with some from South Korea, Japan and Indonesia. The vast majority of the American students I taught at Sumner were white and middle class. There are some important similarities and differences between teaching the two groups that those concerned with improving schools might find informative.
Attitude and effort: Most of the A and B American students are similar to Asians in their attitude toward getting a good education.
Among the middle and lower academic third of American students I taught, I found a big difference compared with Asians. Attitudes to school vary, but the main difference I have noticed is that in American schools it’s not cool to be too smart or too academic. Doing what makes you popular is the major driver of attitudes among this group. Research shows very bright students dumbing themselves down to be accepted.
For the vast majority of American students “getting by” is the operative attitude. Do just enough to pass with a C or a D and that is enough. Hard work is for college, if they do go. American high school is supposed to be a time for fun, not work.
Perhaps it is also because Asian students’ parents are paying triple tuition, plus books, plus board and room, plus travel that makes Asian students more conscientious. The poorer Asian students just can’t afford to come to America.
Respect for Authority: This closely aligns with attitude and effort. Asian students come out of a Confucian culture where teachers are highly respected and highly paid. High-achieving American students practice the remnants of what has been called the Puritan Work Ethic – success through hard work is a sign of God’s blessing. In that sense there is not much difference between the two groups. I found the easiest American students to teach were almost always Mormon and Catholic because they grow up understanding authority.
The problem I often encountered with American D students is that they often misunderstood Thomas Jefferson’s immortal phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
American students clearly understand and emphasize their rights, but forget that authority still exists in the classroom. Teachers and students may be equal under the law, but there is still authority with the teacher and students must obey. Many unruly students in America’s classrooms miss that part. They’re often more concerned with getting attention from their peers and teachers by acting out rather than by learning.
Public School Reform: How might these differences play out to improve American public schools? I worked on a committee I created to solve that question my last few years at Sumner. The major difference between the high-achieving Asians and Americans I have taught is that high-achieving students most often come from families where education is important. Parents are involved in their children’s education and it is a high priority.
The Sumner School District worked hard to form bonds and to create a sense of community. Its graduation rates are in the 90th percentile versus 75 percent nationwide. A program was set up to give each incoming high school freshman an older, responsible upperclassman to act as a mentor. Freshmen were also required to take a basic study skills class. These laid the foundation for higher achievement later and higher graduation rates.
America has become so individualistic that we have forgotten the need to balance what is important to society. The most impressive public education reforms must come through programs that strengthen the family and teach students to respect and trust authority. Until that is done, improved schools are a distant dream.