Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Teru Clavel who’s the author of World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children. She is an education expert, columnist, and sought-after public speaker. She has run her own educational consulting practice since 2010. She’s contributed to the Financial Times and The Japan Times among other publications, and has appeared on CBS This Morning, CNBC’s Squawk Box, and other media outlets. She spent over a decade raising her family in Asia, which we’re going to talk all about. She has a BA in Asian studies from Dartmouth College and an MS in comparative international education which she received while living in Asia. She currently lives in New York with her three children.
Welcome, Teru. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”
Teru Clavel: It’s my pleasure, Zibby.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what World Class is about?
Teru: I educated my three kids in the local public schools of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and then Palo Alto. I’m originally from New York City. It chronicles how we left New York in 2006 and then were in those cities, Hong Kong for four years, Shanghai for two, Tokyo for four, and then Palo Alto for two. Unlike the typical expatriate, we enrolled our children in the local public schools. They had a fully immersive cultural and linguistic experience. I was an education journalist overseas. I have a master’s in comparative international education. It’s half anecdotal and half research based. It’s basically to empower parents and educators and hopefully legislators too, to understand what’s going on overseas and what we can be doing differently or what we are doing really well here in the US.
Zibby: The book was pretty clear in that we are not doing as a good a job here as we could be doing. What are some of the things you found in Asia that really stood out to you as, wow, this is amazing and we should be doing this?
Teru: There are a few things. It started, actually, when we were in Hong Kong. I enrolled my oldest at the time, who was just three years old, at a local public magnet school that was nicknamed the prison. Everybody thought I was crazy for doing it. They had nice ways of saying I was absolutely out of my mind. I thought this is an experience where he’ll actually learn Mandarin and be able to focus on what’s important, which isn’t the bells and whistles, the brand-new desks or chairs or smart board. It looked like a prison. It was on this concrete hill. Literally, the hill was made of concrete. It was this foreboding structure with this courtyard that looked like it’s where prisoners are released to walk around. It was very strange. There was barbed wire on the roof. It was so magical in the sense that the teachers were so on top of the learning. Starting at three years old, the kids had homework. When you talk to my kids about it now, they laugh about it. They say there was so much homework. In my mind as an adult, there wasn’t that much homework. They literally had one character that had to copy three times. It got them into this habit of starting homework at a really young age. I’d say that was the first thing in terms of where the money is going. Then it continues on.
We went to Shanghai when my oldest was in elementary school. Again, bare bones facility. They didn’t have running water. There were troughs in the bathrooms, no heat. He was kept after school one day. This is a country that has a one-child policy, but I had three kids. I had to do pickups, boom, boom, boom. He was held after school. I couldn’t communicate. At that time, it was kind of illegal for me to have a child in a local school because we weren’t Chinese residents, or citizens I should say. We were legal residents but didn’t have the citizenship that would have allowed us to go into the public schools. I couldn’t make a fuss, is my point. They kept him after school. Because I was educated predominantly in the US, I had this association that he was a discipline case. Why is my little six-year-old — oh, my gosh, what did he do? To make a long story short, he starts crying. He’s with his math teacher. I’m thinking, did I screw up? I’ve poisoned this child against learning in school for the rest of his life.
It really turned out that he was kept after school because he didn’t master his daily arithmetic quiz and didn’t get a ninety-five percent. The teachers there stay for as long as it takes for the kids to learn. It turned out kids sometimes stay through dinner. The teachers will stay for as long as it takes. Only in writing the book did I realize that he was crying not because he was kept after but because I was putting so much pressure on him. It’s just a common practice. People may think, does he hate math? To this day, he’s two years ahead in math. It’s one of his favorite subjects. Having that high learning expectation regardless of your background was pretty huge. I can talk about more and more things, but I’m sure you have other questions.
Zibby: One thing that I was particularly struck by, you did a compare and contrast thing. In America, we spend a lot of money in the school system on things that essentially don’t help education all that much, receptionists, operators like fancy gyms, and the trappings of making the school look and feel really nice versus the prison that you described earlier, which is good. Intellectually, it makes me feel better thinking that my kids are not in school in prison all day. However, you’re saying in Asia they spent the money on the teaching and how huge a difference that makes in the quality of education. Can you speak a little to that?
Teru: That is something that we can definitely learn from the Asian system. In the US right now, we have a major recruitment, retention, professional development problem. We can’t keep teachers in the field. They stay less than five years. There’s nothing more important in that school than the relationship between the teacher and the student. There are plenty of studies to show you don’t even need a physical classroom. You don’t even need fifteen kids in the classroom. We can have thirty if the teacher is really, really qualified. As an example, in Japan for 38,000 spots in teaching, they get 200,000 applicants. It’s as hard to become a teacher in Japan as it is to become a doctor or a lawyer in the US. Sometimes I think, imagine if your kids went to school every day and they were being taught by a lawyer or a doctor, and that level of professional training that was required. I’ve been to education conferences, teacher conferences where states are trying to lower the average undergraduate GPA to become a teacher from a 3.0 to 2.0. When you think about that, it’s such a shame. What we really should be doing in this country is putting the money towards improving the salaries and recruiting the best and the brightest from undergrad and then retaining them through professional development and giving them career tracks.
When often happens in thriving economies is oftentimes, you’ll have teachers in this country that can be in the same classroom without any kind of promotion or career trajectory. They can be in there for twenty, thirty years, which for some people works, maybe. For other people who are a little bit more ambitious, they want to know, “I’m on the superintendent path. I’m on the path to become part of the department of education. Maybe I can be a senior master teacher or mentor.” We don’t offer that in this country, whereas in Japan they do. Something that I think is pretty astounding is to become an elementary school teacher in Japan, these teachers have to be able to sight-sing, sight-read, and keyboard. They have to be able to swim every kind of stroke in the pool. Before their exams in March, it’s this joke actually, that the teachers in training have to go to the playground and do all these kinds of spins on the bars. That’s what they’re tested on because they teach all those subjects. You think about, could that ever happen in the US? Probably not.
Zibby: I couldn’t do all those things.
Teru: I couldn’t do all those things.
Zibby: Can you imagine if we all had to go to a job interview and spin around the uneven parallel bars to get a job, if everyone had to do that to succeed? It’s crazy.
Teru: I know. It is, but they’re the PE teachers too and they’re the classroom teachers. Teachers in Japan don’t stay in their classrooms in terms of their grades for more than one year at a time. The second-grade teacher can become the sixth-grade teacher the next year, the first grade, third grade. They understand the curriculum entirely and what’s coming into their classroom and what they’re preparing their kids for. If we completely did an overhaul, I think it’s up to states to be able to do this. In terms of the education funding model, typical breakdown is forty-five percent from local taxes, forty-five percent from the state, and then ten percent from the federal government. The states are the only equalizers. It’s incumbent upon them to really revamp the teachers of education, the credentialing. Then our pay, we have to pay our teachers better to get people to stay in the field, to make it competitive as a career opportunity.
Zibby: If you were to be the president tomorrow, congratulations, here’s the oval office, what one thing would you do first? What do you think would help? Biggest bang for the buck.
Teru: The biggest is the equity issue. Right now, if you have, you can get a better education. We’re only as good as every person that we educate. I talk about this a lot, it is controversial to some, the fact that we have districts that are penalized by low tax dollars. The real estate taxes are so low because their properties are less valuable, unfortunately. They don’t have the financial supports to get the best teachers in there, to get better facilities, to make them safe. I spent the 2017/2018 academic year traveling across the country. I visited countless schools that are called, let’s say, transformation schools when they’re really — that’s a nice name for failing school. They have on the board, the kids’ scores that are on a smart board. They’re literally failing. Every single child in that class, their names are up there. In math, reading, and in science, they’re all in the thirty to forty percent range. They see that every single day. I feel like it’s a crime committed against our kids every day. Why would you want to go to school? These kids, a lot of them are bored. Some of them at the older levels are on their smartphones the entire class time. There’s not enough done about it. That’s the first thing I would change, the equity and access to quality education funding model and starting that in early childhood education, so really even starting at zero years old. A lot of our families in this country have dual-income-earning families. The parents aren’t around because they need to be earning. We really have to have better supports in place.
Zibby: If I were the president, I would install you as my minister of education or whatever it was. We could do some good together. Let’s talk a little about the book itself, which was fantastic. First of all, when you were going off on all these adventures, in the back of your head, did you think to yourself, this is going to be a great book? Did you ever think that a little?
Teru: I have to be totally honest. I met a book editor in the fall of 2014. It had never occurred to me at that point. I was an education journalist. Then she was talking about, it was still after its prime, but Eat Pray Love. She said, “This three part, people can grasp this.” I was like, “I have a book. I have Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo.” That was the first time that the idea was seeded. It only really came to fruition in 2016 when I came back to the US and my kids were in Palo Alto public schools.
Zibby: I love how the book was not just a treatise of education reform and what we should do and a political anything. It was really your story and your story of being a mom and taking your kids through the systems and what you learned and all this stuff, which is what I’m most excited to talk you about. Also, all your chapters were named after TV shows from when both of us were growing up, which was fantastic. You said you had spent a lot of time watching TV growing up, the child of a single mom. Tell us a little more about your background growing up and how maybe this put you on the path to be an education advocate.
Teru: I grew up in the New York, Connecticut area. My mom was twenty-five years younger than my dad. The fact that they got together at all was miraculous. My mom was in Japan. Her father fought against my American father in World War II. I think I was this, I don’t want to say accident, but not a very common product. Then my mom came to the US. She was also very different because of her generation. She was born right after World War II. Women of her generation were typically not that highly educated. It was considered a stigma because you would never get married. She did very, very well at her high school. It was one of the most competitive high schools. They she went off to college in Tokyo. She grew up in Osaka. That was like she was cursed. She was never going to get married. She kind of found her ticket out of Japan when she met my father. He was older. He wasn’t well. He passed away.
For the most part, I was raised by this single Japanese immigrant. I was an only child. Our home was very culturally Japanese. We spoke Japanese at home. Everybody else in my school at that time, what I thought, was very American. Then I spent my summer vacations and most of my holidays in Japan. During elementary school, I went to school in Japan during my summer vacation. Their summer vacation begins the end of July. I always had this bicultural comparative international education background that really informed my whole trajectory. I was fascinated by education. Things I saw were done so, so differently. Even today I feel like the way math is taught in our schools is so controversial, especially since the Common Core was implemented. Often, I feel like the East Asian systems get criticized for being too rote.
I can tell you, math class in Japan growing up was really hard because everything was a word problem. Once you understood the concept, it was all word problems. That wasn’t the way I was educated in the US school. At one point even, for my oldest son when I went to his desk when we were in Shanghai, his desk was just a mess. I was going through all the papers. It was annoying because everything was crumpled up. I can’t read Chinese. I said, “James, what is this? What is this book?” He goes, “Mama, it’s my math book.” There weren’t even enough numbers in there for me to decipher that it was a math book. In first grade, there are that many word problems. When you talk about the application of the content that you learn, I grew up with this. I grew up with understanding both sides. I don’t even remember what the question you asked was at this point. [laughs]
Zibby: That’s okay. I just like hearing about it.
Teru: Where did I leave off?
Zibby: No, that’s fine. You also said when you were growing up how you missed a lot of field trips because your mom couldn’t even read the language that they sent home the letters in. You felt like you were constantly an outsider and missing out.
Teru: Totally. The worst was in first grade when I was missed field day. I was one of those tomboys who loved winning races. I remember showing up and it was already midway through field day. My mom had no idea. That happened pretty regularly. It was kind of funny that then I put my kids into school systems where I couldn’t necessarily understand what was going on. I didn’t want my kids to have the same experiences. I hired college kids to come and help me decipher and translate all the notices. I made sure I was there. There’s a lot of required parent education in Japan. Japanese is my first language, so this wasn’t much of an issue. In Japan, you have to opt out of parent education. You have to write a letter if you can’t show up. In China where I couldn’t speak Mandarin, I would actually bring a bilingual friend of mine to sit through — one time, it was three hours long; I felt so badly for her — to translate everything that was going on so that my kid wouldn’t be handicapped by my handicap.
Zibby: Was there ever any pushback from your kids, the moving and the different cultures? Or this is just what life is like for them?
Teru: Pretty much. They didn’t know any different. At some point, I forget, maybe it was in Tokyo. We were in Tokyo. They’re like, “When are we moving again?” It was just a way of life. I have made it very clear that now we are home. We are not moving again. I’m really happy about that.
Zibby: I feel this huge relief that one of your kids has ended up at a school where one of my kids is, which means that at least I have not totally messed up the education of one of my four children.
Teru: [laughs] I think there are opportunities. That’s something that I hope comes across, at least towards the end of World Class. Because I traveled through the US to different schools — one of my final chapters is called Cheers based after the TV show Cheers. It’s a testament to the amazing schools and educators that are out there. There was one school I visited in LA. There are middle schoolers taking AP physics in one term. They’re getting five out five on the AP exam. You mentioned in terms of how the money is being spent. There’s a school I visited in DC that has one of the lowest cost-per-pupil spending budgets. The head of the school said very clearly, “Look at my front office, I have two admin for this entire high school.” There are other schools where the principal of the school will do anything to champion for his or her students and will go to whatever level it takes to find the funding to find parents that are in the school, maybe professors, who have an area of expertise to come in and teach a class and leverage as many resources as possible.
Now I will go back. Now I remember your question about the TV shows. I have to say because my home was so Japanese, I learned so much from these TV shows. That’s why I named each chapter after a TV show from pretty much the seventies and eighties. Although, there are some from the sixties that are thrown in. My favorite was — sorry, I have to plug because I think it is funny and I want to hear your reaction to this. The Gilligan’s Island, when I landed in Hong Kong, I called it Gilligan’s Island, landing on an island with a strange cast of characters. I was like, oh, my gosh, this place looks so foreign. When we first arrived in Shanghai, I called it Mission Impossible because I thought I was going to die. Every day, it was such a difficult place. This was in 2010 when it was still a cash-based society. Things were not as smooth as they are now.
Zibby: It was a very clever way to attack such an intellectual topic with something that made it light and fun. It’s a good blend.
Teru: I appreciate that.
Zibby: I don’t want to really get into screen time. You obviously watched a lot of TV. I watched a lot of TV growing up. It wasn’t even a thing. Do you feel like education is interfered with too much by screen time? Do you let your kids watch TV?
Teru: TV, I think, can be okay. It just depends on what it is. The content, what we considered — even movies, the movies that were rated R back then I think today would be close to G. [laughs] It’s gotten so different. It’s hard to monitor because kids have so much technology anyway. They’re going to watch the movies before you allow them to watch them anyway. I think it’s really important to be proactive about your conversations with your kids because they’re going to see it.
Zibby: My husband Kyle and I were having this debate. My older son wants YouTube. How can I give him a computer with YouTube unrestricted if I’m not around to see it? He’s going to download. He’s going to watch X-rated movies. Kyle’s like, “They don’t have X-rated movies anymore.” [laughter] I’m like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “They’re not going to card you at the door and turn you away. They don’t make those. If he wants to find it, he’ll just find it.” I’m back in this whole 1980s trying to get into a PG-13 movie in my head.
Teru: My son, my middle one, actually did to a movie theater with his friends. They tried to go see an R movie, and they were turned away.
Zibby: Oh, good.
Teru: Of course, you know what they did? They bought tickets to another movie, and they snuck in.
Zibby: At least there still are movie theaters…
Teru: I agree.
Zibby: Getting off topic. The publishing process, I know we’ve been talking about this off the record. You had this idea, sort of, in 2014 to make this into a book. Then you went on and lived this exciting, international, amazing life and learned all this stuff. Tell me about sitting down to write this book. Where were you? How long did it take you? Did you enjoy the writing process? What did you not enjoy about this whole situation? Bring me to the current day.
Teru: I feel like when they say everybody pays for it when you have a baby, if your pregnancy’s been smooth and afterwards you go through something — to me, the process, which I think is a complete anomaly, to getting a book deal was seamless, which I think is almost completely unheard of. I pounded the pavement. I got my agent. My book proposal went to auction. It was this bizarre thing. It hasn’t been smooth sailing since then, I don’t think. Basically, I get the book deal. I was living in the middle of Silicon Valley where things happen instantaneously. I sign the book deal. They said, “You have a year to write the book.” A year? What am I going to do with a year? To me, it could’ve been twenty years from now. I did take that year. I had all these pressures. I’d never written a book before. I was used to writing articles. I had deadlines. I met those deadlines. I was that annoying person who, if it’s due tomorrow, it’s on the editor’s desk by eight AM that day.
Then when you have a year, suddenly you have to have the crazy self-discipline. It was really a challenging process. Then I had on my mind, I have to wake up. I have to put my kids — I have to get them to school. I have to sit at my desk and write. I have to be productive. You do the math. If I write ten pages this day and then this is how many — it never worked that way. Half the thing was written at two AM in the car when the kids were at soccer. It was the most non-disciplined disciplined process. The manuscript was due end of August 2018. I had a complete meltdown in July. I thought it was, I can’t use expletives, but a pile of you know what. I thought this is horrific, horrendous, the worst thing ever. I call my agent. She’s like, “You’re right on time. This is exactly when I get a call from my authors. Actually, you’re two weeks –” It was late or early or something like that. I go, now what am I going to do? This is terrible. I’m just going to cut my losses. I’m done. It’s the most disgusting piece of whatever. That’s when it kicked into gear. I basically rewrote the whole thing in the next month. It’s so much better. At the time, my life was falling apart. I remember sitting in the lobby of a hotel crying because it was the nearest place I could find to just sit down. That’s actually, believe it or not, when the idea of the TV titles came into play. It wasn’t until the very last minute. Then it got my momentum going. I thought, this is good.
Then I spent the next year editing. The book came out end of summer 2019. The process, it was far from smooth. I guess I made it. Everybody has their own process. If anything, don’t have so many preconceived notions of how it has to be done. We’re both moms. That’s always going to be my number-one priority. If my child needs me, I’m going to be there. I’m not going to be at my desk writing the book. I also felt like I had an excuse because every time my child needs me, I’m like, this is ethnographic research for my book. [laughter] It’s like a write-off, which I probably used as an excuse too many times. There are parts of it that have been challenging in terms of book publishing since it came out. I didn’t know this because it went so smooth until then, but people move around so much in the publishing business. I had heard about it, but it’s almost like that doesn’t mean anything to me. Then literally almost everybody who was behind my book left their companies when the book came out. That’s really hard. I’m like, “Hello, I’m a neophyte. I don’t know what I’m doing. I need all the help I can get releasing a book.” You just need that toughness.
Zibby: Any parting advice? Let’s say people are listening, they’re reading your book. They’re fed up with the way the system is. What can we do to help things in the United States right now? Even just one person, is there anything we do? Anything? Should we just sit back and watch things crumble further?
Teru: No, don’t do that. The way I think about it is there a few macro things that require systemic change that may not change for more than a generation. Those are things like the teacher training or the equity issues, the education governance, and changing the priority of where education is in our country. Something that I think about is when Xi Jinping gave his, what’s comparable to the State of the Union address in China, he talked about education. He mentioned it thirty times. During the last democratic presidential debate, the word education came up zero times. That requires a huge culture shift. What I like to tell parents and teachers is, what can you do every day? I break it up into — the first thing is having your expectations and mission statement very clear in your home. Talk about, what is an education? Is it about socialization? Sports? Academic outcomes? What is your academic expectation? Is it a ninety-five percent? Is the sixty percent that schools require? What are you expecting? If the school doesn’t teach something, are you going to teach it to your kids? whether it be memorizing your multiplication tables, which a lot of schools don’t require anymore. Maybe if you do, you have to do it at home. Grammar, spelling, how many books do they read? What is writing? The whole child, the community, getting all those things, define it in your home.
Something that I tell parents that I think is an easy takeaway is, what are you modeling for them? What are you talking about? If all you’re talking about is sports, they’re going to get validation. They’re going to think love from their parents by being really good at sports. If you talk about, “How was this class? How are your friendships?” you’re showing them what’s important. They will want to meet your expectations. It’s like a pie chart. Figure out how much time you’re spending, doing what and talking about what. That’s one actionable thing. Then another thing is please limit the technology. There’s too much research now that shows the more exposure our kids have to technology, especially starting at an early age, they’ll lower their academic outcomes. It’s associated to all kinds of anxiety, social/emotional issues. As a society, we definitely have to take a step back. Also as parents, we have to limit it until these kids have the self-discipline to be able to monitor it. They just don’t if they’re under twelve or thirteen years old. There’s lots of research now that shows that the best indicator of academic success isn’t IQ. It’s actually self-discipline. Technology is the antithesis to instilling self-discipline. Those are some things that I would say.
Zibby: I don’t know if you knew this. You probably did. I’m probably the last one to know this. I was looking over one of my kid’s shoulders when they were playing a game from an app, every two seconds there’s another ad for another app. You have to play it to get to the — anyway, I spent half an hour looking at this. Now I’ve deleted every game on everybody’s device. We are not playing games anymore. There are no games, not that everybody was sitting around playing games all day. Even twenty minutes, even whatever, I can’t. It’s so bad. This is a two-day-old thing for me, but it’s true.
Teru: It’s true. It’s so true. The product placement that our kids [indiscernible/crosstalk].
Zibby: I had no idea. It’s very sneaky.
Teru: The fact that my ten-year-old daughter can tell you what Cialis is for and every other kind of medication — we’ll be watching family-friendly TV. It’s so funny. She’s like, “Oh, you have dry skin?” She’ll give you the solution.
Zibby: That’s so funny.
Teru: This is different. This is not the way we were raised. Then at the end they say all the caveats. If you’re allergic to it, you could have a heart disease. You could do this.
Zibby: This medication may cause death.
Teru: Yes, exactly.
Zibby: It’s a risk.
Teru: There you go. I’m like, oh, my gosh, my daughter’s now going to be investing in pharma stock. Okay. Wonderful.
Zibby: [laughs] Parting advice to aspiring authors?
Teru: This is something I have to tell myself. I’m preaching to myself as I say this. Love the process. It’s really hard, but I would say don’t wait for the accolades to come in because you have to love the process. Be patient. The other thing I would say, this I’m learning too, get your support network. You have to find the people who will champion you and know the answers to things when you don’t know what they are. There have been so many times in the last few months where, “Wait, this happened and I don’t understand it.” Here are ten people I can call. Who’s going to be available? Who has the answer? We’ve all been through it. This is one thing. I went to a lot of education conferences. I took writing classes. A writing conference that I went to in 2014, there was this keynote speaker who was a best-selling author. He said something that has always resonated with me. He goes, “It doesn’t matter if you’re successful or not. In this business, there are no a-holes. You can’t be successful if you are one.” Now that I’m a little further in the process, it’s because it’s so humbling. You do want to help everybody else. Finding those people is crucial. It’s solitary. When you’re writing, you’re alone. It’s important to get out there.
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Zibby: Excellent. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”
Teru: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you.