East and West in the classroom: when the pursue of comfort meets the strive for excellence


Last Thursday there was the first and only teachers-parents meeting of the year. We arrived 30 minutes a little early and were soon joined by fellow parents, as anxious as we were to know all and everything about our little bundles of joy. Parents in a classroom resemble tragically enough children in a classroom. They start to look around, talk and eagerly lift their hands as they did 30-something years before.

The ex first-of-class doesn’t wear thick lenses anymore but shows the same impatience in getting the undivided attention of the teacher. The ex cheerleader is still gorgeous, and shares her worries about the amount of sugars and fats her children are gulping down at the canteen. (“I want to manage the number of treats I am giving to my children and monitor the amount of fat and sugar they are assuming”, dixit). The shy guy in the last row sits against the wall and takes notes, avoiding other parents’ look. The class socialite still flies around making friends and small talk. And then there’s me, looking at other people and mumbling in my head, losing track of what is being said and secretly fearing that the teacher will ask again, decades later : “What’s going on in your head, Miss?”.

The social architecture of the average classroom is intact. But that shouldn’t make anyone feel safer. In these times of global travel, it’s not anymore a question of extraverted vs. introverted, first-of-class vs. shy guy, socialite vs. cheerleader. It may become more complicated.

More than ten nationalities are represented in class: mainly Europeans with some Asians and a few Africans. Europeans were worried about safety (“I am not leaving my child if not in class”), food quality (“Why is the school’s caterer providing so many dairy-based desserts?”), psychological balance (“Are you sure your teaching method doesn’t foster unhealthy competitiveness? My child needs to play!”), and physical comfort (“Who’s taking the younger children to the loo?”, “What if they are tired after lunch?”). They asked tons of questions on the daily details of their kids’ day, their activities and the importance of teachers being available, to them and to their offspring.

The English teacher went through a detailed explanation of how the children are going to learn to read. “First, they learn three-letters words – she said – Some of them, though, can already read six-letters words and even write short sentences. It’s the case of Vikram”. And she goes on showing to the class a perfect notebook with a whole page filled with phrases. A very proud mother in a cotton sari stands against the blackboard, listening to the accomplishments of her son.

There was a moment of silence. It’s not just Vikram (the name is not the actual one). All the Asian children in our school are at least a year in advance. They are outstanding. And you know what? Their parents never worry about comfort, the size of the loos or the amount of organic food provided. They think of the results. What they are learning, what opportunities the school will give them, how they will strive for excellence.

Where they look at the road, we seem to be looking at our shoes. I am myself a little too focused on quality food and quality time and it’s not a simple matter of “tiger mothering” vs. “goose mothering”. What are we building on our pursue of comfort? What are they losing in term of quality of life? What will the bottom line be in a few decades?

I can’t but think of an Asian friend telling me many years go that ” you, Europeans, you waste so much time arguing on futile problems instead of sticking together, ready to face the coming challenges. Because, I tell you this, the Chinese and the Indians will pull the rag from under your armchair and won’t leave you the time to think”. It never sounded so real.