Since Amy Chua’s famous coining of the term, tiger mom has become a keystone of our vernacular. All of us have seen one in action at some point – or even had one as our own mother. Here in China’s burgeoning education industry, you’ll find yourself in the thick of it. While private, for-profit education in Asia is absolutely the place to be making your fortune at the moment, there are certain things you need to understand about the industry before jumping in headfirst – and nothing is more important to success in any industry than understanding your market and consumer behavior.
There’s certainly money to be made, but Asia’s Tiger Moms aren’t shelling their money out to just anyone. If you really want to convince these tough customers that you have what it takes to push their kids as hard as they push them, there are a few things you need to know.
“Success” has a narrow definition
Even though it’s a harsh truth of life that not all of us can be the brightest crayon in the box, no mother, especially not a Tiger Mom, would admit their kid is anything but exceptional. Unfortunately, you may have the misfortune of teaching some of the duller crayons. While the optimist in us teachers might not see that as a misfortune, instead looking at such a student with the knowledge that all of us have been blessed with different talents and passions, and good instruction is just a matter of finding those blessings, mining them and chiseling them out, Tiger Moms will not see it from your point of view.
Their child cannot be held to different standards or encouraged to pursue different fields – their child will break 2300 on the SAT, she will attend a top 20 college or university, she will be chosen for the analyst position at Goldman Sachs straight out of undergrad, she will marry a handsome fellow banker (or perhaps a doctor or lawyer), and she will provide the most precocious, obedient children a grandmother could ever ask for.
In your personal dealings with such students, you may be lucky enough to have the opportunity to explain to them that there is in fact more to life than this laundry list of goals, but at least in your dealings with parents, you’ll have to show all the ways in which your methods are preparing their student for and leading them to such a life.
That might mean mixing SAT Critical Reading practice with some brief philosophical forays into what a successful life can look like, or perhaps lunch breaks with students over which you discuss the relative value of a bachelor’s degree these days (using the opportunity to relay your own disappointing experiences), but ultimately it absolutely means that at least in appearances, you have to be on board with the Ivy League dream (and perhaps practice feigning shock for when the rejection letters for those “gifted” Tiger Kids arrive in the spring).
Tiger kids are troubled
We all remember the teenage years aren’t easy. Being the only child in a super wealthy, successful family doesn’t help. Before you think to yourself, Oh boo-hoo, poor rich kids, first, ask yourself what kind of life you would have rather lead while growing up – that of a “normal” teenager – sneaking out late with friends, cutting a class to go to the mall or play ball, getting into a little trouble, getting hurt, making mistakes – or would you rather have had a “helicopter parent” constantly and wholly invested in your future (narrowly defined) success, putting you in every after school academic enhancement program and SAT prep course she can afford.
You don’t have time to make mistakes or get into trouble, even if you wanted to. The overall tragic result is that you often find yourself teaching students in Asia who have never had a real life experience of their own. You sit down with a student to brainstorm ideas for their personal statement, and the only topics they can think of as deeply relevant to them are their struggle to score higher on the SAT and their relationship with their mother. Or – even worse – you sit down with them and, in trying to dig out any suitable material for a Personal Statement, find they were never given the space to develop a personality of their own.
Remember, in many Asian cultures, there’s a high value placed on one’s ability to integrate and conform – quite different from the uniqueness and ability to “stand out” we so value in Western culture and, most especially, value in the college application process. (“Diversity” anyone?) As a teacher, all you can do is the best you can, and encourage them to take their next four years in college abroad as an opportunity to garner as many life experiences as possible while using their academic study not just as a means to a six-figure-salary-end, but as an opportunity to learn how to think for themselves.
Tiger Kids can never have enough homework
As a teacher in the States, you might find parents complaining about the homework load assigned to their children. Tiger Moms in Asia will complain, too – if you aren’t assigning enough homework. If you don’t assign enough homework to a Tiger Kid, you lose credibility, and “enough homework” to a Tiger Mom is definitely way more than you think.
Children as young as primary school are expected to be completing hours of homework a night, regardless of how much the workload is actually benefiting them. There’s no reward for streamlining your student’s workload, only the suspicion that you’re not pushing them hard enough. For example, especially when it comes to tasks like SAT prep, it’s not unusual for students to take every single past SAT as a practice exam, and begin attending prep classes years before they plan to take the test.
Education equals memorization
The problem of optimizing the efficient use of your student’s time is compounded by the fact that education in general is quite different in Asia. In the West, we value the cultivation of such skills as critical thinking and structured, reasoned argumentation, while in the East, much more time is dedicated to rote memorization. While the SAT Exam only contains 19 sentence completion questions, most Tiger Kids will spend hours a night struggling to memorize words out of a test prep book – they won’t know how to use the word in context, and without learning it in context, there’s still no guarantee they’ll be able to answer a sentence completion correctly on the SAT – and yet Tiger Moms continue to insist on such methods.
Memorization certainly has its place in education – Tiger Moms will delight in seeing you drill students in vocab, idiom and preposition memorization, but they’ll rail against you spending class time on more abstract skills like extracting meaning from a literary passage or even against lessons on how to develop strong logic and reasoning in a persuasive essay – instead, most Asian methods of learning, and Tiger Moms with them, prefer to have their students memorize an SAT essay, and modify it slightly for test day depending on the prompt. (And forget trying to convince your students to read an entire book in English.)
So, again, the lesson here is to maintain appearances by offering the kind of education Tiger Moms expect and want, while truly delivering to the students the kind of education they need.
Be as tough as the Tiger Mom who employs you
Work experience in an American company may have taught you that honey catches more flies than vinegar, but in Asia, there is such a thing as being too nice. Tiger Moms will absolutely hold you to unreasonable expectations, and you have to be firm in your dealings with them. Set boundaries early on (like your hours and prices) and then stick to them consistently.
If you don’t want to be answering panicked phone calls about PSAT test strategies at midnight on a Friday evening, then turn off your phone. If you let Tiger Moms push the boundaries, they will keep pushing, and before you know it, they will own all of your free time and have you bargained down to the lowest price. Don’t be afraid to stand up to a Tiger Mom and keep your free time sacred. Overworking doesn’t necessarily mean more money or customers, nor does keeping your free time free mean losing money or customers.
Be good at what you do
Of course, for any of the above advice to be helpful to you, the most important thing is that you’re a good teacher. Teaching is hard. So is SAT, AP and IB prep. If you’re not certified (and even if you are!) do your research – read up on proper teaching techniques, consult friends and colleagues for information on their own classroom experiences, attend many classes with a variety of teachers to observe what works in a classroom and what doesn’t, and most importantly, know the material you’re teaching inside and out. If you don’t know the right answer to every question in the SAT section you’re teaching, you’re in trouble.
Without fail the one question you’re a little shaky on will be the very one your students ask you to thoroughly explain to them. It’s easy to get a teaching job in Asia, but it’s not so easy to grow a reputation and broad customer base if you’re no good – what it takes to grow is to develop good relationships with your students, and achieve success in getting your students the test scores they need.
With happy students who look up to you, and happy Tiger Moms who look ahead to the colleges of their (if not their children’s) dreams, you’ll be poised to launch a lucrative career in college consulting.