‘Super Global Mom’ Teru Clavel aims to get Japan’s mojo back

Teru Clavel is a ‘Super Global Mom’ who wants every Japanese child to have the same opportunities in life as that of her own children. And why not? The U.S. born global education consultant is a ‘hafu’ – half Japanese and half American – whose three youngsters were schooled in China, Japan and in the United States. Besides being multicultural, her children are fluent in Mandarin, Japanese and English. Clavel wants the children of other parents to graduate with similar skill sets needed to face a world which is speeding up and rapidly globalizing.

Clavel was educated mostly at U.S. East Coast schools, while also attending elementary school in Tokyo during her summer holidays. Education became a personal matter when she placed her children in Shanghai’s public school system after moving there in 2010.

In China she found, living among extreme contrasts in wealth and poverty, a nation which places great emphasis on the quality of child education. Education lifts the living standards of most Chinese. For many, it is also a matter of survival. Despite the lack of heated classrooms in winter and bathroom troughs that could be mistaken for plumbing, Clavel says the quality of education at the Shanghai elementary school her son attended was excellent.

One reason for the high mark is the voracious hunger to learn which stems from China’s one-child policy. This policy ensures entire families, many living in poverty, have a vested interest in their children’s education. Typically two parents and four grandparents – China’s so-called ‘six pockets’ – exert great effort to see that their child gets the best education possible. A good education is seen as a ticket to a better life, not just for the child, but for the entire family. Children are expected, when grown, to support the entire family.

Clavel met families of six or seven living in poorly lit, single room tenement walk-ups having only one communal toilet and kitchen for the entire building. “Such families place great pressure on their children to succeed,” she says.

When picking her son up from school, Clavel regularly overheard grandparents – typically the ones to do so while the parents work – shouting: “My grandchild only got an 85! That is not acceptable!” and “That kid had better learn!” Families consider any mark below 95 a ‘fail’. Teachers typically remain after class with children until 8:00 pm for remedial education.

According to Clavel, the Ministry of Education is actively improving the quality of education in China. She discovered local school authorities in Shanghai had pulled apart Harvard’s teaching methods. They were spreading educational best practice throughout her district. Schools were not teaching only by rote memorization – a typical criticism of Chinese education – but were following the latest global education pedagogy. “In communist China,” she says, “things get done overnight.”

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Clavel also says Shanghai elementary school exams were strikingly similar to those she took at Dartmouth, the U.S. college she attended. For example, her son’s elementary school was closed for one week at the end of the first and second semesters for exams. Six exams were administered in total, including three oral and three written covering the subjects of math, English and Chinese. The school also issued a 50-page report card assessing everything about her son. It was based on initiative, motivation, in-class participation and follow through on homework – not just on knowledge. “It was so comprehensive that it was like a little tome of my son,” says Clavel, adding, “It was also dead-accurate.”

The quality of education in Shanghai probably surpasses that of U.S. schools. Once, over the month-long Chinese New Year’s holiday, she took her first grader to study in the U.S. On the first day of class, the teacher put what might be a year’s worth of arithmetic questions on the blackboard. She asked, “Would someone like to start?” Her son raised his hand. When called on, he sped like a racecar answering every question correctly. “The teacher was gob smacked,” recounts Clavel.

That’s one reason Shanghai’s schools are fast becoming the world’s envy. Newsweek magazine reported Shanghai schools are consistently ranked number one globally.

Just when Clavel was enjoying the zeitgeist of China, an opportunity to move to Japan arose in 2012. At the time she thought, “China was the thing,” believing Steinberg’s New York centric world as seen from 9th Avenue was completely out-of-date. Today, “If you can make it in China,” she says, “you can make it anywhere.” Still, the allure to rediscover her roots and expose her children to yet another culture proved overwhelming. She took the bittersweet decision to move to Tokyo, where her children now go to public school.

Clavel does not miss the smog, the bugs in the rice, nor the political repression. But she does miss the high level of learning expectations found at Shanghai’s schools. She is concerned Japanese youth have lost their hunger to learn. Equally, she frets the country’s educational system no longer teaches the skills the next generation of graduates need in a speedier, more globalized world.

She points to the low ranking of Japanese universities on a list of top global schools as evidence. Classrooms here, she notes forlornly, are filled with Japanese students and teachers only. Anyone wanting a global education has to go overseas.

In fact, few Japanese study abroad. The Institute of International Education reports that less than 20,000 Japanese students were enrolled at U.S. schools last year, compared with almost a quarter million Chinese students attending U.S. institutions.

True, a few farsighted business leaders like Softbank’s Son, Rakuten’s Mikitani, and Yanai of Fast Retailing say that Japan has to ‘go global’. They encourage more Japanese to learn fluent English in order for the country to retain its international competitiveness. Yet most Japanese firms do not recognize the value of either overseas experience nor language skills. Students are concerned that studying abroad could put them at a career disadvantage domestically.

To help ensure the next generation acquires the skills sets they need in the 21st century, Clavel is shining a beacon onto educational reform which she feels does not receive enough attention. She regularly publishes her thoughts on the subject at The Japan Times.

“Education is so easy to forget about,” she says, noting that it can take 10, 20, maybe even 40 years for an investment in a child’s education to manifest itself. “Multicultural and multilingual engagement must start early in life.”

Teru Clavel


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2 comments to “‘Super Global Mom’ Teru Clavel aims to get Japan’s mojo back”
  1. “Children are expected, when grown, to support the entire family.”

    This is what many Westerners miss. When Chinese and other Asian parents push their kids, they’re actually thinking about their own welfare, not that of their kids!

    But what do you expect in a society lacking a proper social safety net? I much prefer our system, where kids and adults alike have more choices, leisure and freedom. No wonder smart Chinese are emigrating to my country in droves.

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