Episode 203 – A Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the BEST Education for Her Children with Teru Clavel

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Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we are delighted to have an extraordinary guest with us today. She is a Comparative Education expert, and the author of the book, “World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children.” Welcome, Teru Clavel! 


Teru Clavel: Thank you so much for having me, Steve! 


Steve Shallenberger: We’re so excited to have you and this is a particular interest, we’re having the chance to visit a little bit before we got going today and I shared with her that Becoming Your Best recently announced that we’re now introducing Becoming Your Best for students. I’m so excited to hear and have Teru share what she has experienced. Before we get going, I’d like to just tell you a little bit more about Teru. She has written columns on education for the Japan Times and the Financial Times, she’s made appearances on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, The TODAY Show, CBS’s This Morning, CNBC’s Squawk Box and Channel News Asia. She has also been interviewed on countless radio shows and podcasts. She spent a decade raising her family in Asia, which includes Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo. She has a BA in Asian Studies and an MS in comparative international education. After two years in Palo Alto, California, Teru has returned to live in New York City with her family. So this is going to be a fun interview! To get us going today, Teru, tell us about your background, and especially including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you. What has kind of helped you come to where you are today? 


Teru Clavel: Yeah, so most of my where I am today comes from my having had my kids. Basically, in 2006 I had two kids in diapers – 2 and younger – and I was in New York City, and we had the opportunity to move to Hong Kong for an employment opportunity. So, off we went, and from 2006 until 2010 we were expatriates in Hong Kong, and then, two years thereafter, from 2010 until 2012, we were in Shanghai, and then from 2012 until 2016 we were in Tokyo for four years and then moved to Palo Alto, California, and were there from 2016 until 2018. I’ll go back and say a few things, which are that my third child was born in Hong Kong in 2009. In each of these places we lived I enrolled my children in the local public schools, which is not what the typical expatriate does – they usually enroll their children in an international school where you pretty much follow the curriculum of your home country. So, my kids were entrenched in the local culture and languages of where we lived. 


Teru Clavel: I’ll go back and say also that I am half Japanese and growing up, Japanese was my mother tongue and my home language. And during summers and most other vacations, I would go to Japan to be with my mother’s family and, some of that time, I actually went to school in Japan. So this notion of putting my kids in the local public schools, you would have thought would have been a little easier or natural, but they were all definitely cultural shocks because I had never been a parent to children who were foreign to those cultures overseas. So those are massive turning points for me and they inform where I am today as a comparative international education speaker, and writer, and author of my book, “World Class” where I discuss all these things. 


Steve Shallenberger: We can’t wait to hear more about it! Congratulations on the book, that’s had to be thrilling. What led to writing the book in the first place? 


Teru Clavel: So it was back in 2013 when the seeds were really planted. So, part of my journey, too, is that before I had children until 2004, I had a few jobs in my 20s, but primarily I went back to school right after undergrad and I went to school for interior design, which led me to run a small residential interior design company based in New York City, but I was also a host for an HGTV show. While I did have a career prior to having children – I call it BC: before children – when they were still little we went to Hong Kong and I became a stay-at-home mom, and I wasn’t working. But then, once my kids got just a little bit older, I craved going back and doing something else. So I went back and got a Masters in Comparative and International Education – it was a Masters in Science, so that was a lot of politics, economics, anthropology, sociology courses – and that led me to get back in the trenches of reading and writing and thinking critically, that led me to become a journalist. So along this path – I’m getting to why I started this book idea – I thought, “Wow, I have this unique experience and perspective on not only having an academic background and then a journalistic background in examining education systems in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and then Tokyo – because I was an education journalist – and I have the personal experience because my kids are enrolled in the public schools of these countries.” So, in 2013 was when I really had the idea to write the book, but it only really crystallized for me when I came back to the US in 2016 and my kids were in the US public schools did I see, “Oh wow, now I get it – what US parents are dealing with in educating their children.” And I thought, “Okay, I have this social responsibility to write this book to share what I have learned that could help US parents from my experiences overseas.” 


Steve Shallenberger: Oh, I’m so glad you provided that background because it really helps give us a context. And I’m so glad that Teru has this spirit of becoming your best. 


Teru Clavel: I try. I hope we all try to a certain degree, yeah. 


Steve Shallenberger: That’s good! Okay, well, what are some of the personal challenges? And by the way, I’m just doing the math. That means your children are about 10 and 15, right in that zone, right? 


Teru Clavel: That’s exactly right! My oldest is 15, my second is turning 14 in a couple of months, or in one month I should say. My youngest is now 10. 


Steve Shallenberger: This is game-time right now, this is fun! 


Teru Clavel: It is! So I have one in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school. 


Steve Shallenberger: That’s cool! Alright, so, let’s go back and talk about your journey – and this is going to be fun, especially, I know our listeners are going to be tuned into this today. So, what are some of the personal challenges you faced and overcame having raised your three children in so many countries and having moved so often? 


Teru Clavel: Yeah, I mean, there were so many challenges, and I can go through it, I guess, chronologically, the way my book, “World Class” was written – it was the framework for it. We were in New York, and it’s a very competitive preschool application process to get into the more “elite preschools”, and we took off, and I was really happy to go to Hong Kong because I thought, “Wow, we can escape all this!” When we got to Hong Kong, I didn’t know what an expat was – and it is short for expatriate – and I didn’t know what life was going to be like. It was a very intentional decision for us to move out of the very typical expatriate building, to not send our children to an international preschool, and we moved to a very local area where we were really the only non-local Hong Kong Chinese. And then, my kids, I enrolled them in a school – my two little ones at that point – that was nicknamed, “the prison” because it was really bare bones. And yeah, I mean, one mom pulled me aside and said, “Are you crazy?” But the thing was that my children received an education that was, I forget, maybe 75% in Mandarin, and about 25% they had English instruction, and it was a half-day program, and it was a four-year preschool because compulsory education begins in grade one there. And it was a phenomenal experience, ultimately! I couldn’t speak the language Mandarin at the time, and it was very hard for me to communicate with the teachers, so I had to put a lot of faith and trust in what was going on because I couldn’t really follow. And my kids loved school. So, that was a big change and struggle for me. 


Teru Clavel: And then, when we moved to Shanghai, this was 2010, and we decided again, to live locally, and we moved into an ex-communist tenement, and I was very naive, I didn’t really know what that meant, I just wanted to have a full cultural immersion. What that meant was that we didn’t often have hot water in our home and the Wi-Fi was a luxury if we had it continuously – it was very spotty. We had cockroaches, termites, rats. And even thinking back, actually, just going back to the story of the hot water, there were so many times that I had to boil the hot water on the stove and take it to the bathtub – numerous, numerous pots – to try to bathe my young kids in a bathtub, that wasn’t an ice-cold water. And my son was in elementary school, he was in first and second grades while we were there, in a local public school. They didn’t have flushing toilets, so if they had to use the bathroom, it was in a trough that got run with water at the end of every day. There was no heat, so he basically wore a snowsuit to school every day. What’s interesting is my kids thrived in this system, but it was really hard for me. I mean, there was this joke in Shanghai at the time, now while it’s a cashless society, back then, we would walk around with huge wads of cash because everything was cash and the largest denomination was $10. But they got a superb education there, and it was really just more of a struggle for me. 


Teru Clavel: I would say there were just lots of misunderstandings because I didn’t really understand the education system. I’m sure we’ll get into it a little later, too, but there was one time when my son was kept after school and I had three kids in a country that had a one-child-only policy, and when he was kept after school, to me, that meant that I couldn’t pick up my other two kids, nor could I communicate with that other school to let them know I was going to be late; and I didn’t understand, was he in trouble? Because in the US, there’s a common assumption that if your child is kept after school, it’s because there’s some kind of a behavioral issue. I couldn’t communicate with my son’s classroom teachers to what was going on, so I was getting all upset, just outside the classroom, waiting and waiting for him. And an hour later he came out, and it was basically just that he didn’t understand the math lesson that day because he hadn’t received what was considered a mastery grade of 95%. And this is in first grade, right? And the teacher stayed with him for as long as it took until he understood the concept – and that was a common practice. 


Steve Shallenberger: Wow! That’s amazing! 


Teru Clavel: So, it gets you thinking, from a US perspective, what is the definition of mastery? Is it a number? How many times do kids really need to have, to master that content? And what is the community going to do to provide the scaffolding necessary for the child to master that content? So there were just misunderstandings that I had to get over, and ultimately, I was so thankful for the really superb education and dedication of the teachers there. And it went on. There were plenty of challenges in Japan and in Palo Alto as well – I don’t know if you want to continue on with us, but, you let me know, Steve. 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, well, in short, you’ve just seen a lot of different sets of education and approaches and the impact. I mean, I have so many thoughts running through my mind, and so, it put you in a unique position to see some of the things that have really worked well and maybe some of the things that haven’t worked well. 


Teru Clavel: Sure! And so, I can tell you, when we got – and I’ll skip over Japan where we were for four years and we can go back to that from a different perspective or a different angle – when we got back to the US, that was in Palo Alto in 2016, the learning expectations, I found, were so much lower and we were hit with a school district which was considered at the time by rankings – and I have a lot of issues with the actual rankings – but it was considered the best school district in California at the time. Within one year, all five of the secondary school heads, resigned, the superintendent quit, there was so much contention and inner turmoil and turnover for so many varied reasons. My fifth grade – my son – had five classroom teachers that year; in sixth grade, there were no less than 10 animated films that he saw, and none of my kids were actually challenged. Well, my elementary school daughter was, but it didn’t feel like, especially compared to where we had come from, in Asia, they didn’t have the same level of rigor that they had had overseas. And it was just a confounding experience that really made me kind of scratch my head and think about the reversed culture shock that we were experiencing coming back home, to our home country, and what was going on in the school district that was considered “the best” in California. 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s a big turnover. That makes it really disruptive, hard on students. I know that when I grew up, I had one teacher at each grade, and they stayed there and you really developed a relationship and I’m just reflecting on that, and that’s got to be so disruptive. It makes you grateful for having some stability. But that’s just part of it, right? There’s a whole lot more. Think about the education your children have received, an international perspective. I bet that’s had quite an impact on them. 


Teru Clavel: Absolutely! I mean, something that occurred to me, just recently, was my oldest, who’s now in ninth grade, he has only started the start of a school year at a new school once, and he’s now, I think, on his eighth school because we moved so much and hopefully that’s not going to change. He has one more school to go to, he is going to a different school – his school ends at the end of ninth grade – but hopefully, he’ll start the 10th grade the first day of school and continue. But what it has really done is it has given them the ability to be adaptable because they’ve just had to, by necessity. That is a great life skill, and I often hear, “Kids are so resilient, they can do anything.” I actually think that’s not accurate. I think, kids, yeah, maybe they’ll survive, but they need scaffolding and support. My kids went to these different school districts and school systems in different languages and cultures – I hired college kids to come after school to help them with their homework if they needed, to help them with their languages, I met with the teachers so regularly and was in regular communication with them because they were coming into school systems where either they didn’t speak a word of the language, in the beginning, or they were literally the only non-native student of that classroom or that entire school. So, in Shanghai, my oldest was the only non-Chinese student in his elementary school amongst over 1000 students. I think it has also taught them a great deal of empathy because they experienced being the outsider and they were welcomed and the people around them were so kind to include them in their communities and gave them the support they needed. 


Steve Shallenberger: These are some great insights. Do you talk in your book about the role of parents? I mean, just think about how important your role has been in creating the scaffolding, the stability and I would think, even in a place where there’s more stability and maybe even a greater need, where the education standards may not be up to what you were hoping they would be. So, do you talk about that in the book – the role of the parent or the grandparent? 


Teru Clavel: Absolutely! I talk about it right upfront. My whole book is written for parents and teachers. In Asia, the parent involvement is so clear and the expectations so delineated, where we were in Shanghai and in Japan. In the US, it can be really confusing because you don’t have the same clarity. You can be on the PTA, you can be an assistant in the library, you can go to parent education, and none of it is mandatory. But I can tell you, in Japan, there were actually some mandatory parent education sessions, whereby if you couldn’t go, you had to write a letter and opt-out. There was required parent involvement in my children’s school in Japan, where you had to devote a year of volunteering for every child you had in the elementary school. And that’s pretty common practice in Japan. 


Teru Clavel: So, when I got back to the US, and I’m very clear about this and I write this very directly to parents in “World Class”, the US is so diverse – multiracial, multilingual, belief systems, on and on – and not everybody comes from a family where there is a stay-at-home guardian. But, what is also happening is, I call the US “The Great American Swiss Cheese” because it’s full of holes. We don’t have a curriculum where, let’s say the second-grade teacher knows what happened in first grade and knows how to teach and prepare for third grade – and there are so many curricular changes and innovations, typically, within the public school system, that there are lots of holes created. And with the advent of technology, also, it’s very easy for kids to just kind of pass through areas that they don’t really like. What do we do about that? I feel like, unfortunately, it is incumbent upon parents in this country to fill those gaps and to be as informed as possible on what the kids are learning and what they’re not, because teachers don’t necessarily know what those gaps are anymore. 


Teru Clavel: And then, what happens is, if you have parents who maybe don’t speak English as a first language, and the US education system is foreign to them, maybe the child comes from a dual-income family or maybe the parent even works a night shift and isn’t home that often, then what’s happening in this country is that we have to have community supports in place, whether at the school level or at the larger district community level to help those kids and it has to start very, very early – it has to start at zero until five or six, until the child starts kindergarten, and then thereafter, because what’s happening is, kids are starting kindergarten in this country and they’ve never read or touched a book. Sure, they may have been behind a screen, a smartphone or an iPad, but they’ve never even had to read before. And some kids don’t even know how to use scissors. And then, you have other kids who come in, reading chapter books. We have to stem that inequity that comes in right at the starting gate, which should be, but it’s not happening. 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a big-time role. Big time role! I’m glad that you’re talking about it. Well, let’s shift gears a little bit and just think about this whole idea of a changed world. Why is it so important to teach our current and next generations about globalization and global competence? 


Teru Clavel: What I think is happening, especially now, our country is becoming more introspective and we’re not looking at what’s going on in the rest of the world. Whereas, if you look at those countries that are thriving, both with their children social-emotional development, academic outcomes, they are very global in their outlooks and they know what’s going on, and they embrace that globalization – not only do they teach their children what’s going on in current events, but they’re also collaborating with other countries, learning other languages. And it’s not just what’s going on necessarily in China and Japan, but it’s what’s going on in Scandinavian countries. I mean, we are one of the only monolingual countries that educates in one language. And we can say that’s because well, you know, so many people speak English and we have the world’s best universities and everybody just comes here to learn English, but what that does is it prevents our children from learning about other countries and other practices, which actually also lends itself to empathy and compassion. While other countries are, I don’t know, if you look at the number one, two and three world economies, we’re looking at China, the US and Japan – we have to raise a generation that is able to not only compete on a global level, because we are becoming, with technology, more interconnected than ever before. Our kids need to learn how to collaborate with those other countries, and also, therefore, know how to compete with them. And right now, we’re not doing a good job of that. I do believe we’re being way too – I don’t want to say nationalistic – but just really oriented towards only focusing on what’s going on in the United States, and we’re getting behind as a result. 


Teru Clavel: And I will add that just yesterday, our Nations Report Card – the NAEP – came out that showed that fourth and eighth graders are actually behind where we were a couple of years ago, in 2017, in reading and in math. Our international scores, academically, are also either flat or decreasing in reading, science, and math, according to the OECD’s PISA scores – the test that’s administered to 15-year-olds every three years – and that result is coming out at the beginning of December of this year. So, we’re behind the eight ball, and I do talk about this in “World Class”, where, if you want to look at a country’s future, look at what’s going on in the classrooms, and you’ll get a great snapshot. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, that’s good! And I’ll tell you, it’s good to really have a wake-up call, it’s good to step back and think about it and take a good look. We’re grateful for our 20 grandchildren, it’s interesting as a grandparent, at this point, and I still feel plenty young. 


Teru Clavel: Yeah, yeah. 


Steve Shallenberger: And teaming up with my parents and then, you’re right with the school system. I mean, this is a community effort, but there’s just no dodging the responsibility we all have, and to try to help those that don’t have it, but we have two of our grandchildren, who have a Japanese background, I might add, live locally, both have been in Chinese immersion for eight years now. It has had such an impact! I mean, they just see everything so differently. They see the world differently, and it just really underscores this, how important it is, and 20 years ago, when three of our six children were younger, we lived in Madrid, Spain for three years and had a similar experience. So, to be able to have this contrast and this globalization of helping our kids see this picture on a broader basis is so important, so I’m glad that you’re addressing it and bringing it up. Good going! 


Teru Clavel: Thank you, I hope it’s effective! 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, I think it is good to talk about it. Well, time is running out fast – I have just a couple of final questions here. What is, from your perspective, Teru, the single most important thing parents and teachers can take away from your book, “World Class”? 


Teru Clavel: I would say we have to shift our thinking and prioritize our children and their education levels and dig a little deeper and figure out, as our children’s academic scores go down, their anxiety levels are increasing, and the suicide rate is not only increasing, but it’s starting at a younger age. We have all kinds of issues that our children are dealing with. A lot of them don’t feel safe in their classrooms, right? They practice lockdown drills now, it’s not just a fire drill, like when we were growing up. What I want listeners to hear – and I talk about this in “World Class” – is to figure out practices and what we as adults are doing to create this country and these classrooms, that are negatively affecting our kids. Because we are creating this, we are responsible, and we have to think about the future of our country, and the future of our kids if they’re feeling unsafe. And it has to do with parents, we have to take responsibility for it, and we’re the only ones who can shift this dynamic. So I guess, if there’s two words, I would say, “Dig deep!” 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, dig deep. And any final tips you’d like to leave our listeners with, today? 


Teru Clavel: I would say I love having these discussions about education, please talk to everybody about it. Pick up “World Class” – it’s a book that talks about all these things – and sometimes it’s hard for parents to want to figure out if they can shift in their parenting and education styles and their thinking, but I will say it’s never too late, please pick up “World Class” and if you do, I hold your hand and talk through this really hard parenting and education decisions and be in touch with me. I offer coaching, individual counseling, a webinar, and I speak to schools and groups of parents and educators and to students as well. I think we have to be critical in our thinking and let’s try to make a positive change! I hope we can start with “World class”! Read my book, please, and reach out and talk to me. 


Steve Shallenberger: Sounds great! How can they find out about it? Where can they find it? 


Teru Clavel: So, please come to my website, it’s and I’m on social media, please reach out to me via Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Have these conversations. I have a Youtube channel as well, with some of my work, but yeah, stay in touch, please! 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. Well, I’ve been listening to Teru here, especially at the end and thinking about this and the challenges that there are in our education – I remember being in sixth grade, standing in line for lunch, we were in the middle of the Cold War. And so, our exercises were in the event of an atomic bomb siren going off – we had drills of what to do. So I was just thinking about this, there’s great hope for the future, and for the world. We just can’t give up! We need to keep trying. We just can’t say, “I can’t do anything about it.” And maybe that’s the message of your book, is that you can do something about it and that it’s important to have this hopeful attitude, this hopeful spirit because we believe the best is in front of us, for our country and for the world, generally – we’re not in this alone, right? 


Teru Clavel: Yeah, it’s a great point. It’s a great point about the drills you had during the Cold War, but I also feel like we were united as a country, at that time, as well. Right now, I hope that we can come together more as a country and have civil civic discourse and dialogue where we can really empathetically and kindly listen to differing opinions, instead of being internally combative the way it feels right now, and that definitely has an impact on our kids that we have to consider. 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I totally agree. And I would like to just suggest there’s great hope for the future as we work on these things. So, thank you, Teru, for being part of this show today. It’s been such an interesting insight and very helpful. And to our listeners, this whole spirit of becoming your best, that’s what we’re talking about today. It’s not until people really say to themselves, “How can we be our best? The very best we can be?” that allows us to search for new ways, and we would suggest that as answers come and as you go through this process, what happens is you become better, and your family does, and your relationships, and the organizations you’re associated with. And the bottom line is, if we do this, we create a better world. So, we’re honored to each of our listeners to be here today. Thanks again Teru, for joining us! 


Teru Clavel: Thank you so much for having me, Steve! 


Steve Shallenberger: You bet! This is Steve Shallenberger, with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day! 


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