The power of expectations (South Korea) - 3

In part 1, I wrote about a day in the life of Ha-joon Pak to get a sense of the kind of expectations that adults and the education system in South Korea set for children.

In part 2, I built on the idea of expectations by connecting what I had read in Ripley's book to my childhood experiences. I tried to gauge the impact that my parents' and teachers' expectations had on the way I think and approach life to this date.

How did I see the role of expectations shape the mindsets and behaviours of the students that I taught? Was there a connection between expectations and how children approached school and learning?

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

A note to the reader - Most children in India spend a majority of time in their homes and neighbourhoods when compared to school. So, the focus in this post is on the effect of expectations, that parents and families/communities set for children, on their outlook towards school and learning.

Names have been changed to maintain anonymity. Situations are authentic and based on my first-hand experiences as a teacher and the home visits that I did during the fellowship.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Tina would wake up at 5 AM to clean the one-bedroom house in which she lived with her grandmother, parents and brothers. Thereafter, she would juggle helping her mother cook, packing the lunch boxes and getting herself ready for school. Thankfully, it was a short walk away...

At school, Tina was a model student who I could blindly trust to give her best. She was always willing to help her classmates - for instance, she worked tirelessly with one of the toughest boys throughout the year so that he would study rather than disrupt the class. Her attendance was exemplary and her thirst for learning, unquenchable. Coupling these qualities with her sunny demeanour and ready smile made Tina a joy to teach! 😄

By the final bell at 12:30 PM, when most teachers and students simply wanted to get home to a hot lunch, I would see Tina, along with some of her friends, waiting outside the door of the room in which I took extra classes (linked). For the next couple of hours or so, we'd work on math and English to supplement the limited time that I got with them during regular school hours.

At the end of extra class, either Tina's mother or father (if he was in town - he drove large commercial vehicles for a living) would come to pick her up. They usually spoke to me about Tina's progress and were always grateful that I was taking out time for extra classes. 😀 Her parents were invested in her learning, would call me if they had doubts and never missed a parent-teacher meeting.

Expectations: (i) Tina's parents expected her to help out with household chores. She did this without complaining, took it as her responsibility and balanced it with her schoolwork. (ii) Both her parents valued school and wanted Tina to study hard and learn. This reflected strongly in Tina's approach to and behaviour in school.

My main learning: Regardless of economic and domestic challenges, having parents who supported and held their child to high expectations was instrumental in deciding their child's mindsets. These expectations could even tide over such challenges and lead to remarkable results at school. As a teacher, this was very encouraging! 😃

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Manish was like Tina - always eager to learn, punctual, regular to school, an enthusiasm for extra classes that rivalled (sometimes exceeded!) my own and a cheerful smile (although his had a streak of mischief that was absent in Tina's innocent one!). Both of them lived in the same neighbourhood and their families knew one another. Manish's mother believed in the importance of learning and school. When time permitted, she would come to pick him up after school and have a word with me on his schoolwork. Manish adored his mother and would do anything to make her happy! 😀

However, in one key aspect, their lives were like chalk and cheese.

Manish's father was an alcoholic who would frequently lash out at him in one of his drunken stupors. Conditions at home were immensely difficult as he did not have a steady job. Manish's mother worked as a domestic help to make ends meet but that was barely enough to sustain the family. Consequently, Manish preferred spending time outside his house, hanging out with friends near school or in his locality once we were done with extra class.

Expectation: Manish's mother wanted him to take school seriously and excel in academics.

My main learning: Having even one parent who valued learning was sometimes enough to positively impact the child's approach to school and academics. Again, encouraging for me as a teacher!

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Unlike Tina and Manish, Pratham lived in an old spacious bungalow with his parents and younger siblings. Both parents doted over their eldest son and pampered him with possessions. They indulged him when he behaved rudely or fought with other children and believed that 'boys will be boys'. Pratham's younger brother, who studied at the same school, looked up to him, copied his mannerisms and, as a result, turned into a spoiled child too. 😞

When Pratham got home, he would spend hours roaming around in his neighbourhood with questionable company. Bad language and habits slowly became a part of his personality. A book was something to be picked up only when exams were approaching.

Expectations: (i) Neither of Pratham's parents stressed on him needing to study and learn at school. During the parent-teacher meetings, they conveyed to me that they were satisfied if he passed and were not concerned with the details of his performance. Pratham was well aware of this low bar. (ii) Frequent misbehaviour was considered to be a natural part of growing up.

My main learning: Having parents who were too easy-going with regards to school and academics could negatively impact a child's attitude towards learning even if the family did not face any domestic or economic hardships.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Meera and Tina were good friends who would spend time together whenever Meera decided to come to school.

Yes, you read that right...

Meera's name in my attendance register had far more red As (absent) than blue Ps (present). It was no wonder that she was well behind her peers; there was zero continuity in her concepts and learning. Phone calls home were usually met with a variety of excuses from her parents and/or grandparents. Home visits in which I discussed what we were doing in school and why it was crucial that Meera attend led to promises and her appearing in school for some days before falling back into old habits.

As her teacher, it was a frustrating struggle for me and I frankly gave up after the calls and visits proved futile in the long run. With 40 other students in my care, there was a limited amount of energy that I could invest in each child.

At the other end of the spectrum, Raghav (who was Pratham's best friend) would be at school whether it was steaming hot or pouring with rain outside. His mother was a single parent who worked two jobs to run the house; she epitomised the word 'supermom' and was one of the parents who I admired and respected the most. Raghav was always well groomed and any absences (which were rare) were accompanied with genuine reasons. Raghav's mother regularly came to school to inquire about his studies and would be among the first parents to come for parent-teacher meetings.

Expectations: (i) Attending school wasn't given much importance in Meera's home. (ii) On the other hand, Raghav's mother gave importance to attending school while she herself was present at all parent-teacher meetings.

My main learning: Something like attending school (which we may take as a given) is also driven by expectations. If parents don't drive home the importance of learning and cultivate the habit of waking up on time, getting ready and going to school, then the child's will/motivation to attend school can be negatively impacted.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

Suhani started online math classes with me when she entered grade 10. She liked the subject but lacked confidence in her ability to solve questions - especially unfamiliar ones.

The mutual understanding between Suhani, her mother and I was that Suhani would drive the lessons by suggesting topics she wanted to cover/revise and provide details to help me plan the lessons. We had a two-hour session each week and, at the end of the class, I would assign homework which we would discuss at the beginning of the next class. It was expected, from both Suhani's mother and I, that Suhani would come prepared for class and complete homework as the problems were carefully chosen and linked one session with the next.

Unlike the first five children (Tina, Manish, Pratham, Meera and Raghav), I had never met Suhani or her mother in person as we were based in different cities - our interactions were restricted to messages, phone calls and the weekly sessions.

Despite the distance barrier and the fluctuating internet speeds in India, Suhani and I had regular classes together for over 3 years until she went to college. She was sincere, consistent and made efforts to grasp concepts rather than resort to rote learning. She informed me, well in advance, about topics and if sessions needed to be cancelled or rescheduled. At the end, she achieved the highest possible grade on her grade 12 math board examination. 😀

Expectations: (i) While I set clear expectations with Suhani, this was supported by her mother making sure that Suhani would attend class on time and come prepared for each session. (ii) Her mother expected Suhani to proactively communicate during and outside class to make the best use of the personalised lessons.

My main learning: Regardless of physical and technical barriers to building relationships and limited time, if a parent and child are truly invested in learning, then they will partner with the teacher to create a win-win-win situation for all!

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

A child's attitude/mindset (towards anything and not restricted to school or learning) is like a simmering, piquant Indian curry - a variety of ingredients blending together to create a dish that is ever evolving with each new ingredient. The expectations that adults have of children is one ingredient; however, I posit that it is one of the most vital ingredients in the mix. Its positive presence can add a rich flavour while its absence (or lacklustre presence) can either render the dish bland or spoil it altogether!

My goal, through these three posts, was to throw light on how powerful and influential the expectations that adults hold for children can be. I acknowledge that the above vignettes are illustrative at best and don't constitute a rigorous or scientific analysis of the role of adult expectations in how children approach learning and school. There are points that haven't been considered such as parents having high expectations but their children not caring much, parents without much expectations but their children being deeply interested in learning, the 'nature vs nurture' debate, children's temperaments etc. This was intentional on my part as these would have required a comprehensive analysis of the child, his/her family and background, his/her friends, social/cultural factors - in essence, the other 'ingredients'. To perform such an analysis, I would have had to move outside the canvas of expectations and beyond the scope of this piece.


  1. Thank you so much for letting me read this post bhaiya. First of all I am in awe of your vocabulary. Through this post I came across multiple words which I read for the first time. Also all the 6 stories were very interesting to read and specifically talking about I loved Suhani's passion towards learning. Learning online 3 years twice a week is not easy. :-)

    1. Thank you for praising my vocabulary, Adnan - as your former English teacher, I am glad that you learned some new words! :-)

      Yes, Suhani was a really dedicated student and is now heading to a college of her choice for undergraduate studies!

  2. Loved the 3 part series Shreyas! There is a lot of criticism about the Tiger Parenting prevalent in East/South-East Asian countries (of which the high academic expectations are a part). But your overarching point of the series that high expectations complemented with support from family and surroundings can be good is insightful.
    I love how perceptive your blog posts are based on your personal experiences. I envy all your students because you're such a great teacher man :)

    I'm sharing a blog post on Chinese education system that I found quite interesting. I think you might too.

    1. Hi Yathish,

      Yeah, the criticism about tiger parenting is something I first heard about when preparing a presentation in 2013 on the PISA 2012 results of Shanghai. There is a fair amount of controversy around those results - see this link (

      Thanks for the praise man... It is a conscious decision from my side to ground my posts in my experiences. :-)

      Besides complementing high expectations with family and environment support, I believe it is important to not have these expectations weigh children down to the point that their childhood is miserable. There should be a basis to these expectations too. :-)

  3. My comments might feel out-of-the-place here... Especially in the context of 'smartest' kids'. I am desparately tring to move to the place called 'the happy kids' (not 'happiest' mind you... because then again it sounds like a competition). I am not fully sure about when and how.. I am also not sure if this is going against where is the world is moving.. May be its my age (wink wink) .. or just a phase of life... But I m currently wondering and seriously trying to work at creating 'happy individuals' , kids included...
    I know the context of these articles is very different from what I am saying. My purpose was not to dilute what you are trying say... Its just that I am having hard time working within these frameworks (I am also teaching part-time)

    1. I value such comments/insights and they definitely do not dilute what I'm trying to say here!

      Personally, I too do not like labelling kids as 'smart' (or 'smartest') - however, that is the title of Ripley's book and I can't change that! :-) These posts focused on expectations and, in part 1, I have shared how exhausting it can be to try and live up to expectations in systems where rewards are few/rare and disappointments are many.

      In part 2, I wrote "Students seemed to be surviving and succeeding in this harsh system on the strength of their character and the high expectations that were set for them and not because the educational system itself was conducive to success." and this is the crux that I built upon in part 3 - the role that adult expectations has on children and the responsibility that that puts on adults.

      So, for example, if you want your students to be happy and your words/actions reinforce that view, then your students will pick up on that being your expectation of them. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with that. Different communities have different expectations for their children (and other members) and one has to accept that.

      Also, on a lighter note, who knows where the world is moving?! Going against that tide may actually be a good thing... :-)

    2. Amen to that.. also, tk each his/her own... One thing is irrefutable though is every choice comes with a price. As long as we bear that in mind, we should be good


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