Perspectives From A Private Tutor

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Source credit: Edvantage
This article was initially published anonymously on The Kent Ridge Common

In July, Kelvin Ong Wee Loong, a private tutor, was severely criticised for claiming to be able to help students get into the Gifted Education Program (GEP). His claims of being an ex-GEP student, an ex-GEP teacher, a Nanyang Polytechnic trained physiotherapist, a NUS ‘double math major’ graduate and a NIE post-graduate diploma holder are all false. Yet, for many years, his scam was not discovered and he made money off parents who were determined to ensure that their students were well-prepared for the national exams.

This incident reflects the tuition obsession in Singapore, with parents shelling up to $6000 per month for lessons outside the school and families queuing to take entrance exams to qualify for popular tuition centers.

So why is there this obsession with tuition?

Public vs Private Education

Some school teachers find the reliance of some students on private tuition shocking. They fall asleep in class because their private tutors will review the topics with them anyway. They do not even attempt their homework, preferring to go through it with their tutors instead. One private tutor says that his student even asked him to write an English essay for him to copy before handing it in! This unhealthy reliance on private tuition has caused some teachers to wonder if the public education is too cheap, thereby causing parents (and the society at large) to take it for granted.

A private tutor, with ex-teachers as colleagues, suggests that the reason for such a robust tuition industry is because some current teachers are not experienced enough and their students have to seek help privately. She was told that there is a disproportionate number of teachers who are either younger (as they are bonded to the Ministry of Education) or older (as they are awaiting their pensions). According to her, middle-aged teachers with experience are leaving the workforce for alternative jobs, leading to a smaller core of skilled teachers.

Another private tutor suggests that tuition centers can guarantee As while public schools cannot. She frankly admits that the upmarket tuition center she is working for ‘sincerely wants their students to score distinctions’. The tuition center, in her eyes, is like a factory – students come in with Cs and Bs, and leave with strings of As.

Another factor why private tuition has become an obsession is because it can be easily quantified by numbers. It has become something to be compared and measured against. “My son has ten hours of tuition per week.” “So? Mine has twelve hours and the tuition costs me $3000!” “Right. Mine costs me $3500.” The numbers seem to hover continuously on some parents’ lips, always threatening to spill out.
Whatever the causes and reasons, the private tuition industry is expanding at an unprecedented rate. This proliferating industry reminds me of a Chinese proverb - 拔苗助长.

拔苗助 bá miáo zhù zhǎng

Once upon a time, there lived an impatient farmer. Every day, he would visit his field of saplings, anxious for them to grow. One day, he came up with a “good” idea. He decided to help his plants to grow by pulling them up. And so, he toiled to pull each sapling up. The field of taller saplings gave him a sense of satisfaction. The next day, these saplings died.

This Chinese proverb warns of the danger of artificially accelerating growth.

Nowadays, people force their children to learn topics way too advanced for their ages. Take, for example, the mathematical topic on solving simultaneous equations. This topic is supposed to be in the Secondary Two Mathematics syllabus. Some tuition centers are teaching it to Primary Four students! My Primary Three cousin already knows how to solve simultaneous equations and can remember the photosynthesis equation (which I only learnt in Secondary One).

While some students are coping admirably with such advanced topics, it seems unhealthy that they are learning these topics in anticipation of national examinations that they will only take a number of years later.

时了了,大未必佳 xiǎo shí liǎo liǎo dà weì bì jiā

Another Chinese proverb is illuminating. 小时了了, 大未必佳 suggests that children who are brilliant when they are young may not turn out to be equally so when they are older. The converse is true as well; there are always late bloomers among us and there are many noteworthy exemplars of such late bloomers.
A close friend shares her personal views:
It seems best for the child to show some promise when they are young. Not totally fulfill their potential. Just fulfill part of it. We shouldn’t offer them incredibly difficult tests that they can score well in for it creates a misplaced sense of complacency. Where else can they reach if they think that they’ve already reached their peaks?
Some families are understandably determined to give their children a head start in life, perhaps to the extent that they forget a head start is just part of the journey and not the entire journey itself.

So, What Do Students Need?

I’ve been a private tutor for the past three years and have guided students from both very well-off and fairly needy families. Over these years, I noticed some similarities between students from such diverse socio-economic groups.

Yes, it’s true that students need someone to clarify questions that they may have. In this way, private tuition may actually help some to score better grades. But, most of the time, tuition isn’t required. Most students only need someone to sit beside them and watch them study. Tutors are simply paid companions who spend a fair amount of time watching their students as they write their essays or attempt their equations or memorise their facts. Anyone can do this.

What most students really need is what many of us really need. They starve for people who are willing to listen to them and guide them along. My friend wryly comments that these students require nannies, not private tutors.

Some personal experiences

The reason why students don’t do well goes beyond fearful teachers and an unimaginative public education system. It goes down to what happen (or doesn’t happen) at home.

It has been frustrating to tutor students with well-educated parents. I’ve tutored a child whose father owns a company and mother is a doctor. Her parents are ex-Rafflesians with NUS degrees. They are busy and important people, no doubt, but in my opinion, they could afford to guide her more in her studies. They pay me to do it instead.

Her parents quarrel regularly and sometimes threaten each other with divorce. I know this because they frequently have screaming matches during the tuition sessions. This poor child doesn’t need tuition. She needs to be shown concern and care. She doesn’t need a tutor who meets up with her once a week to listen to her because he is paid to do so.  And she doesn’t need parents who quarrel in front of this hired stranger.

I’ve also tutored a few children from rather poor families. They struggle to earn money for transport and food. Yet, they insist on having tuition because they believe that education is a social leveler and can open doors for them. (I had wanted to tutor them for free but a social worker reminded me that this might create a sense of entitlement, cause damage to their pride and open a floodgate of requests. To assuage my guilt, I charge them much less than what I would charge rich families.)

These less well-off families should spend their money in other ways, not on private tutors, especially since textbooks, school teachers and the Internet can do what private tutors do.

The reason for students’ lackluster academic performances goes deeper than the flaws in the public education system. It depends greatly on the environment in which the students are brought up.

The Price of Tuition

Giving tuition is a lucrative business. The market forces have somehow decided to overpay tutors. They receive fat paychecks for spending the bulk of their time sitting around, doing nothing. Very few jobs offer such rich dividends (for such low risk).  To be honest, I've been in groups of private tutors which discuss how best to ask for more money from tutoring even when such pay rises are undeserved. In fact, I know of a private undergraduate tutor who earns around $1000 per month simply by giving 8 hours of tuition per week.

And the barrier to entry is low – almost anyone can be a private tutor because it is so easy to be one. Almost every university undergraduate has been and still is a private tutor. It is also easy to set up tuition centers. Just take a stroll within any shopping center and count the number of tuition centers there are.
It is for these reasons that the quality of tutoring varies greatly. Most tutors, in my opinion, are in it just for the money. But, if we don’t send our children to such tuition classes, what else can we do?

Suggestions

Some parents have called for regulation of the tuition industry by the Ministry of Education. This suggestion, unfortunately, does not solve the problem. Tutors are human beings guiding other human beings. In this regard, an A-level graduate can be equally, if not more, skillful than a graduate holding two Masters degrees. This intangible capacity cannot be quantified and regulated.

I’ve been told of the numerous flaws in the current education system. Really, there are simply too many to recount in-depth. Regrettably, it takes time for the system to change and it takes effort for people to want to change it. Perhaps it’s easier to work within the system, to find out ways to negotiate within it.
Here is an alternative to the numerous expensive tuition classes: parents can sit beside their children and supervise them. (Yes, I understand that parents are really busy but, surely, they can sit by their children, at night and on weekends, to do their own work and interact with their children every now and then.) They can ensure that their children study and advise them to mark down any challenges they encounter. These challenges can then be dealt with by reference to their school teachers or searching the Internet. This way, parents can easily half the number of hours of private tuition that their children take. Dr Petunia Lee’s book on motivating children to study, Internal Drive Theory, is an interesting exploration in this field.

I’ve some practical advice for students who wish to improve academically without paying heavy tuition fees.
1)      Read your textbooks, seriously, and download the syllabuses from the MOE website. Read the school notes from the better schools. I remember my school teacher telling me that 80% of the students don’t read their textbooks and don’t know their exam syllabuses. So, is it surprising that 80% don’t score As?
2)      Do some past year papers. With this, it’s sufficient to score decent grades, really. There’s no need to play games with the education system and attempt impossible papers conceived by schools desperate to maintain their reputation.
3)      Use your time in the classroom wisely. I don’t really pay attention during lessons. I’ll read my textbooks and practice past year papers. School’s a place to socialize and acquire soft skills. It really isn’t a place to listen to teachers, especially since they’re trying to cater to forty different students with one teaching method within two hours. Take any chance to ask your teachers questions that you’ve encountered in your self-study and save up on the private tuition fees!
4)      Acquire positive study habits.  Read books such as I’m Gifted so Are You by Adam Khoo and Being a Happy Teenager by Andrew Mattews. Learn to be self-disciplined and, over time, this discipline will bear sweet fruits.
Conclusion

One friend recently suggested that I abandon my Honours degree to become a full time tutor. He further advised me not to write this article because the current situation favors me, a private tutor who receives and turns down tuition offers frequently. I argued with him about how wrong this entire situation is and why tuition shouldn’t be seen as a necessity; unfortunately, this argument only produced useless repartees.

My elder brother also tried to convince me to be one of those star tutors who charge a few hundred dollars per hour. The resulting disagreement was vigorous. He told me that I could learn from tutors who charge ridiculously high prices because they were probably better tutors. What? Higher prices = better tutors? In the end, he called me an ‘inflexible bore’ (or something similar).

I know that this article may seem a little hypocritical, especially since I’ve admitted that I’m a private tutor. I also acknowledge that there’re extremely dedicated and experienced private tutors out there. However, I maintain that students do not need private tuition to do well academically. By all means, take tuition classes if there is a desire to and the family can afford it. But really, there is no need. Children should have less tuition classes simply because, most of the time, tuition just isn’t worth it.

There are so many other ways to score good grades. And what students really need is not an army of well-paid private tutors. What they need is an environment where they enjoy shelter, parental love and support. Parents, despite their busy schedules, ought to find more time to chat with their children and listen to their stories. This is a role that should not be outsourced to private tutors or school teachers.
I sincerely believe that an education is important – and that this education cannot come from private tutors.

Update on 9th September:
I'd like to clarify that this article is written based on my experiences of being a secondary school private tutor. Please read this reflective article by Petunia Lee, Why Tuition is Necessary in Primary School.

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