Tuition In Singapore: A Different Perspective

By Darrell Tan

My parents and I were featured in the Sunday Times on the 21st of December 2014. Asiaone placed the article online: Learning and teaching together

While the article spoke about rather straightforward issues such as the fear of failure embedded in the minds of Singaporean students, reasons why we set up Edhome Learning Centre and how we worked together to set up this tuition business, it left out my responses to the tough questions the reporter posed.She asked why I left the service if I had a passion for teaching, whether I was adding to the pressure that students faced by contributing to this “tuition culture” in Singapore and how I felt about our education scene and the tuition industry. My response to these questions left me rather concerned about how controversial the article might have turned out, and while I do appreciate how the article was positively written and how my family was accurately portrayed concerning our values and beliefs, I feel compelled to speak up in with my response to the tough questions raised during the interview and other pertinent issues that have been deeply bothering me because of how one-sided the portrayals have been on tuition and education.

In recent years, the impressions of the tuition industry have been more negative than positive. A reported 1 billion dollars spent on tuition per year, a feature of super-tutors and subsequent reports on how much certain tutors earn seemed to add up to a conclusion that private tuition is just a profit-making industry. Tuition has also been reported to perpetuate a “kiasu culture” in Singapore, adding to competition and the resultant stress heaped on our youth.Among these reports on tuition as a social phenomenon are the occasional reports on errant tutors falsifying qualifications and making false promises leading to the public and even MPs demanding for more scrutiny on the industry.

Why teachers leave to become tutors

Let me deal with the first hard issue. Why do good teachers leave the service if they claim “teaching is their calling”?

Definitely, there are teachers who feel underpaid and leave, thinking that becoming a tutor would earn them more money(which really isn’t necessarily true). I am not speaking for these ex-teachers;neither do I think they ought to be viewed negatively. Reality is that many teachers are in the service because teaching makes a good and stable first job and they are able to deliver decent lessons. If money and a better life serve as reasons for leaving, it’s basically the same as anyone in any profession leaving because the grass is greener on the other side. I speak up in this open letter on behalf of teachers who genuinely love to teach - teachers who genuinely feel they’re “called” to teach, those who speak of young people with passion, care and concern - who move to become tutors. When we leave the service and end up in the tuition industry, it is with huge reluctance and much sadness that we leave, and it is not because of the money.

Firstly, even these passionate teachers get disillusioned. Don’t get me wrong! We aren’t disillusioned with educating our youth, definitely not with the classroom (it’s probably what we love the MOST) and probably not even the “admin” that most teachers speak of (though it really is heavy). We are disillusioned with obstacles that lie in the way of real education –education that works, education that produces results AND at the same time develops character, encourages meaningful relationships and lead to real success (contentment and happiness!)down the road. Often times, this might be the result of circumstances within the school they are in – departments comfortable with keeping the norm, leaders who undermine the enthusiasm of young teachers, superiors who breathe down their necks and restrict creativity (and potential) or simply, injustice,politics or nasty people.

Sometimes, it is the result of human weakness. It takes two hands to clap and these passionate, caring, good teachers make mistakes. We step on toes in the process of trying to achieve the best for students. We ruffle (old) feathers, and find ourselves in unnecessary conflicts with our counterparts we take absolutely no delight in. No one is perfect,and as a testimony to that, I made a few very stupid mistakes in my dealings with my colleagues and superiors in a bid to bash through walls of tradition and comfort zones to implement what I felt would really help students to learn and grow. This whole effort to help young people grow and succeed can actually blind teachers to the fact that colleagues (teachers), superiors (SHs and HODs) and even principals need to learn and grow, and that takes time. It blinded me for awhile until I was able to step back and evaluate where I went wrong, after I left the service (unfortunately).

So yes, those moments of anger, frustration and weakness do result in good teachers leaving, and what better job to leave to, then to tutoring. My point here, is that yes, these teachers do leave because of circumstances at that point of time, but their hearts have never abandoned that desire to nurture and guide students to the best of their ability and we enter into tutoring,desiring to do just that. But what pains my heart to observe, is how we are no longer viewed as educators with a sincere desire to impact and nurture young lives, but instead, as profiteering individuals sometimes representing a profit-driven organization. I suppose, with huge tuition companies setting up multiple branches and attracting millions of dollars in investments, tutors are automatically associated with wanting to have a piece of the billion dollar pie.

The cost of Tuition

People forget that tutors need to survive. We too, suffer from a high cost of living and for those who own a small tuition centre like me, the overheads are high and we are struggling to cover cost. We cannot help but charge for classes. The windows for lessons are so limited, usually to evenings, or weekends. In addition, tutors - the ones whose heart have never left the ‘classrooms’, will not spend merely 1.5 to 2 hours on a class. Along with some tutors (I’m sure they exist), I’ve spent hours reading through materials from various schools and learning centres, gathering what works best, putting them together with the methods I find the most useful and packaging them into fresh notes. That is followed by doing up presentations and continual contemplation over what OTHER approaches or teaching methods would best benefit my students. “Rehearsals” for the delivery of these lessons take place while I’m driving, or even as I lie on my bed at night, to ensure that the lesson is well understood and engagingly delivered. Why does tuition seem to cost $200-300 for mere 8 hours of group tuition or up to $100+ per hour for 1 to 1 tuition? Ideally because so much more is done behind the scenes to make sure the child receives the best in that1.5 to 2 hours a week. That is not considering the hours spent thereafter marking work, giving feedback or lessons specially crafted for students of those 1 to 1assignments.

Scrutiny of the Tuition Industry

This inevitably brings me to how parents and students need to know what they’re paying for. Parents and students need to understand what is being done IN a tuition class, talk to the tutors at length, or even request to sit in to observe for part of a lesson. I know of tutors who would charge high prices just to get tutees to do work on the spot and ask them questions. I was shocked when my students told me that that was being done, and that several tutors do just that.Further, there are many tutors as well, who would work for a centre, and basically deliver a lesson based on the curriculum the centre provides. There is sometimes no real understanding of the lesson they are delivering and hence,effectiveness of those lessons is compromised. In fact, that is how many schoolteachers function – deliver a lesson found in the department folder or get students to ‘do work in class and ask questions when they need to’.

Good teachers, in or out of the government service, in the school classrooms or intuition centres, will possess a deep understanding of the lessons delivered and endeavor to do so in the best possible way. Most of the time, if not all, these teachers will repackage curriculum to improve it, and fit it to their styles of delivery according to the profiles of their students. That is what all teachers and tutors should try their best to do regardless of experience or position. That has to be what parents are paying for in tuition – a good lesson, created with commitment, and delivered with heart. Only THAT justifies the prices they are paying for what seems like a mere 1.5 to 2hours of class time.

That is why I feel there is value in signing your child up with smaller learning centres or private tutors. These tutors will not be able to hide behind popular brand names. The good and committed ones won’t bother hiding! If there is any closer scrutiny of the tuition industry, it has to be done by parents and students, and not the government. More ‘scrutiny’ by the authorities will only mean more paper work and red tape. Errant tutors will always have means to bypass these restrictions and along the way, good tutors suffer from the increased administrative load.

Tuition and ‘Stress’

Moving on, good tutors are not necessarily miracle workers. All these promises of guaranteed results are often just marketing gimmicks and should not be the main focus. For every A1 or A star produced, another tutee probably got a B or a C. What is put up as marketing material is often selective and must be taken with a pinch of salt. An excellent lesson may result in students understanding those particular concepts taught within that particular lesson. But a passionate and committed tutor does more than that. Students potentially come out of lessons encouraged, motivated and determined to achieve much more on their own, on top of understanding what was taught.

On a side note, I believe students should not be forced to attend tuition, especially if they insist it is not of use. It is tough enough for young people to spend mandatory hours in school for half a day, 5 days a week. It is harder for them to drag their feet into yet another classroom (where some disinterested tutors teach on monotonously). Tuition under these circumstances will only lead to more stress, fatigue and wasted time and money. It is fair however, for students’ to be encouraged to give tuition classes a try to see if it works for them. I have personally seen how tuition reduces stress rather than contributes to it. I have also seen students find a joy in learning instead of doing so just for results, purely because of tuition.

This brings me to the ‘student’ part of things. Where does stress come from? Many students try so hard in class but they don’t ‘get it’. Sometimes, teachers in class just don’t care and students are made to struggle on their own. These teachers exist! There is no point denying it. Teachers all possess different capacities, and sometimes, they CAN’T care because of so much on their plate,and students suffer as a result. Often times, many teachers genuinely care and try very hard, but no matter how much they try, students don’t seem to take to their teaching methods very well, and no matter the hours of consultation,students still don’t get it, and they struggle. I’ve noticed how these students actually appreciate their teachers’ efforts, but they are usually resigned to how they are unable to understand what is going on in class.

Teachers themselves are sometimes blinded by egos. What happens if a student looks for another teacher, does that mean you’re not good enough? Isn’t education meant to be open? Shouldn’t students be able to seek help from any teacher? It may sometimes just be that a fellow teacher explains a certain topic better than another. Both teachers may be good! What happens then, if students attend tuition? Do teachers then feel they are not good enough? Why can’t we be more open and acknowledge that everyone can potentially work together to help these young people?

Many a times, students attend tuition and find that something clicks and everything suddenly makes sense. That in itself is extremely stress-relieving. Sometimes,students find suitable approaches to problem-solving because tutors have more time to specially craft lessons that suit their learning styles and profiles.That gives students the confidence to learn on in school. For languages and humanities, tutors are sometimes able to inject life and creative juices into the way students may pen essays and responses to open-ended questions as opposed to how most students in schools subscribe pretty much to a fixed way of doing things when we know “there isn’t a ‘correct’ structure to writing an argumentative essay” (for example).

When a student discovers how his individuality and uniqueness (in writing) helps him to glow among standard essay responses,he is motivated to exercise more creativity in his work. For subjects like Literature, English Language and General Paper, tutors can offer different perspectives to current affairs and global issues from those of their schoolteachers, broadening students’ views and creating fresh interest. I also understand from my friends who teach Mathematics that sometimes, solving a difficult question comes down to looking at the sum from a different perspective, or using a different framework. That alternative approach or angle may very well come from a tutor.

Working together: parents, teachers, students and tutors

Let’s credit anything or anyone who helps young people learn better, more enthusiastically and more happily. It always seems as though tuition is something in excess,something more, and something that is an added burden to the already heavy academic load. Can’t tutors be seen as concerned stakeholders alongside parents, teachers and the student themselves instead of being perceived as‘extra’ or someone opportunistic and eager to make money from students in need or desperate parents? Perhaps then, tuition wouldn’t be seen as ‘added pressure’. When and if we recognize the ways to which good tuition can unlock or broaden minds, inspire or encourage hearts, then perhaps we would be able to see how tuition can potentially relieve stress instead.

All that huge potential that tuition has to impact lives starts with tutors doing their very best. In this dynamically changing society, tutors need to commit themselves to continually upgrading their knowledge sets, reading up new materials from schools and other learning centres, mingling with young people to know them well, and adapting their teaching methods to our changing youngsters. Perhaps the Ministry should conduct workshops to update tutors with new curriculum or assist in helping us grow and become better educators too.The time and effort tutors put in needs to justify the cost of the lessons. Tuition is not meant to be an easy job, or an easy way out to a good life. Sadly speaking, there will always be tutors out there in it purely for the money. That’s where parents and students need their right and spend effort to find out more, to have in-depth conversations with tutors, to find out their ideas, beliefs and motivations, to get to know them. Likewise, the huge and branded tuition centres with their multiple branches are here to stay, and they will mostly be run like a business. As much as possible, Tutors should not be allowed to hide behind brand names. Request to sit in to classes. Speak to these tutors (some who have never been teachers but may not necessarily be bad tutors), understand them, make sure your child is not attending an ‘extra’ lesson, but a lesson that will potentially add as much value or more than classes in school. More importantly, observe if your child grows in character and values after attending these tuition classes.

There are so many stereotypes and false impressions of the tuition industry that have shaped parents’ and students’ attitudes towards tutors and tuition. My hope is that parents, students and the public-at-large will step back and reevaluate these generalizations. It is important to remember that many tutors out there are still devoted teachers at heart and are not just profiteering ex-teachers. The“extra lessons” that we are excited to deliver are potentially able to impact the lives of students, just as powerfully as teacher can in the classroom, and may very well reduce students’ stress instead of adding to their burdens. While these lessons come at a ‘price’, look beyond the dollars and cents to understand the work and heart that goes into the two hours of tuition help that a young person receives.

Finally, I hope this open letter encourages committed-teachers-turn-tutors out there to persevere and continue doing their best for young people. It is still a process of growth for many of us, so let us continue to learn from one another instead of viewing each other as mere competition. There are several successful tutor-mentors we can all learn from, and perhaps it is just about that small step we should take to ask. And to those dollar-focused tutors or tuition businesses, I think it’s time to reflect and rethink motivations. The education industry is unlike any other. There are young lives at stake, and it cannot just be about the money.

This open letter was first published over at Darrell Tan's FaceBook wall on 18 January 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


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