Tuition agencies are bad for us

Tuition agencies are bad for us. They are bad for the tuition ecosystem, they are bad for parents, they are bad for tutors. There are alternatives out there, and we should all be flocking to those alternatives rather than ensuring the continuing success of these tuition agencies.

(Tuition agencies are entities that offer matchmaking services for tutors, for a fee.)

Why tuition agencies are bad for parents

Parents can’t interview the tutors beforehand, can’t ask about their teaching methods, and can’t get a feel for whether the tutor would be a good match for their children. Tuition agencies are just interested in getting a match between the tutor and customer so that they can collect their fees. These agencies may boast that they have the best tutors in the world, but the best tutors in this island tend not to use tuition agencies anyway.

Dear parents, tuition agencies rarely interview us tutors. They just want to see if tutors are willing to teach, and they try to matchmake us. When I was just starting out as a tutor in 2003, I had a grand total of ONE tuition agency who grilled me about my qualifications and teaching methods. Wouldn’t you like to interview a tutor before you hire one?

Why tuition agencies are bad for tutors

Tuition agencies make tutors lazy. If, year to year, you are relying on agencies to ensure that you have students, you may want to examine how you’re going about doing things. If you’re a tutor and you’re reading this, listen to me. Do something else to ensure a steady stream of students.

You may want to have relief teaching stints every now and then so that you have access to a large pool of students who are already familiar with your teaching style. You may want to reach out to other tutors (who teach other subjects, of course) to recommend your services. You may want to set up a website, like me, aha! But please, stop relying on tuition agencies. Even if you ignore the lost income, you’re probably going to depress your own income in the long run, because of how agencies distort the market.

Tuition agencies do not encourage ‘high value’ tutors

Tuition agencies tend present tutors as equal substitutes for each other, which often means that the lowest priced tutor wins. This would be a good thing if tutors were truly equal. However, think about tutors in terms of value. Tutors should be offering, and parents should be demanding, the best value for their money. Often, the best teachers are not the ones who charge the lowest fees. The tutors who offer the most value are, in my estimation, those who offer group tuition classes at reasonable prices (like me, la!). Tuition agencies don’t promote value — they promote tutors who are cheap. They do this not because they are evil, but because they are responding to their customers (parents) who pressure them to lower prices.

Oh joy, there are alternatives!

Many tutors have their own websites. Look for them, contact them, and very often you’ll end up with a better tutor than what a tuition agency can supply. And yeah yeah, I’m about to promote the website that listed me as an expert tutor. The Domain of Experts. But hear me out, because what I’m about to present to you isn’t completely selfish.

Parents, this website allows you to contact tutors before you hire them. You can grill the potential tutor to your own satisfaction before you hire anyone. You can even grill a tutor for fun, but I won’t encourage that, ok? Tutors can get fierce too 😉

Tutors, if you want to get listed on the website, you have to make sure that you present yourself well. No longer can you be lazy and just go “oh, I have a degree, let’s do this!” You must be able to teach well, and you must be able to convince people of this.

I quote from their tutor submission guidelines (emphasis mine):
Note: High caliber part time tutors, as well as outstanding university graduates who previously studied in the local polytechnics or in junior colleges not mentioned above shall be considered on a case-by-case basis. Suitably qualified foreigners who have settled permanently in Singapore and till date sufficiently demonstrated expertise in professional tutoring will not be disregarded; however they shall be subjected to equally stringent screening.

If all the tutors in Singapore flocked to this website, many tuition agencies would go bust. True, it would mean that I’d be competing with many other tutors, but so be it. If it works for the country, it works for me. Ah, I’m hoping that happens.


Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

TUITION CENTRE OWNERS, TAKE NOTE. If you do this, you are losing potential profits.

Tuition centre owners, listen.. if you are greedy, you will lose profits.

By all means, take care of your bottom line. No one is asking us to sink to bankruptcy just to teach. However, if you are already making a healthy profit, don’t go all out to fleece your employees and customers just so that you can go for long holidays in the North Pole. Yes, there are bills to pay just because a tuition centre is a brick-and-mortar establishment. Pay them off, take care of yourself and your family, but take care of your employees and customers too.

In my experience, tuition centres pay their tutors pretty bad rates. This, to me, is inexplicable. Yep, I tried working with tuition centres for awhile, and while I had a fairly pleasant experience with the people I worked with, my experience seems to be atypical. I honestly wonder how people can work for S$30 an hour, for 1.5 hours, especially if they know that they are good teachers.

Let’s think of this with the bottom line in mind. Imagine a tuition centre that gets a good tutor, and pays him a low wage, making profits off him while word spreads about his teaching abilities. Perhaps he will stay till the end of the year out of a sense of duty to the students, but once the tuition centre loses the good tutor (who stays for low pay, right?), the tuition centre is at the mercy of the next tutor. Perhaps the next tutor will come into class hungover everyday (you pay peanuts, you get monkeys).

Let’s spell it out: parents will figure out that they aren’t getting value for their money, and the tuition centre might go bye-bye.

I’m not asking tuition centres to run themselves like a charity. I’m asking tuition centres to run themselves as profitable businesses via the offering of high quality services (i.e. high quality teaching). You don’t get good teachers unless you pay them decent wages and offer a good working environment. (Aside: MOE, if you experience a perennial shortage of English teachers, offer higher pay and fix your systems!)

I’ve never run a tuition centre, so to be completely honest, I don’t know the pressures of running one. But if I were to run one, I would make sure -all- my employees were happy, so that they can concentrate on the job of delivering the best lessons they can. Who knows, perhaps one day I may step into the tuition centre biz.

If I do, I’ll post the results of my attempt. Something tells me I won’t fail.

Tip #6: Read at your level (REVEALED! The reason for cloze passage exercises.)

REVEALED! The reason for cloze passage exercises! (Wow!)

Right, I’m being sarcastic, because if your teacher hasn’t already told you WHY you do cloze passages, s/he’s forgetting to explain something really, really simple. One reason you do cloze passages is so that your brain gets into the habit of filling words up where there is a word you do not recognise.

An example:
Julie stepped over the _______ and continued walking down the street.
Julie stepped over the triurnialristablort and continued walking down the street.

Readers of my blog should already know that the word in the blank should be some kind of object that one can step over (brick, cup, body, hobo, etc). So, what on earth is a “triurnialristablort”? I don’t know, because I just invented that word! But we can guess that a “triurnialristablort” is an object small enough for Julie to step over.

So, to my tip: read at your level.

So, to my tip:
Read at your level.

Your “level”, in case you’re not up to date on the most recent fancy techniques used to measure reading levels, is this. When you open a new book at random and read a page, you should be able to recognise most words, while able to make good guesses about the words you do not recognise.

Try it! The passage(s) that you can understand, but where you don’t recognise some words? That’s the passage at your reading level.

Passage 1
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
(From 1984 by George Orwell)

Passage 2
THE “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avator and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
(From “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe)

Passage 3
Goldilocks was a playful little girl who had lovely golden hair and that is why she was called Goldilocks.

One day, while roaming the woods, she saw a pretty cottage. She went inside and saw three bowls of porridge on the table. Tasting the porridge in the biggest bowl she said, “This porridge is too hot!” She tasted some porridge from the second bowl and said, “This porridge is too cold!” Then tasting some porridge from the third bowl she said, “This porridge is just right!” and she ate all of it. After that Goldilocks felt sleepy, so she went upstairs where she saw three beds. She lay on the first bed and said, “This bed is too hard!” She lay on the second bed and said, “This bed is too soft!” Finally, she lay on the third bed and said, “This bed is just right!” And so, Goldilocks curled up and went to sleep.

(From “Goldilocks”)

Tip #5: You are the sum of your choices

(cross-posted in “approaches to teaching” section because parents need to know this too!)

You are the sum of your choices. If you choose to eat supersized fast-food meals every single day of your life, you will be unhealthy. You may not be fat if you exercise a lot, but all that sodium and sugar and “empty calories” can’t be good for your body.

It is the same with academia. If you (or your parents) engage me to teach you once a week, that’s a good thing. You will have access to good English (both spoken and written) for at least the duration of that time slot. But if you go on to produce and consume horrible English for the rest of the day, and for the rest of the week, then no matter how good your teachers are, you will not do well.

To put it in the language I see nowadays on online games popular with the local crowd:
eh dun spik liddat w8 ur england fail

This is one of the biggest reasons why I focus on helping students love the English language, instead of just focusing on exam techniques. Not all online leisure activities are equal, and I believe that what we choose to do in our leisure time directly affects our brains (and if you’re a student, it affects your results).

You know that meme that goes “Y U NO <do something>”? To understand why it is funny, we have to understand that we usually say “why don’t/didn’t you <do something>”, and that the rage of the character in the picture is so intense that he forgets how to speak like a normal civilised human being. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be on 9gag, after all.

I’m definitely not saying that being on 9gag will help you get an A in your English exams (but becoming a Stephen King fan just might). What I’m saying is that if you immerse yourself in good English only once a week, you’re not going to see improvement.

You are the sum of your choices. What will you choose today?


Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

Education should never JUST be about grades, but…

Education should never JUST be about grades, but the reality of it is that my students are in a system that is very unforgiving for students who don’t perform well. So here’s my solution: I take my cue from my own teachers, the brilliant people whom I’ve had the absolute privilege to be taught by. They taught me the skills I needed to pass my examinations, but they also taught me about life.

Some of my teachers were a little bit peculiar, a little bit strange, but they tended to be the ones who really made a difference. There was that Physics teacher who would occasionally talk about the power of prayer, and to include the non-praying students among us, he would also talk about how having a quiet moment (while other people were praying) worked wonders to calm the mind. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I recognise that he was teaching us to tap into the power of a mind that remains calm in the face of pressure. There was that PE teacher who would talk (or scream) about the need for determination in every facet of our lives. Most of this was done while we were in the push-up position, or running like dying children round and round the track, but it’s definitely a lesson that stuck.

I could go on and on, but I think my point is pretty clear — those teachers were teaching me about lessons that were almost completely unrelated to their teaching subjects (Physics or PE), but those lessons were useful both for school and life. I’m certain that having access to techniques to calm the mind down before an exam (or even while studying) raised my grades. I’m certain that determination is one of the key attributes of a successful student.

So my own approach to my students is this: I will teach the things they need for their grades (want to do well at comprehension? Then comprehend!), but I will also not ignore the needs of the human being. If a student needs some coaching to calm the mind, or to get over some other roadblock, I will do that.

At times it may seem like I am “wasting” time by working on things that only have a tangential relationship to the work of doing well for the exams. But I’m confident that this approach works. In some ways, I’m only doing the same things that the best of my teachers did.

Tip #4: Be OK with the people you love.

Recently, I was talking to a group of my students about what makes a successful student, and somewhere along the line, we got to talking about how it is easier to study when you’re not being stressed out by your parents. Some students fear that by studying, they will raise the expectations of their parents, and they fear that even if they study, their results may not reflect their efforts. If there’s any parent out there reading this, listen to me. Your children want your approval, not your frowning disapproval.

Family problems affect children in many ways, from additional stress that leaves them less able to learn, to problems with motivation. These are actual, real life things I’ve heard from people:
“Please don’t tell my parents I did well, I don’t want them to raise their expectations.”
“I can do well, I know I’m clever. But I’m not gonna study because my parents want me to do well, and they’re monsters.”
“I don’t study so hard because if I study hard my parents expect me to get A’s.”

Can we see the problems there? We have students out there sabotaging their own futures because they’re not OK with their parents. Honestly, my heart breaks a little bit when I see this happening.

So, parents, if you’re reading this, please: be OK with your children. Let them know you love them. If you’re not the type to use the L-word, find some way to express it. And no, money and toys are not capable of expressing the type of love that children need.

Children, I know it sounds borderline insane to say this, but sometimes you have to be the mature ones. Be able to forgive your parents for their imperfections. If you can do that, I promise you, you would be more mature than many adults out there.

And for the more courageous among you, just come out and tell your loved ones: I LOVE YOU (leh!).

It’s healthy for the soul, and really, if you’re OK with the people you love, everything in life becomes much easier.

Tip #3: Hate the bitter taste of regret

I was almost going to name this post “Don’t Be Lazy,” but after some thought, I realised that I would be being hypocritical about it. I’ll be honest, I’m lazy, and I enjoy being lazy. I rationalise my laziness by telling myself that I’m just trying to be efficient, that I want to spend the least amount of time achieving the greatest number of tasks. In some ways it works (but that’s a topic for another tip-post!), but the fact remains that I am lazy.

So for the lazy-bones among us, how do we fix it? My strategy is to hate the bitter taste of regret. Some of you will know the feeling well. It starts with leaving homework or exam-prep to the very last minute (maybe because of a computer game?), and leads on to panic, and the deadline or examination itself. Your grades come back, and it’s a failing grade that you know should at least be a pass. Or it’s a pass that you know should be a distinction. Whatever it is, on too many occasions, you know that you could have done better. And THAT is the bitter taste of regret.

“But oh wise teacher,” you object, “I know that, but I still end up slacking until the very last minute!”

Yeah, OK, I hear you (and I appreciate that you think I’m wise). I’m like that too, sometimes. I’m the kind of person who has to be taught how to tame my own mind, and the writings of Albert Ellis have helped me in this regard. The essential idea behind his philosophy is that we can think our way out of our bad habits. He uses an “ABC” model, which stands for the Activating event, your Beliefs, and the Consequence. For example:
A: An examination is coming up, and you have to study for it to do well.
B: You feel anxious about it, and you believe that playing computer games will help you relax before you get down to studying.
C: You end up playing for hours and hours, leaving you no time to study. As a result, you do badly.

So, for whatever Consequence you abhor, you have to look at the Belief that causes your actions, and change that. Most of the time, we can’t change the circumstances of our lives (the Activating events), but we CAN change how we respond to those circumstances. If you acquaint yourself well with how BAD regret tastes, you can easily do away with your destructive beliefs. Just keep on reminding yourself of the time you felt the terrible, sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach because you wasted your time, because you didn’t do what was difficult first.

Your new belief could be:
“While playing that computer game will be fun, it will also cause me to ignore my studies. And I absolutely HATE THAT FEELING OF REGRET. So I’ll do what’s difficult. I’ll study now, and after the exams I can spend my time on that horribly addictive computer game.”

So, be lazy if you want to, but remember, it’s terribly hard work to get over that feeling of regret. And you don’t want that, do you?

To learn more about Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, click here.

*Edit (22 Jan 2014): I watched Kathryn Schulz’s wonderful talk on not hating ourselves for the mistakes that we’ve made, because regret is a productive feeling when we are concerned about ourselves, and the people around us. (To hate the feeling of regret, and to hate yourself when you feel regret — those are two very different things.) It is a useful corrective against the notion that if we make mistakes, we somehow become stupid, irresponsible dimwits. Watch her talk here: Kathryn Schulz. “Don’t Regret Regret”




Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.