Tuition teachers are NOT the enemy. Bad teachers will be bad teachers, whether in the school system or not.

This past year has seen the publication of numerous articles on Singapore’s S$1.1 billion private tuition industry, a significant portion of which paints the tuition industry (and tuition teachers) in a bad light.

We have Ryan Ong from The Middle Ground (TMG) saying:

WANT to know how long it takes to destroy a childhood? Here’s a rule of thumb: it often happens by the time you reach the “E” in “Your tuition teacher is here.”

We have The Straits Times with the panic-inducing headline:

FEAR FACTOR FUELS TUITION INDUSTRY

And there seems to have arisen a consensus that:

The growing prevalence of tuition is a worrying sign…

Let me stick my head out and say this: the discussion surrounding our tuition industry borders on idiocy at times isn’t of the highest quality. Some writers may be indulging in disingenuous hyperbole, but my head feels like exploding when I see things like this (from the TMG article):

The thing to grasp about ad-hoc tuition is that it almost always degenerates into rote memorisation. It’s practically impossible for it not to. Here’s an example from English literature, which ad-hoc classes usually cover one book at a time (yes, it’s basically paying $85 an hour for Cliff’s Notes) . . . So the ad-hoc lessons just ignore the context: don’t bother knowing all that, just remember to write that the lion and the lamb are important nature images in the essay. . . . there isn’t time to get a holistic picture, so you just have to memorise the details on topic X and not ask why.

Firstly, any teacher who avoids explaining the whys and wherefores of any interpretation of a text simply isn’t doing his job. As far as I’m concerned, I’d fail a student who gives me a series of interpretations similar to that mentioned in the article (e.g. Hamlet is indecisive; Hamlet is insane; the ghost is important) without actually being able to show me why.

Furthermore, a good literature teacher should push his students to think clearly about their texts, hopefully getting the kids to engage with their texts on a personal level. After all, students should react with some mental agility to whatever question they choose to respond to in an examination. And it IS possible to push students in that direction within a few lessons (it would then be up to them to build on what they have been taught).

What the TMG article quoted above is describing is simply bad teaching. And try not to be surprised, but bad teachers DO exist in our school system as well. I will be the first to admit that I’m an imperfect teacher, and that even after years of teaching, I still feel like I’m figuring things out. But there needs to be some level of professionalism, and a tutor who stops at the point of giving CliffsNotes material is just… a waste of money.

At this juncture, I should note that the writer of the TMG article was probably being disingenuous to get his clicks, since he admits that there is the “occasional inspired tutor”.

But let’s take a step back and just acknowledge that there are good and bad teachers. There are effective and ineffective teachers. There are teachers who make you hate a subject, and there are those who make you love a subject. And that’s all tuition teachers are — teachers with all our strengths and imperfections.

I hold several strong memories of a particular teacher who taught my class very effectively:

I remember that sensitivity to the multiplicity of religions in my school with great fondness. It was probably my first introduction to the idea of tolerance — it was a flawed embodiment of that idea, but a very good try, nonetheless. I had the good fortune of having a form teacher who would pray with our class very occasionally. He kept to the practice of not forcing prayer on any of the non-Christians in my class. I have a memory of him explaining to my class that prayer could be used as a way of calming ourselves before an examination, which was a brilliant way of including everyone. Not everybody prays, but I’m pretty sure everybody knows what anxiety is. (From “How religion affects my teaching“)

And guess what? He is now also a tuition teacher.

Some of the doom-and-gloom articles about the tuition industry have one thing right: that we should be concerned about the size of the industry. However, we cannot look at the tuition industry in isolation, away from the school system and the structure of society itself.

It may be a topic for another time, but the way the tuition industry is structured is indicative of a massive wealth and income gap in Singapore. The median monthly amount that families spend on tuition is apparently between S$155 to S$260 (source). The bulk of tuition teachers who give one-on-one lessons charge considerably more than that. So we are in a situation where some families are able to spend much, much more on private tuition than the average family. We see the same kinds of mathematical distributions when we look at household incomes in Singapore (see especially Chart 5 on p6 of the document).

The moaning and groaning over the tuition industry is, I suspect, just a symptom of the larger dissatisfaction that our society has over the wealth and income gap. So if we’re going to examine the tuition industry carefully, please, let’s not do it with blinkers on. Let’s not fool ourselves about the extent of the problems in our world today. Tuition teachers are not the enemy.

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