Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What I learnt from 14 years of tutoring

I was filling up some forms for baby bonus and all the other paper work, when I realised that I had worked as a tutor for 14 years! That represents so much of my life, so I think I should reflect and think about some of the things I've seen and learnt from my students and their relationships with their parents and school in general. It'll be a good thing to do less of the wrong stuff and do more of the right stuff. Here it goes:

1. Daddies are mostly absent

Throughout my entire career as a tutor, daddies are mostly absent. I dare to guesstimate that the actual percentage of dads who care is less than 10%. They are not around to fetch their kids, or ask about their homework. I think the ideal stereotypical father is someone who is there to dispense out money or to be a disciplinarian. Some of my students don't even know what their father do for a living. Being a father now, I should also think about the kind of father I want to become. It helps that I'm working at home and I deeply appreciate the sheer amount of time I had with my baby boy. I want to be there around with him to observe all his 'firsts', and not to leave home when he's asleep and come back home to see him sleeping again. That's a promise from me to him.

2. The years that matters are the years before you start formal schooling

I've taught older students and I wondered why their learning abilities and motivational levels are so different. When I taught secondary school students, I thought primary school makes all the different. When I taught primary school, I thought pre school makes all the difference. When I taught pre school, I realised the environment at home makes all the difference. Any thing beyond that will be genetic influences already. If you want to make a difference, spend more time before your kid goes to formal school. Cultivate the right values and the right habits. It'll create a world of difference when he begins formal schooling. It also helps that when kids are younger, they will listen to you. Once they are in secondary school, good luck to you if they listen to whatever you ask them to do.

3. Give your kids responsibilities and duties befitting their age and maturity

I've seen upper secondary school students having their school bags packed by their mothers. I've seen JC students still asking their parents what their schedule is like for the week. I think we should all watch Diana Ser's programme on TV, with the title translated as Child Labour, in mandarin. I watched it today and there's this 10 years old kid from Thailand who has to work as a Muay Thai fighter to win prize money to feed his family. Diana Ser wisely brought his boy along to observe and film it. I think his kid is going to treasure his life back in Singapore. Are we creating chances like that for our kids to empathise and learn not to take things for granted? I think if we hand over the reins to our kids, we shouldn't expect perfections. It's all the little screw ups that will let the kid grow and mature.

I remember a parent whose child is in sec 4 but she always have to chase her child all over the place in order to arrange the child's tuition. I told her that she has to let go and let the child handle it alone. So she agreed and tried it out. For the first few times, the child forgot that we have scheduled lessons and missed it entirely. The mum, in anger, wanted to revert back to the original arrangement but I told her to have faith in the whole process. It's important to screw up and learn to move on from there. So one day, after yet another major screw up, the child finally realised the mistake and apologised to me and her mum. Such incidents dropped to zero afterwards.

I guess if you don't let the child make and own his own mistakes, you will forever be chasing after him. So, let go.

4. A good school might not be good for your child

Most people I know are very anxious when it comes to primary school selection. Some of them even moved to a good prime location near to a prestigious school so that their kids can have a good headstart in life. I haven't even talked about volunteering at the primary school yet. I've seen my fair share of students who went to a supposedly good school, but because they can't handle the stress, they ended up doing very very badly. There are others who strive in neighborhood schools and because of the good conducive environment, grew in confidence and did pretty well in the end.

I think the point is that there are two ways in which children handle stress. They either crumble or they rise to the challenge. It's important not to force a child into a good school. Afterall, a good school is good because of the students who went in, not because of some special geographical location or special syllabus. I do understand the need for parents wanting their child to socialise and mix in with people from better backgrounds so that they have a good network from young. But let's leave this until much much later, perhaps in university or JC.

5. How you do anything is how you do everything

I tend to nag students on little things, like writing the wavy lines underneath a letter when denoting vectors, or putting in the degree symbol after the numbers and so on. Some students obviously find it frustrating, so they will tell me that they would remember do such things only during exams. It doesn't work that way. There are only 4 major exams in a year, but there are countless practice sessions. If you are going to do the right things only during exams, I'll bet that you won't remember to do it during exams as well. It's about the attitude to do the right thing every time also. If you don't practice during peace time, you don't do it during war times. I really think that discipline is the thing that gets you to places, not motivation. Motivation is that single moment where you feel like doing something for the first time, and thereafter you have to reply on just discipline to get you there.

6. Set high standards 

I usually give worksheets that are way harder than what the students perceive themselves capable of. If they are in combined science, I'll give them pure science questions. If they are in NA level, I'll give them combined science questions. This is like wearing iron weights during practice runs, and when the weights are removed, they will literally fly. When done properly, they will experience immediate small success in school based exams and hopefully their confidence and desire for more success will form the next level of motivation to bring them greater success. It's a way to get them 'hooked' with success, hence providing that intrinsic motivation to want to do better.

7. Hardwork beats talent anytime, unless talent becomes hardworking

There are students who grasp new concepts immediately, while others I'll have to explain in a variety of ways. Some students are just more talented in doing math or science. But if I have to bet who will have greater academic success, I'll bet on the kid who is more hardworking. I've seen countless examples of students who beat talented ones through sheer hardwork. Of course, if they are competing against students who are hardworking and have talent, it's not going to be that easy anymore. The good thing about hardwork is that we can always strive to be more hardworking. You just can't say I'm born this way, so it places the blame solely on yourself. This fits in with the growth mindset - that our abilities are like muscles and will grow when we practice more, instead of a fixed mindset where our abilities are based squarely on the roll of the dice on our genes.

8. Be the example that you want your kid to become

I've seen children whose parents wanted them to stop using their handphones, but they themselves uses it all the time. I think children are smart enough to detect double standards, and they will follow what you do instead of what you said. If you want children to do their work, you have to show them how you do yours. If you want children to have a reading habit, you have to show them how you read all the time too. I think children is really just a reflection of yourself. I'm sure your children will hold you to the same standards just like how you exert yours on them.

9. Listen more, judge less. 

This is a reminder to myself. Sometimes we live in the world, we become proficient in the ways of the world, and then forgot that our children are pretty new to it. We tend to judge them using our own yardstick. I'm guilty of getting irritated by my students when I've said the same things over and over again. To them, maybe they had heard it for the first time, but for me, I've said the same things probably a thousand times. I think it's important to listen to what they think, and don't judge prematurely. Don't think about a response while your child talking. Listen actively.

10. In the end, show love

This is also a reminder to myself that no matter how irritated or frustrated I am, at the end of the day, show love. We can't get so absorbed by our own anger and frustrations that it becomes self feeding, treating every little wrong behavior or mistakes done by the child as if it's a big mistake that feeds the anger and frustration even more. I think parenting is the same. There will be times when you feel negative emotions towards the child. Remember to show more love at the end of the day. It can be a little apology to explain why you are so frustrated and show some encouragement. It can be a little pat on the back or a hug, just to tell the child that we still love them.


Sgdividends said...

Wah. Every point I agree , agree , agree .

Kids this days are precious as unlike the olden days , there is only 1 or 2 in a family now.

They aren't resilient .

But I wasn't resilient is my parents eyes too...It just gets woese

Anonymous said...

Well done! This is an excellent post.
Thank you very much for sharing the distillate of your experience.

Createwealth8888 said...

We are seeing more househusbands. Soon some mummies will be absent. :-)

Unintelligent Nerd said...

Great reflections. I particularly liked points 4, 6, and 7.

Point 6 also depends on the person I think? They have to rise up to the challenge (and not everyone does that)

Singapore Man of Leisure said...

No fun one!

I cannot comment :(

But then, my primary school classmate already have son finishing NS...

In an alternative universe (I now watching Super Dragonball with it multiverses), I could be a father!?

Now that's a frightening thought!

la papillion said...

Hi sgdividends,

I think it's every generation's prerogative to say that the next generation is suckier than theirs haha! But to be fair, we don't inherit the same world as them, so our challenges and our advantages are all different. They probably wouldn't do well in our world, just like how we wouldn't do well in theirs too. Which is why when young people ask for advice, I'm usually reluctant to share specific things. I think the next hottest industry to be in might not even be here yet!

la papillion said...

Hi anonymous,

Glad you liked it :) Took a few days to 'distillate' the experiences into this post :)

la papillion said...

Hi bro8888,

It's really true. These days, more males can cook and do household chores, rather than females. The males are the new females!

la papillion said...

Hi UN,

Thanks! Regarding point 6, it's true on what you've mentioned. That's why I mentioned 'when done properly'. For those who can't rise to the challenge, I will usually take their failed paper, browse through it and place it next to me. After teaching them and letting them practice on the topic, I'll eventually ask them to do the questions that they had left blank in the failed paper. When they are able to see how easily they could have done it, it's another small success chalked to boost their self confidence. Basically the principle is that small success leads to bigger success, and so depending on their temperament, I'll tweak the tactics differently.

la papillion said...


I'm sure you can comment :)

All these pointers are not just for parents. They are equally applicable in life isn't it? School is just a controlled environment to simulate real working life haha

Anonymous said...

Dear LP,

Please publish a book. I will buy one.

la papillion said...

Hi anonymous,

Wah, that makes my day :) Thank you very much :)

GMGH said...

Wow, thanks for the sharing. Will definitely keep in mind about the development before formal schooling.

BTW, your reactions are from vicomi? It looks good!

Anonymous said...

Even I, a grandfather of two, 5 and 6, fully agree with what you say.


Mrs Spoon said...

I like no 2 the best. But when we are employees in the market, unfortunately, the time when our kids are in preschool, is the time when we are trying our best to make more money for our retirement and make it big in our careers. Usually we are in our early 30s. With so many things to balance, something has got to give. usually its our kids precious time because we think we can make up for it later.

la papillion said...


Ya, I feel that the period between age 0 to age 6 is the most important part. Don't rely on school to impart values or good habits.

And yup, those are from vicomi! I'm just playing with it :)

la papillion said...

Hi Fred,

Wow, I'm flattered :) Thanks for visiting my blog and reading this article :)

la papillion said...

Hi Mrs Spoon,

I agree with you that we're usually trying our best to earn enough to upkeep the family and for retirement. Ultimately, we have to see if the sacrifices in career is worth it. I've seen many students whose parents and kids relationship are so torn that they no longer communicate (they had to do it through me, meaning parent will ask me how the kid is doing and the kid will ask me if the mum knows this or that). I believe at a young age, our kids will be dying for us to spend more time with them. Once we missed that period, we can never capture that period again. Each of us, as parents, will have to grapple and decide for ourselves which is more important and whether it is worth the sacrifice. There's no wrong or right, but there are consequences to the decision we take.

You can take a look at my poem titled My Father linked here.

Kate said...

They are all very valid points. Totally agree that their formative years are the most important. And I think we need to train our kids to be more dependent. Case in point, how many secondary school kids can fry an egg? Some parents think that these aren't important skills to be equipped with but I tend to think that these are survival skills.

la papillion said...

Hi Kate,

You're absolutely right :) I also place very high importance on survival skills. Was discussing with my wife about letting our son learn basic cooking skills. There's a lot of advantages to it. Getting involved with their own food makes them more likely to appreciate and eat too haha :)