I saw an advertisement today in the Sunday Times for a prominent - and very expensive - tuition centre, featuring three top students who referred to themselves as "intrepid baker" and "curious lover of all things Japanese". (I suppose allowing the students to write their own self-descriptions is a nod to their creativity, but give the kids another five years or so and they're going to be very, very embarrassed.)
This, coupled with a recent article on how tuition centres are now making potential entrants take tests, really pissed me off. As a tuition teacher myself, I know better than to take credit for my students' intelligence or ambition, like the ad appeared to do. The fact is, most students arrive already shaped by their parents. If you come from a middle or upper-middle class family, one that sets aside money for your education and takes you to plays and museums and trips abroad, then of course your grammar will be perfect, your mind agile and your personality engaging. You too will write precocious essays on criminal justice and debate global politics in a convincing and intelligent manner. You too will attend a top girls' or boys' school.
Like most educators, I love teaching kids like that. But I don't often get to, because I work in a tuition centre that doesn't require pre-entry testing (except in cases of foreign students who have not yet passed their English requirement). My students are the regular kids I grew up with - the neighbourhood children who hang out at the void deck, speak in their mother tongues and hope to enter polytechnic after Secondary 4. My students arrive in my Secondary 1 English class looking depressed after getting their secondary school postings. For the sake of not embarrassing them in public, I never ask what stream they're in.
These are the students who need tuition most. They need to revise basic skills at their own pace, and get the personal attention that their overworked teachers can't give them. For them, the struggle to learn is more urgent, and ultimately perhaps more satisfying. Last year's major achievement for me was helping a shy, undersized Normal Technical student do well enough to be promoted to Normal Academic. I was moved that he had found the courage to stay back after class and ask for help. Until then, he hadn't said more than two or three words in all the weeks he'd been in my class.
I offered guidance, but he did the heavy lifting of all the extra grammar exercises I assigned. At the end of the year he told me (while smiling, a rare sight) that he had been promoted, and I told him honestly that the news had made my day - in fact, my entire year.
So it galls me that these tuition centres call themselves tuition centres, when they're really enrichment centres. They enrich those who are already wealthy in knowledge. The classes are definitely fun and engaging, but let's not pretend they are essential, or that they are fully responsible for their students' success. They're not.
You know, the students I teach are not oblivious to the differences between the opportunities available to them, and the opportunities given to the better-off. They too would like ergonomic classroom furniture, live animals to play with and high-quality learning materials. They would like to debate Occupy Wall Street and the death penalty, and read something apart from dubiously-sourced online essays. You might even say that for my students, it is all the more essential that they should be exposed to good writing and nuanced perspectives on controversial issues. My students are after all the masses, the common majority. And they deserve much, much better.