Coaching like an elder brother: Interview with Anson

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This interview below was previously published on Wongtutor in June 2016, which is now dysfunctional. The interview questions and answers, however, are still relevant to shed some light on my teaching philosophy. 🙂

I went to read your blog and Facebook posts. It gave me a fresh take on tuition. Your tuition stands out from others, because it is different from other tuition centres, in a refreshing way. 

I have seen many tutors advertising using the same old techniques (“I am a top student”, “I teach techniques” etc), but not many focused on making learning fun and interesting.

That’s a keen observation! First of all, I don’t really call myself a tutor these days. If you happen to receive my biz card or look up my profile on LinkedIn, you will know that I call myself an ‘educator’. I believe there is an early stigma on “tuition” – you tell some people that you give tuition, you may receive a response that it is an odd job. Or maybe, just some passive income stream, nothing serious. Truth be told, the tuition industry in Singapore is so wide as there are very low barriers to entry. I have seen ads by O level students (some still awaiting results) out to find tuition assignments. Some lucky ones may be able to fetch some assignments by pricing their fees low.
Spoil market? Not really. The more discerning parents would know that sometimes, heavier price tags come with better quality and experience. Not to say that tutors offering cheap rates could not teach of course! But when you charge a higher premium, parents expect quality. So it’s really up to you to deliver the goods, if not they have no qualms about finding another tutor in the vast tuition market.
While I started off giving tuition when I was in the army (12 years back), it was solely because I needed an extra allowance to fund my weekend escapades. Well, you know how “good” our NS pay was back then. *laughs* Fast forward 10 plus years later, I have never once stopped giving tuition. I took it up as part-time while I tried my hands on different job stints, including a magazine writer, a copywriter in a branding agency, as well as an Assistant Manager in Corporate Communications in a reputable institution here. And I realised I have never dreaded teaching as much as I had my reservations for certain job scopes. Honestly speaking, if I am not teaching now, I would probably be dabbling myself in doing creative work of some sort.
And when I decided to quit a particular job 3 years back, I dived right into doing full-time tuition. Why do I call myself a bilingual educator, you may wonder? ‘Bilingual’ because I am pretty confident of both my English and Chinese proficiencies, and also because I am able to explain terms and concepts in both languages; ‘Educator’ because the word itself has a long-term connotation. (Just like how parents are the “overarching educators” of their children). It is always my belief that language learning, in particular, should be a lifelong subject. Ask yourselves this question: Have you ever lost touch with language in any way? Also, with every student I teach, it is with a “prolonged” commitment in mind that I accept the assignment. After all, I hope that whatever I have taught them in class could help them navigate the seas of the future, wherever their endeavours may lead to.
Personally, I don’t like to adopt techniques like “selling koyok” (卖膏药) – Straight A’s student, top student, etc. To each his own, but I have seen some tutors who are still harping on their ‘O’ level results achieved in 1984, for example. While you may be a straight A’s students back then, it does not necessarily translate to the current education landscape, especially with our curriculum and syllabus changing all the time. Comprehension questions in both Chinese and English papers in primary school, for example, have changed since our times. While we used to “copy and paste” a lot, a lot of questions now test you on reading between the lines – inference questions that require you to think and elicit a personal response. So do your past accolades as a student mean anything today as a tutor?
Besides, tuition should not only be focusing on the results. In my opinion, the learning process is even more important. I had tons of tuition lessons as a kid, and when I put myself in the shoes of my students, I totally understand how they feel. So I try to make lessons as fun and as engaging as I could, because language learning should after all be lively and vivacious! It puts a smile on my face each time I know some kid out there is looking forward to my lessons. 🙂

I realized you like to use music to help make learning Chinese interesting. This is something very, very few people use. Most people just go to the student’s house, do some assessment practices, that’s all. Do you encourage people to use music more often for tutoring?

Of course! Music and language has one thing in common: They are all about expression. If you are talking about languages, infusing music learning into classes is definitely useful. Not only is it interactive and engaging, learning a pop song from Jay Chou for example, could mean hours of poring through lyrical patterns, word choice, and even rhythmic sense! Not confined to just language alone, I have seen a clip online of a teacher who teaches Physics concepts by rapping. Music and rhythm creates impression, and these are especially useful to build memory and word recall. But of course, you cannot expect that from every tutor, as not all come with musical backgrounds. I started learning the piano since I was 5 years old and went on to achieve a ABRSM grade 7 in my piano practical before deciding to ditch the scores once and for all and focus on improvisation. Years later, I am happy to be able to appreciate good music and to write my own songs. 🙂

I am actually one of the “jia gan dangs” you mentioned haha. What do you think is the real reason Singaporeans speak broken Chinese, and how do you think we can solve this problem?

Well, this is actually a pretty obvious trend. More and more younger Singaporeans come from English-speaking family backgrounds, with parents who are English-educated and tend to converse more in English at home. I come from a Chinese speaking family and have been speaking Mandarin since young (not to mention listening to Hokkien from my folks). When your parents speak to you in English at home, and you continue spending a large amount of your time in school exchanging English tongues with your peers, there is no way you could speak perfect Mandarin. The best way to solve this problem is to go live in China for a good 10 years! I guarantee that you would come back with a fat Chinese vocabulary bank. But of course, this may be a ludicrous idea for many. A better alternative is to mingle with friends from China, Taiwan, or anywhere with Chinese as their native tongue. I believe it is not hard to find such friends if you look close enough! They are everywhere in town! Other ways I would recommend is to keep yourself entertained by watching good Chinese dramas, movies and variety shows in Chinese. There is already a plethora of on TV and online. I know it is futile to coerce you (the ‘jia gan dang’ clans) to read the Chinese papers or flip pages off a Chinese novel every day, so I am providing a very good substitution here! 😛 The whole idea is to immerse yourself in Chinese as much as possible.

What is the biggest mistake that tutors often make?

If you mean language tutors, it would be to rely solely on assessment books to teach. I wouldn’t say there aren’t good assessment books out there in the market, but sometimes, teaching language requires personal style (and substance). *puffs an invisible cigarette in one hand* === ~~~

You have to go beyond checking of answers and marking the work. Instead, tutors should always help students develop their voice (in writing). And also, do remember that language learning is not exclusive to writing – you have to work on the oral and listening components as well.

What is the biggest mistake that parents or students often make?

For parents, it is to rely on the tutor to do everything. While we tutors should definitely do our jobs as we are getting paid, parents can help to guide their children along whenever the tutor is not around. There should be some form of independent learning here. My personal practice is to give a debrief to every parent (usually the mum if she’s at home) after each lesson. I think it is imperative that they understand what their child is learning, and what could be done to improve.

For students, again, it is to rely on the tutor to provide all the answers. Higher learning is no longer about “A for Apple, B for Boy, C for Cat”, you get the drift. You have to make your own connections and practise, practise, practise! Students need to be more proactive in learning. Keeping a diary or blog is a good way for practice and tutors can help provide constructive comments after each post. I encourage my students to do that, and even allow them to add photos and pictures as and when they like to do so. It doubles as a good way to peer into the student’s attitudes, behaviours and life happenings. These will give you a good idea on how to tailor materials in order to coach them better.

What’s your most fun/memorable experience as a tutor?

I have been teaching at an international school for a while now. Currently, I’m taking summer programmes as a teacher, and I’m involved in teaching Chinese to Thai students and English to students from China. One of my most fun experiences was to teach a class of Thai kids sing a favourite song of mine – 虫儿飞. I came up with all the hand gestures and even had a personal pianist (got one of the students to help) to produce our personal “MV”! You can have a look at https://youtu.be/x9odgQnNI1Y

For one to one coaching, I once taught a 6-years old Pakistani boy Chinese and he got chosen to be the Chinese emcee for his school’s Chinese New Year celebrations! His mother showed me the clip and her pride on her face showed everything: my patience paid off. 🙂

Any comments for readers?

学海无涯。活到老,学到老!There’s no boundaries to learning. As an educator, I am still constantly upgrading myself, including reading all kinds of materials that I could get my hands on and also picking up a new instrument recently – the ukulele. Now I’m using it to teach the younger kids in class, and it’s major fun! Do what interests you, and keep doing it, for you will only get better. Also, always keep an inquisitive mind, be thankful and appreciative of what you have around you. Always remember, 万物为师. You can learn from anything and everything around you. If you look closely enough, inspirations are everywhere. 🙂
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