Have you heard this rather odd saying? ‘A child educated in school is an uneducated child.’ I have often thought about the regiments of education and when even our Prime Minister, in his National Day Rally speech, expressed his wish that our school system focuses less on passing examinations and more on educating our young, I thought deeper. Then I met someone who made me think differently. He runs a tuition centre. I saw a picture of him with a younger man. Then another picture in a restaurant, with the parents of this young man. Pictures of food. Pictures with younger children. Enjoying a birthday celebration. Playing games. On an outing. His Facebook posts show more food dishes, more social gatherings, family gatherings. Even videos of him performing magic tricks. His casual air does not fit the more austere environment of a classroom. He is cheerful, almost playful, laughs easily, has just turned 40 but looks boyishly child-like. He comes across as just another happy, easy-going guy in the heartland of Singapore.
“I cannot explain why I like him. Maybe because he taught me to be a better person. He teaches more than the subjects in school. When I see him, I feel he cares for me.” said an ex-student who first knew this tuition teacher when he was in kindergarten. He is now 15 years old. His father who sells eggs in the market near the tuition centre said, “I cannot explain it either. We got to know him and he has become a friend to my family for a long time.” On social media, the interaction between this tuition teacher with his students, ex-students and parents, are light-hearted, warm and familial. Many fondly described learning mathematics from him as entertaining. Ex-students come back to the tuition centre to help out. Parents refer relatives and friends. This is a neighbourhood tuition centre with no embellishments of the kind of brands some parents have come to associate with good or top schools. Yet all indications are pointing in the right direction. Right in the middle of a housing estate in Singapore, an educator is doing all the right things. Less theoretical, more experiential learning.
I watched the videos of his magic tricks. They are simple. No frills. Filled with laughter of children. They are his novel way to explain how to approach a seemingly insolvable mathematical equation. “Because magic tricks are not magic. There is an explanation. There is always an explanation,” he enthused. Being involved in his neighbourhood, he knows the families well enough to be aware of the special needs of some students. I later learned that he provides tuition at half the price for some needy households. In some cases, even free tuition on subjects for those who could ill afford to pay more. This is the point his tuition centre crosses over, where he goes beyond being just a tuition teacher. Singapore is known as a tuition nation. I found out there are fewer than 400 primary and secondary schools in Singapore, but there are more than 500 tuition centres. It is estimated that over 90 percent of students attend some form of tuition classes. Suddenly, I see in a country where tuition centres are a school away from school, his tuition centre is a home away from home.
What is extraordinary about this tuition teacher? “They must like me to want to learn from me. I must enjoy teaching them,” he said simply, as a matter of fact. I know this simple truth to education is more profound that it appears and it can be the foundation to successful learning. But there must be more to it than this. As I talked to this tuition teacher, the pieces started to fall into place. Some hallmarks of an inspiring teacher which I gathered from movies and books seemed dated. “Anyone can be a good teacher. There are no bad students, just lazy students. Students are lazy because their interests in learning are not stirred. My job is to set this interest aflame. Whatever it takes. But it starts with a happy place. So that learning is a happy experience.” Sounds like a mathematical equation. One that makes sense. It starts with him. He is a happy person. A happy teacher. And he runs a happy tuition centre. I remember the Prime Minister saying last Sunday night that “every school can be a good school.” I would like to add that it should be a happy school first.
“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” ~ Albert Einstein