South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Kelly Yang says in our manic drive to find the best tutors for our children, we’ve lost track of what truly inspires academic excellence
For those parents experiencing severe stress about the start of a new school year (30 per cent of parents, according to one recent study), I want to let you in on something: I firmly believe that you don’t need tutors to succeed. I say this as a tutor.
I never had a single tutor growing up or attended any after-school classes. And I was fine.
I did not even go to a particularly good school. One of the primary schools I attended was unofficially dubbed the “most likely to produce kids who end up in jail”.
I remember a teacher who blasted out the History channel all day long while she sat back and read People magazine. My parents’ advice when I told them this? Try to sit near the window so you can look outside.
That my parents had more important things to worry about – like putting food on the table – was my biggest blessing. Because nobody else cared, it was up to me to care.
It was up to me to seek out the best teachers in my school, which was hard given the kind of schools I went to.
But I quickly learned that in every school, there are a few good teachers. You just have to find them. My best teacher was the public library. There, I hungrily devoured knowledge, history and literature.
Years later, I ended up in the same university as those kids who were tutored their entire lives. The difference between me and the other kids? I saved a ton of money.
Last week, a woman cried in my office. She had tried to sign her daughter up for one of my Saturday writing and debate classes. Unfortunately, she was too late – by an hour. Another parent beat her to it and snatched the very last spot in the class.
This woman was distraught. She told me that if her child couldn’t get into my class, she’d fail as a mother. That was when I put my hands up and told her to stop right there. Failure to sign one’s child up for a tutoring class does not make someone a bad parent, no matter how good the class is.
That night, I went home feeling humbled and sorry. I was deeply humbled that parents put so much faith and trust in me.
But I was also sorry that I work in an industry that has increasingly, over the years, not lessened parental anxiety but directly contributed to it. When did getting into a tutoring class cause this much stress?
When 80 per cent of parents surveyed say they have arranged classes or homework for their children in preparation for the new school year and another 27 per cent say there are family conflicts over their children’s academic abilities, something’s not quite right.
Tutoring is not supposed to be a never-ending arms race to book more classes and buy more lessons.
Tutoring is optional, not necessary. Tutoring should enhance, never burden. Tutoring is about the ability to facilitate the magic that happens when a kid is inspired to learn, not about money.
This academic year, I urge parents to take a moment before seeking coveted, quality time with a tutor.
First, they should make sure they’ve sought out some quality time at the dinner table, because, in so many ways, it’s far more important.
Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.