I was once a student, too…
It’s probably not news that math education is a big deal in Asian households. My family was no exception. My parents believed that studying math was great for developing brains. They also believed that just keeping up with math in school was “not enough.” So, I spent many hours as a kid completing exercise books during the evenings, weekends, and school holidays. You guessed correctly. It wasn’t a fun time.
A lot of people dislike math, and I understand why. There are memories of staring at a page of problems and experiencing a kind of boredom that borders on delirium. Memories of frustration from slogging through said page of problems just to have red circles marked throughout the page. Memories of an older family member trying to explain math which caused even MORE confusion. My dad was the go-to for math help in my family. He is good at math but can’t explain it to save his life. When someone explains something over and over again but you still don’t get it, you just feel so dumb.
Truth is, I enjoyed studying patterns in numbers and the relationships between them. The strictness and high expectations just took the fun out of learning. In any case, the efforts my parents put into my math education paid off and I got quite good at it. A psychoeducational assessment in my grade 9 year scored my math ability to be exceptionally good, so the administering psychologist suggested that I pursue studies in STEM. I was that kid that took 2 maths and 3 sciences in grade 12 and did well. That road eventually led me to studying chemistry at the University of British Columbia.
Then the goal post moved from academic success to career success.
Studying the behaviour of molecules is one thing. Turning knowledge and lab skills into a career is another. If I was supposed to spend the next 40 years of my life building a career, I wanted a meaningful one. Deep down, I knew that none of the job outcomes for graduates of the chemistry program resonated with me, so I had to do some soul searching to find out what I was good at, inspired purpose, and generated a decent income.
Teaching chemistry was a backup option but I was adamant that I didn’t want to be a teacher. A room full of teenagers would surely drive me crazy. But I also had this nagging feeling that I would be good at it. And what could ignite a stronger sense of purpose than investing in the next generation? I decided to give in to the nagging feeling and enrolled into the secondary education program at UBC.
Job hunting for new grads is tough! I decided to jumpstart my career by teaching math and science at international schools in China for 3 years. I hoped that relevant experience would help me gain employment at schools back home.
My favourite part of the job was interacting with students, but teaching students is only a small fraction of what school teachers do. After three years of performing a job with countless responsibilities but little control, I was overwhelmed. Despite all this, I was well-liked by students. As the end of my final school year in China rolled around, one of the moms brought her son to me.
Mom: Tell her what you told me.
Student: Next year I won’t have my favourite teacher.
Starting over at square one
It is hard to leave a job where you were valued by someone, but I returned to Vancouver without having lined up any work. Local teaching job prospects still weren’t great. Given my latest experience, I questioned if classroom teaching was something I should have continued anyway. In September 2015, I picked up some tutoring gigs while trying to build up a business unrelated to education. Although I offered both chemistry and math, math was more widely requested.
One of my earliest students was a teenage boy in grade 10. One evening after a few sessions, his parents came home early to talk to me about their son’s recent low test score. I looked at the parents. They really wanted him to do well in math. I looked at the son. He was trying but couldn’t quite get it, and that was frustrating.
A voice echoed in my head.
“Look, they want you to do something about this situation.”
Suddenly, I had a mission to accomplish. As a science teacher, I had been asked to teach math courses a few times in international schools, but school teaching and individual coaching are not the same thing. No matter how much the words “differentiated instruction” get thrown around teaching circles, in practice it is impossible to effectively service every student. This is especially true when you are teaching some students on grade level as well as others who “didn’t do much math” in elementary school and they’re now all in your pre-calculus class.
Now, I only have one job: help the student reach their goals in math. In the early years, I took on as many students as my schedule would allow so I could refine my teaching methods. I experimented with different ways to make math more accessible for students and show them they could do it. With each and every student success story, I came to understand that all students can improve their math skills given a consistent lesson schedule, a safe space from comparison with their peers, good work habits, and support.
And the student that I met as a grade 10 struggling in math? Four years later, he was satisfied with the grade he got for the calculus course in his university business program.
At that point, I felt like I had done something. Of value to someone. This was confirmation that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do.
Online tutoring and the future
There are good reasons why a large number of tutors are college students or retired teachers working part time. Driving around from house to house in the evenings and on weekends is not conducive to having a social or family life. Job stability and retirement planning are real issues that plague self-employment. I wondered if I would be forced back into full time classroom teaching if I could not address the downsides of being an itinerant teacher.
In Fall 2019, I began planning to shift some tutoring to online to tackle my first concern. I floated the idea of online tutoring to students. Most of them said they were not interested. Some said they didn’t want to learn as if they were “on Khan Academy.” But I had been experimenting with online tutoring and was ready by the time schools went online in Spring 2020.
No doubt, the next year and a half was extraordinarily difficult for students, parents, and teachers alike. My students and parents adapted quickly to online tutoring and saw the benefit of increased flexibility in my normally packed schedule. New and old students get excited whenever I show them super useful online math tools and technology hacks.
These days, I do everything for the students as I had done before in-person. I build relationships with them, support them in their learning, and help them gain confidence and achieve their academic goals.