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Tutors on front line of home education

By Zhao Xinying | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-04-12 07:51
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Parents are using every means available to boost their children's test results. Zhao Xinying reports.

Of the many children Chen Hongwei has taught and helped study at home, one 12-year-old boy stands out as special. Despite his youth, the boy had won awards as a hockey player and had an excellent academic record at school.

"He looked very mature for his age. He was ambitious, strong and independent," Chen recalled.

During the time she spent with the boy, she realized that his "success" came from a combination of the guidance offered by his mother and his self-discipline.

His mother gave him a very tight and specific timetable, right down to the last minute, which, in Chen's eyes, would have been difficult for an adult to stick to every day. No matter, the boy managed it.

"If I had been that efficient and self-disciplined at his age, I would have been far more successful," she said.

Now a senior student of English at a university in Beijing, Chen started working as a part-time private tutor when she was a sophomore.

Most of her charges are primary and junior middle school students and her tasks include explaining and expanding on information in textbooks, helping children finish their homework and offering guidance on extracurricular reading materials.

She is paid 75 to 125 yuan ($11.50 to $19) an hour, depending on the tasks and the remuneration offered by different families.

These experiences have not only enabled the 22-year-old to earn her own college tuition, but also given her the chance to observe home education and parent-child relations.

Cramming and anxiety

Nowadays, many parents regard online education and offline cram schools as major ways to improve their child's academic competitiveness at school, but a certain number still choose to hire private tutors to boost their performance.

Chen said she has noticed that about 15 percent of her classmates work as private tutors, offering one-on-one instruction at children's homes.

Parents turn to college students for help because they usually have a strong sense of responsibility, offer targeted instruction and provide their services in return for relatively low payment, she said.

Cai Zhengyang, a college student in Beijing, has worked as a private tutor for a number of high-income families.

She said children are facing an increasingly competitive study environment and some parents are so determined that their child will be successful that their anxiety and stress can even affect the tutors.

In 2018, she taught two students, a boy and a girl who studied together because their families were close. The mothers stayed and monitored the entire class. "They were not staring at us the whole time, of course. They did chat occasionally, but we were still being watched," Cai said, adding that the situation was stressful and made her nervous.

Shang Shiqi has worked as a part-time private tutor in Beijing and in her hometown in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

She said parents in first-tier cities, such as the capital, are generally more actively involved in their children's study. "They are more respectful of teachers and private tutors. They interact with them often and are serious about everything related to their child's education," she said.

By comparison, things are more casual in lower-tier cities. Shang tutored three middle school boys in Hohhot, regional capital of Inner Mongolia, individually for 30 sessions in total during the summer and winter holidays in 2017.

Though the parents turned up for the first class to meet Shang and briefly chat with her, they were never around for the rest of the sessions.

"The parents really trusted me. I was only required to be with the children for two hours and the parents did not even ask me to improve their grades," she said.

Peer pressure

Another observation made by tutors is that peer pressure can be felt everywhere, even during private sessions at children's homes.

That is illustrated by the story of a boy and girl Cai taught in 2018, who attended the same primary school in Beijing.

While the boy knew many English words, the girl had a limited vocabulary. That meant the boy was always more active during sessions and received more praise from Cai and his mother.

"With his confidence growing constantly, I saw the girl become less active and her mother, who was anxious about her daughter's performance, became dispirited," Cai said.

"Although I tried to encourage the girl more frequently, she still felt inferior and frustrated from time to time."

One day, the boy was praised by Cai and his mother for knowing the meaning of "upside down" in English and even performing a handstand to illustrate it.

The girl was annoyed by the scene. The next morning, her mother terminated the tutoring sessions via a phone call, according to Cai.

"Maybe the boy's performance had stirred up some sense of inadequacy in her (the girl)," she said.

Such competition not only happens between different families' children, but also between siblings.

Three years ago, Chen Hongwei taught two brothers, a third grader and a first grader at a primary school in Beijing.

The older boy was always overshadowed by the younger one, who had much better command of English.

Their mother often talked about the younger boy in complimentary tones, but the older brother constantly received criticism because she believed his grades were mediocre, Chen said.

Such relentless comparison at home made the older boy feel extremely insecure and he was wracked by self-doubt, even though his teachers confirmed that his grades were actually higher than average.

"He lacked confidence and gradually lost all interest in learning English," Chen said.

Xu Tiange contributed to this story.

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