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It is not easy to teach (tutor)

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Almost all these time I have been a student.

A student at school, a student at a tuition center. Listening to people who are older and more experienced than me tell me about all the things that I may or may not already know, whilst silently judging them in their capacity as a teacher.

As a student, I think I must have been one of the harshest and most picky ones. I mean there are students out there who can see the good points in every single teacher and appreciate their own way of passing on their knowledge to the posterity. If there are such angels out there, well, the laws of physics (hur hur just kidding, like I would know any laws of physics, Newton's aside) dictate that there would be devils like myself who are the most unforgiving critics.

I remember my own train of thoughts as a student who sat through lectures, tutorials or enrichment lessons. Indeed, some of the lessons were particularly well crafted, enlightening and even absorbing. Then there were those that were horribly dry, nastily confusing or even just tangential. To the lessons belonging to the latter group, I remember my inner consciousness keeping up a tirade, including silent grumbles about that being a waste of time (if it were compulsory) or a waste of money (if it were enrichment), and sometimes wondering if the teacher had prepared the lesson at all.

Now, I even remember not liking to nod at my own tutor (for enrichment lessons) when he or she looked at me during the lesson simply because I wasn't really the type to look over enthusiastic or eager. I liked keeping up my cool, calm and collected front, you know, the facade of absolute nonchalance that nothing can ever shake. I can also vaguely recall my tutor asking me time and again, "Do you understand?" and my own composed (see, there's the word again) replies of yes, which would almost always be followed by the next question, "Are you sure?"

At that moment, I had thought it was mildly funny that I would be asked if I was sure I had understood something: I mean, wouldn't I know if I had not completely grasped something?
My tutor's concern were read by me to be a standard operating procedure, slightly funny, sometimes ickish (I think there is no such term, haiz).

There must be something like karma, because I am now finally understanding how it feels like to be the one teaching and wondering (after hours of tedious explanation) whether your listener has understood anything.

Woe betide karma and retribution. *wryly*

Since our holidays are long and I wouldn't want to be a freeloader at my own household of busy people, I decided to tutor some students. Although it is not my first time tutoring other people (for money), it is the first time that I am teaching older kids (i.e. no longer in primary school), and the experience was truly worth me reflecting on.

Here is the story.

(In case you are wondering why I sound so abrupt and jerky, it might be symptoms of post-traumatic disorder. Joking really^^.)

I had to teach this secondary three boy Maths, Chemistry and Physics. Let's call him Peter since Peter has a nice ring to it. The maths lesson we had together was on Monday (this week). Today we did physics.

Both lessons felt horrible.

No, it wasn't because of him at all. Peter is a bright student who is currently in an academic crisis because he doesn't study at all. No seriously. Like all he does is his homework assigned at school, at what I believe to be a breakneck speed, and then enjoy his youth for the rest of the day.

Our Physics lessons went roughly like that today:

*I explain a simple concept made tedious by my own fumbling with words. I might have trouble with coherency, hmm.*

Me: So do you get it?

Peter: *pauses* Mmm *nods*

Me: You sure?

Peter: *nods once*

So that part was okay. Apart from the fact that I was doing exactly  what all my concerned tutors were doing, which is to desperately look for some signs of affirmation that what was being explained had somehow sunk into the child's head. And I kept wondering how to fish an affirmation out of Peter without looking like I was doubting his intelligence (which I was not). I really just wanted to know that he wasn't wasting his time and money.

There was a horrible part where I was explaining about scalars and vectors and all the vernier caliper measurements. It was made more terrible by several other factors:

  • I prepared kinematics not measurements today (since I assumed that their school was doing that)
  • I hated and sucked at reading teeny tiny weensy scales because I am supremely shortsighted.
  • I was extremely nervous when I am trying to explain something in which I have no confidence
In the roomy room, all I could hear was my own voice blabbering on and on in this high pitched almost nasally tone, punctuated with my even higher pitched erms and uhhhs because I was that horribly nervous. For once, I was so thankful for the whirring sound of the ancient fan at home because without it, I think I could hear the crickets chirping in the distance.

It was awkward.

No wait, it was beyond awkward.

In fact, within 15 minutes I was sweating so much that I had to tie up my hair (I was leaving it down to dry post showering) and fanning myself because I was afraid that I couldn't get my point across clearly.

It didn't help that my tongue seemed to grow shorter (Or longer? Should've measure it!) when I am nervous. It resulted in a series of most embarrassing stutters and stumbles in my words, not to mention that I almost bit my tongue once because I was so freaked.

The stutters went something like that:

Me: "The dis- distance moved, no I mean displac- actually dis- distance, sowe- I mean sorry ARGH WHAT IS WONG WIP NE, I mean what's wrong with me!"

If you think I am losing all my composure (which I so treasure) because my student is a hot guy, well you have gotten it wrong. I am losing my head because everything that made perfect sense in my head seemed to stop making sense when I vocalize them.

That is kind of sad, isn't it?

The even harder part is when I felt like I didn't dare to ask Peter if he could understand too often (even though I already asked a lot) was because I didn't know him well. I thought my fear of him would be overcome if I could just get to know him a bit more.

Knowing him was hard. He didn't like to talk.

It went like that:

Me:  Have you eaten?
Peter: *shakes head*
Me: Are you hungry?
Peter: *shakes head*
Me: Do you want to eat something? Like snack?
Peter: *shakes head*
Me: Oh okay then.

At that moment I recalled my GP lesson with my tutor:

Tutor: What's wrong with you?
Me: Nothing.
Tutor: No, there's something wrong with you.
Me: There is?
Tutor: You look unfocused and out of sorts today. (something like that, I think?)
Me: Huh?
Tutor: Yeah, I think you are on the edge of a mental/psychological breakdown.

At that time, I was partly freaked out, and partly amused. (I really didn't think I was on the brink of a psychological breakdown, I mean, com'on, I sleep excellently!) On the hindsight, the tutor felt pretty caring: why would he care whether I was losing my marbles?! In fact, most of my tutors were caring~!

Not only so, I couldn't make myself say cheesy encouragement lines because as a student, I disliked those intensely. I also didn't dare to make any promises because much of the results were going to be dependent on how much effort he was going to put in. I didn't dare to be cheery and optimistic because it felt weird to be cheery when the student was almost glum looking.

In short, I didn't know how to be useful.

Behold the feeling of uselessness.

There were so much things that I almost said but whenever I took a breath, I ended up exhaling. The cynic in me scoffed at every encouragement I could think of:

(italics: hopeful me vs normal text: cynical me)

It will get better.
No it won't. It won't get better unless you spend 2 hours a day memorizing and doing practices. Just an hour half with me isn't going to suffice. Furthermore, how would you know?

I have absolute faith in you.
Yeah, but not myself.

Physics is about understanding the concepts, learning the examples, and improving by practicing. I am sure you can do it!
Who are you to preach?!

Look, just let me know if you have anything I can help you with okay? I will do my best to help you.
Argh to the cheese.

Basically I couldn't say it. Everything that I wanted to say felt incredibly patronizing even though I was sincere at that moment.

The worst part was that despite preparing for the lesson for almost two to three hours before hand, I had to change my lesson plans (as mentioned) when I realized that we couldn't be too ahead of the school schedule. The abrupt changes ate away at my confidence, too.

When the lesson was ending, I was almost fearful of assigning homework: what if I stressed him out? Would he do it? Is it too much or too little????

Thus at the end of the first lesson of maths and physics, I wanted to sit down, whack myself across the head and bemoan my incompetence. I felt both apologetic and guilty towards Peter because I felt like I had taught him nothing that was of key importance.

The salvation came when he said that he could understand and felt that he had learnt something. Not to me, but to my mom. (Thank god my mom has a natural affinity for children.) I felt like I was being relieved of the burdened that I carried for the entirety of the lesson.

I felt revitalized and hopeful.

It was then I abruptly recalled why my teachers had always asked some of us privately, after a lesson whether we could follow her/his train of thoughts. Our teacher aren't us, hence there was almost no way for them to be completely sure of what we knew and what we didn't. They had to watch our expressions and body language for signs of affirmation, as I had tried to hard to that day. It was so easy for one to feel like one is "talking to myself" and silences were always so dreadfully awkward.

If it was so hard for me sitting down next to a person, I couldn't imagine how it would be like before a classroom full of people looking at you (or sleeping, yikes).

I always thought I knew a lot about what an excellent teacher should be like till I tried and failed miserably this time (I don't know why, but I think I taught better when I was in Secondary 1).

I am still in the midst of improving myself to explain clearer, teach better, and keep my composure as a tutor.

But next time, I think I will also know how to be a much better student! ^^


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