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《Tutoring English in Vancouver》 __ Fong-Ying Yu (61)

I got my first two jobs in Canada at about the same time and by chance. I landed in Vancouver in March 1995, and after moving into a townhouse near the two schools my sons would go to in Burnaby, I was faced with the question, “What now?”

At that time I had passed the giddy age of 50, when a fresh start is difficult anywhere anyway. If I wanted to carry on teaching English in a public school, I had to gain a teaching qualification, which, teaching in universities, I did not need and did not have; moreover, I had to acquire that dreaded “Canadian experience”. Rather than try to gatecrash the “mainstream” employment market by some means or other, I thought I would earn a living as a self-employed person. There were some conditions a job for me must meet: it should be something I was good at doing -- new tricks do not come to an old dog easily; the working hours should be such that my wife or I could chauffeur our children to their extra-curricular activities; and the start-up outlay should be minimal.

Language services presented itself as the natural choice. I was an English teacher with about 30 years’ experience, and I was no stranger to tutoring and teaching in private evening schools. I could do two-way translation and interpreting between Chinese and English, though without any formal training in either. Editing, writing, proofreading were all jobs I had done before though not professionally. But how was one to start?

The parents of a classmate of my son in the elementary school, whom I did not know personally in Hong Kong, were publishing a weekly ESL (English as a second language) magazine and hosting a weekday radio program on AM1320 called One Minute English.  We met and I was asked to share the radio program with two other hosts, averaging one or two airings a week, each airing three times a day. So began my first job. At about the same time, an old university friend, same cohort and subject, introduced me to a HKU senior who was looking for a tutor to boost his grade-11 daughter’s English. In this way my English tutoring career began. Thus it was in the soil of old social connections built up in Hong Kong, transferred to the new land, that the seeds of employment would grow. Another Hong Kong connection landed me the job of freelance interpreter for the Children’s and Women’s Hospitals and the Cancer Agency. I took irregular on-call interpreting jobs for a few years. The experience was very rewarding at times, but when interpreters had to pay for parking, I quit.

In “One Minute English” there was room for only one point of elucidation a day. That point could be made from different angles, and it was fun writing the materials. The point could be about grammar, vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, function, even general knowledge. I quickly made use of what I learned about North American/Canadian English: the primary stress of “Metrotown” and the use of “Indian”, “First Nations”, “Eh”, “as well”, “meet with” , “double double” and so on. After some years, I was the sole host, the other hosts dropping out for reasons of their own. We had quite a long run. The program was terminated around 2006 (?) after the sponsor withdrew support; his advertised school had shut down. By the time the job ended, I had written over 900 items.

Though I had taken on hosting radio programs, interpreting, translation, editing and re-writing jobs in my first few years in Canada, my occupations quickly narrowed down to tutoring. It provided work for nine months of the year and a steady income. I was in my “comfort zone”, as the saying goes, as I had been teaching students of similar ages in Hong Kong. Teenagers I empathize with. There were substantial differences between teaching English in Hong Kong and in Canada, but the transition could be made gradually on the bedrock of English literature I had learned.  

My tutoring business grew slowly but steadily. I decided to take the easy way, that is, teaching students in tutorials one on one. Living in north Burnaby, I had to drive at first to Vancouver, Burnaby and Coquitlam to my students’ houses most of the time. I traversed the lengths of the cities, from Crown Street in Vancouver to Panorama Drive in Coquitlam. Conversely, some students in Vancouver, Burnaby and Coquitlam would come to me for lessons. Later on, out-of-house and in-house tutoring became half and half, and in the last few years, with fewer students, I stopped going out. Some students from Richmond and North Vancouver would also come to my house or we met half way, say in their parent’s workplace. I had never made use of commercial advertisement; it was all done by word of mouth.

As for the sources of students, there were four: my Hong Kong friends who had children in secondary schools, parents’ word of mouth, students’ referral, and the referral of friends who were tutors in other subjects.  The most productive and reliable source was parents. I made it a point to meet a new student and the parent, usually the mother, together for an hour and a half prior to taking the student on. I would explain to them the pros and cons of receiving tutorials. Then I would give tests to the students to gauge their level, and to explain to their parents my approach and to tell them what they could expect and not expect. The understanding to drive home was that when the parents, the student and I pulled in the same direction, the result would be positive. But when parents had unrealistic expectations, and the student was not interested or did not put in efforts, the result would be undermined. I had to tread carefully a path between student and parent, but I would be as supportive as I could to the student, and when reporting back to the parents every now and then, always let the student know what I said.

Each student was given a one and a half hour’s tutorial a week during their term time. My package also included online proofreading of students’ English assignments (sometimes on other subjects). I would use a code to point out the errors, make suggestions for improvement, send an assignment back, and proofread one last time (two exchanges, no more). Specific questions could be emailed to me, but there would be no online tutorials. I stressed regular attendance; a missed lesson could be made up if time suited both parties, but no refund for lessons otherwise not made up. I emphasized that I would not write for them, and that the corrections would improve their performance by just a little. Online proofreading outside tutorial hours was important to better achieve the objective of improving writing, which was one of the main goals. I believe that improvement can only be achieved incrementally, but once it becomes noticeable, would fuel the drive to improve further. Extra writing was accepted and encouraged, but not many students took that up, at least not till the time of the final provincial examination. My suggestion was to tutor a student from grade 10 to grade 12, for three years, for language improvement takes time. With parents who trusted me, I often got my way, though the majority of students had tutorials for only one or two school years. Generally I did not take students in lower secondary, for their motivation was not high and had to be sustained. But I had tutored a few students exceptionally all the way from grade 8 to grade 12.    

The students could be classified into groups according to their place of origin: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canadians born here of parents from Hong Kong, and China. At the risk of oversimplification and distortion, I would say that this order also represented the “teachability” of students. The Taiwanese students are disciplined, compliant, hard working, achievement-oriented. Next is the Hong Kong group. Because I had taught in Hong Kong for some thirty years, I knew them best and tuned in to their habits and needs with considerable accuracy. Not that the group was homogeneous; far from it. But I could understand their difficulties. Next come the Canadian-born Chinese of Hong Kong parentage. They were quite individualistic, usually having problems with tidiness, grammar and writing. To illustrate what I mean, one of them barely got into university, there to do history which his parents did not entirely approve of, and another was a poet who went on to take a master’s degree in creative writing. Finally, from 2010 on, I started getting students from China, three in all by September 2013 when I retired. They were quite difficult students to teach, partly because of their lack of, and lack of interest in, background western cultural knowledge and the lack of support from their family. By that time, my career was winding down. There were also students from community colleges who needed help with their English courses for one term or more. Their tutorials more often than not centred on their assignments and took place in public libraries or college campuses.

There were students from private schools as well as from public schools. Good public schools are of course plentiful and they are among the best schools in Greater Vancouver. The top private schools are one cut above in terms of academics and universities entered. Overall, a good private school is one year ahead of many public schools, as far as English is concerned. One private school started the study of a Shakespearean play from grade 8 on, whereas many public schools read Shakespeare in grades 10 to 12, some only for one or two years. Generally speaking, private school students set their sight on US universities or top universities in Ontario and Quebec. For them, practising SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test) was part of their work, and I helped them out too. The LPI (Language Proficiency Index, a UBC requirement) also figured in many students’ application to universities in BC. Designated district schools would offer Advanced Placement (US) or International Baccalaureate (European) programs, both the equivalent of first-year university standards. Their syllabuses are quite different from the more Canada-oriented syllabuses of the English 12 programs, more challenging and taken only by confident students.  Teaching AP or IB courses was more demanding in preparation time but more satisfying in that my own English would improve alongside my tutees’.

The English syllabus or course outline varies from school to school, but the aim, goals and prescribed outcomes are specified by the ministry of education. These are fleshed out by schools in their own ways. The specimen exam papers, complete with marking schemes and samples of different levels of achievement, also provided by the ministry, serve as concrete criteria to work towards. In terms of genres, most schools include drama, novels, short stories, poetry, writing, and media. The curriculum is on the whole a literature-based one. Ways of learning include discussion, oral presentation, skits, acting, illustrations, individual or group projects. The provincial educational authority mandates three province-wide English examinations at three grade levels, grades 7, 10 and 12. English 12 is the only required examination for graduation. For English 12, school assessment accounts for 60 per cent of the final grade, and provincial examination 40 per cent; the weighted aggregate represents the final achievement. To give a sense of the standards required, here are the averaged grades based on 16 exams sat from 2001 to 2006 by candidates (no grades are released these days): the school grade, 71 (C+); the exam grade, 65 (C+); the weighted final grade, 69 (C+). The proportion of students achieving ”A” falls between 10 to 15 per cent. The percentage grades-to-letters scale used in BC is 86%-100% A; 73%-85% B; 64%-72% C+; 60%-63% C; 50%-59% C-; 10%-49% I (for Incomplete or In Progress). The English curriculum had undergone changes in the last twenty years; the prevailing one came into effect in 2007. A tutor had to keep himself up to date on every aspect of the subject, besides adjusting to the requirements of individual schools.

There were three strands in my teaching with respect to any tutee: remediation, school work, and enrichment. In remediation, the goal was to identify a tutee’s pattern of errors and to provide materials to work towards eliminating them. In this, I used both commercial textbooks which are not unusually of very high standards as well as materials written by myself. In the school work strand, the aim was to support the tutee in tackling school assignments. Enrichment means to teach additional materials, for example an author’s additional stories or poems, good essays, high-grade samples from other students. The key to improvement, it seemed to me, was to make the tutee see progress in his or her school grades. Improvement with outside help can breed self-improvement. Having taken up teaching as a vocation for so many years, I would try to educate as well as teach within limits. That means encouraging a right attitude to learning, expanding a tutee’s cultural knowledge of Canada and the world, and instilling in him or her general knowledge and the habit of reading. Not every child likes to read, but one who does is likely to achieve higher in English, and in other subjects as well. I had my own library of appropriate interesting books to lend out.

Now some stories of some memorable students from all these years. One of my very good students started off at a middling standard. But by grade 12 he was writing stylishly, for he was hooked onto books from grade 10 on after being introduced to some classic stories. But he was one of those students who just do not do well in exams. He achieved a grade of B. He went to university and read criminology, his favorite leisure reading all about politics and biography. He went back to Hong Kong and after a teacher training course, became an English teacher.

One student made full use of me. His English course lasted only one semester, half a year. He came to me in grade 12, referred by his classmate. He learned that I would correct English assignments no matter how many. So he turned in an essay every two to three days, and in that way, got a lot of practice. He got a good grade in English and a place in university partly because of the intensive spell of writing.

A locally-born student poet came to me only in the last three months before the final exam. He liked writing poetry and did not care much for expository essays. His assignments were written out untidily, with spelling errors, sprinkled with difficult vocabulary (“lachrymose”, “puissant”), and illustrations he drew in the margins. My job was really to get him to deal with the exam in a way that would do justice to his language ability. In university, he majored in literature and then took a master’s degree in Creative Writing. The last I heard of him, he was in Beijing and filed an article on life as a Canadian Chinese there; it was published in the Vancouver Sun.

Two students came to Canada from Hong Kong when small, had tutorials with me for one or two years in grades 11 and 12, and then were accepted by a law school in Hong Kong. Both sought help in their university assignments and I carried on proofreading their exercises at a distance.

Three families each entrusted to me their three children. Three siblings could yield three quite different results. I did not make them all good in English. In all cases, two of the three did well and one not so well.

There were some unsuccessful cases and maybe three self-withdrawals. Two of these voluntary stoppages were due to “tutorial-fatigue”, i.e. too many years of tutoring (5-6 years). It is interesting to note that both cases involved boys majoring in computing. The parents wanted the lessons to go on, but the boys chose to withdraw in the last half year of grade 12. Both did well in English, besides other subjects. In 18 years, I only once withdrew help from one tutee because I was convinced tutoring had no effect.

On the whole, the tutees did well above average in their grades (average being C+), a significant number excellently. After all, they formed a self-selected group, with above-average family incomes, but covering a whole range of family circumstances that might or might not support the learning of English. Some of them have developed a love of English and the habit of reading. I find my tutees today in law firms, education, computing, pharmacy, business, administration, accountancy, and it is a joy to see some of them working in fields of their choice. The pastime of “talent-tracking” is educational and enjoyable: it affords me a window into the world of the young with their varied careers. I have made friends with about a dozen of them over these 18 years. By “friends” I mean people whom I am still in touch with, who I would meet or correspond with, who would have a coffee or meal with me when we meet in Hong Kong or Vancouver, who would invite me to their activities or weddings. I am thankful for the friendship of young people who are moving forward in their fields.

Is tutoring a good job? It is if you like to keep learning, like teaching and mixing with young people, like their individuality, and like thinking about solutions to their peculiar problems. And you can just about make both ends meet. If you take the peripatetic mode, then the driving and the waiting between lessons could take a toll on your nerves. The coffee-sipping in fast food shops in late afternoon or early evening is apt to bring on nostalgia like a bad penny. An unexpected result or lack of progress in some students despite your efforts could cast a shadow over your mind for a long time. One student who received tuition for four years and who missed “A” by just two marks invited me to his graduation ceremony, and disappointment was clear in his parent’s eyes. He is a student of dentistry now.

Why retire at all? A tutoring job is not that onerous an undertaking after a while. A number of reasons led to my decision to stop in 2013, 18 years after immigration. First is that the sources of good eager students were drying up. Taiwan and Hong Kong ceased to become major sources of immigrants. Second, I no longer wanted to be tied down for nine months a year; but language arts, more than other subjects, requires sustained attention, on the part of the student and the tutor. Third, from the day I took up tutoring and teaching evening classes in the first year of university, I had clocked up about 50 years of English Language Teaching. I can address my career, with sincerity and thankfulness: “To ELT, with Love”.  To aspiring teachers and tutors, I say, “Welcome and good luck! It is more than a job. It’s a job worth doing well.”

(reprinted from “The 20th Anniversary of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Western Canada) Association – a Commemorative Publication”, October 7, 2016, with the author’s permission)

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