South China Morning Post (LIFE – CITY5)

Too cool for school

If star tutors are anything to go by, we need a style makeover and workshops in stand-up comedy to reignite students’ interest in the classroom.  Their trendy image and joke-filled patter are amongthe reasons thousands of youngsters keep turning up for tuition.

Teenagers such as Ken Su Wai-tung, 17, cite teachers’ dowdiness as a reason for their lack of interest in regular classes.

Teachers don’t really pay attention to how they dress.  If they dressed better, I would pay more attention in class, says the Form Five student, whose parents spend HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 every month on tuition for his science subjects.

Major tuition centres require their tutors to present themselves stylishly – sleek suits, fashionable haircuts and the like – to attract students.  Photos on billboards, buses and giant electronic screens on buildings reinforce that image.

Controversy over their teaching methods sparked by the recent lawsuit against celebrity English tutor Karson Oten Fan Karno (K Oten) has done little to dampen their popularity.  The judge may have been critical of Oten’s use of lecture notes featuring trendy and vulgar slang, but that’s precisely his appeal to students such as Wai-tung.

He is humorous, cool and handsome.  Some of my classmates even worship him as an idol, says Waitung, one of 1,237 fans listed on the tutor’s Facebook group.

Yeung Chun-fai, 16, takes a similar view of his lessons with Antonia Cheng Nga-ming, another star English tutor at Modern Education, the tuition chain where Oten now works.

Antonia is pretty and her brightly coloured clothes are refreshing, unlike the frumpy teacher at my school who only wears chequered shirts, Chun-fai says.

Still, good looks aren’t everything. Cheng’s informal presentation and personal touch help maintain attention, he says.

I can easily understand what she says because she talks like us and uses trendy words when explaining things.  The teacher at my school is too solemn.

When the svelte 26-year-old joined Modern Education three years ago, there were between 300 and 400 students enrolled with her; now she has more than 1,000.  With each one paying monthly tuition fees of about HK$500, such results explain why Cheng, a master’s graduate in translation from Chinese University, gets a monthly salary in the six digits.

She says striking up friendships with her students is critical to arousing their interest in learning.  I give my mobile number to several hundred of my Form Five students and some call about career advice and other issues.

It’s difficult to stay connected with so many people, so Cheng maintains a personal webpage where she posts exam tips, along with personal photos, videos of her pet goldfish and musings on pop culture.  It has attracted hundreds of viewings and students sometimes post feedback and greetings.

Although Cheng says her methods are the main draw for students, she says maintaining a professional image helps sustain their attention.  Tutors also have to get involved in promotion.  At the beginning, I wasn’t comfortable with the publicity work, as I’m not someone who devotes much attention to preening and primping, she says.

But Cheng has since become used to devoting an entire day to a photo shoot, fussed over byprofessional photographers, makeup artists and hairstylists.  The images are used for ads on buses, billboards, railway stations and for TV commercials.

Ads are key to drumming up business for Modern Education, which has already spent more than HK$10 million on promotion this year.  No surprise, then, that its chief executive Ken Ng Kam-lun says tutorial centres have an obligation to boost the profile of their tutors.

However, advertising is only the third priority, Ng says.  The quality of teaching staff, venues and facilities is more important.  A former English tutor, Ng set up Modern Education in 1987 and it has grown into a chain employing 60 tutors and more than 200 teaching assistants at 17 local venues.

The company receives dozens of applications every day from young people eager to become star tutors, but only a very few can pull that off, Ng says.  There are no more than 20 real star tutors.  Teachers need a clear image to stand out in an increasingly crowded field.

So at King’s Glory Education Centre, chief operating officer Folia Yiu Tung-yan often hires professional image consultants to advise new entrants.  New teachers usually don’t know how to bring out their good attributes and unique characteristics, she says. We ask a new teacher to deliver many trial classes when he first joins us.  The sessions are taped and analysed.  Then, we will advise the tutor on which attributes to highlight.

Richard Ng King-hang (better known as Richard Eng), one of the first star tutors and a founder of Beacon College, sees no need to apologise for using good-looking tutors to promote classes.  People love beauty.  If a teenager warms to his teacher, he will pay attention.  Their liking for a teacher’s appearance can be converted into a love for knowledge in this way.

But tutors have to know where to draw the line in their quest to boost their image, Eng says.  Some tutorial centres are more like show business companies now, with young tutors sporting heavy makeup and blonde locks.  To pander to students, tuition teachers also pepper lectures with vulgar expressions.  I have seen tutors devote the best part of their lessons to telling jokes just to make the students happy.  Such people give the industry a bad name.

Whether it’s mnemonic devices to help students master English vocabulary or exam tips distilled from analysing past papers, says Eng, tutors offer something students cannot get in schools.  Eng tries to relate lessons to everyday life, for example by making fun of the recent media attention lavished on skimpily clad teen models to illustrate the use of adjectives pseudo and budding.

Most students who sign up for tutorials are poor learners who always find lessons boring.  They dread reading anything filled with text.  That’s why I use comic strips with colloquial expressions to arouse their interest.

Another English tutor with a cult following, Joseph Li Din-wah, is often held up as an exam prophet for his ability to spot topics in public examinations.  That got him into trouble in 2000 when he predicted several questions in the A-Levels English exam, prompting an investigation by the ICAC.

But Li, 49, attributes his popularity to good presentation skills.  Teachers are performers.  You have to dramatise teaching with body language and lively delivery, says Li.  My students say I look like [comedian] Dayo Wong Tze-wah.

Tutors such as Eng know how to tell jokes, Wai-tung says.  He’s also a smart dresser and a generous teacher. When I attended his tuition class in Form Four, he would buy mementoes from Disneyland as rewards for us.  More importantly, the focus at tutorial centres is much more concentrated, he says.  They tell you how to crack the exam questions.  You can arrive at answers without reading the whole comprehension passage.

Wong Kai-kong spent HK$2,400 for four intensive tutorial courses on the eve of his A-Level Chinese language exam this year in a last-ditch attempt to boost his score, and reckons it was a good investment.

They had condensed notes, which really helped me cope with the exam, says Kai-kong, who attributes his credit in Chinese to the last-minute help.  They had concise summaries of all the Chinese texts and analysed different types of questions.

With thousands clamouring to study with the most popular tutors, tuition centres typically get around rules limiting class sizes to 45 students by screening lectures in several classrooms at the same time or just showing tapes of lectures.

Yet students such as Kelvin Tam Kin-wai are happy to pay hundreds of dollars for a tuition course during which they won’t see their tutor in the flesh or even attend a live class.  Because the syllabus hasn’t changed, the lectures were videotaped two years ago, but I didn’t mind this at all, he says.

What matters to him is whether the tutorials help achieve passing grades in his public exams.  This tutorial culture has continued to thrive despite efforts in recent years to reform education because parents still hold public exams to university to be all important, says Gerald Postiglione, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong.

He hopes attitudes will change with the much-anticipated scrapping of O- (HKCEE) and A-level exams that will fully come into effect in 2012, when they are replaced with a diploma exam that seeks to do away with rote-learning by placing the emphasis on critical thinking.

If the coming education reforms are successful, if they make learning more innovative and society more dynamic, tutorials will face a major challenge to their existence, Postiglione says.  And if education reformers overcome considerable inertia.  Says Kai-kong: The language lessons at my school were pathetic: the teachers just asked us to do past papers.

(Author: Elaine Yau)

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