From free tuition to life lessons

From free tuition to life lessons
Claire Ong started teaching tuition when she realised that some people couldn't afford it.

SINGAPORE - For the past eight years, whenever tutor Claire Ong had a new student, one of the first questions she would ask was: "Are your finances OK?"

For those who could not afford the $260 monthly fee at the tuition centre where she worked, she would offer to teach at less than half the fee.

And if even that was too steep for some of them, Ms Ong would teach them at no cost, in the belief that they would pay her once they started earning. The centre did not object.

Her belief did not go to waste. Every single low-income student - at least 20 of them - paid her back by working during their break before university. She taught economics at junior college level.

Ms Ong, 27, believes that over the years, tuition has become the norm rather than the exception.

With a lot of time spent on administrative work, teachers do not have time to give their students extra attention, she said.

"Schools tend to go very fast. Many of these students cannot keep up, they don't get it," she said. In fact, she has heard from her students that some of their school teachers encouraged them to continue going for tuition lessons after seeing an improvement in their work.

At the same time, she said that there are parents who are "kiasu" and send their children for tuition just to make sure they do not lose out to their peers.

This means that those whose parents cannot afford tuition risk getting left further behind their peers who are tutored.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently touched on the subject of tuition when he pointed out that there was, perhaps, too much of it in Singapore - with both parents and their children getting competitive.

Ms Ong went beyond just tuition. She gave her A-level students stress management workshops at no cost.

Armed with a psychology degree, she also gave them counselling, whether it was for relationship problems, or anxiety over examinations.

It was then that she realised that many of these teenagers did not have the skills to cope with their emotions, and that maybe, they would benefit if they learnt these skills earlier.

Ms Ong comes from a comfortable background, but grew up being taught how to share.

Her parents would tell her: "We have a lot. It's not for us to keep. It's to share with other people," she told My Paper at her family bungalow in Siglap.

Her grandparents used to own a bookstore, and her grandmother would tell Ms Ong stories of how she would give away the books for free when people could not afford them.

She has now teamed up with a friend to start a company that teaches children and teenagers character education and social-emotional learning.

Programmes are conducted according to age for anyone aged between seven and 20. Children are taught concepts like gratitude, perserverance and respect.

While some parents have no time to teach these to their children, some just don't know how to, she said.

"When their parents teach them, it sounds like nagging. So we create a fun environment, where they play games and reflect," she said.

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