"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Sunday, March 15, 2015

On Smartness and Selective Schools

On paper, I have a pretty stereotypical Asian-Australian resume. I attended and graduated from Perth Modern School, Western Australia’s only fully academically selective school. I skipped a grade. I did very well, got a very high ATAR, and I’m now at a great uni.

But that’s only half the story. Less than half, really.

I’m eternally grateful I went to a selective school; I don’t think there’s anywhere else that would have suited me better or where I would have gotten a better education. But I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, happy. Or a good student. And leaving that school wearing the garishly terrible blue and red graduation gown gave me no guarantees for a happy or successful life.

I am now a tutor; it is, as far as part-time jobs go, an incredibly rewarding job that I enjoy immensely and it suits my abilities, my schedule and my personality very well. I firmly believe that not everyone thrives in a classroom environment – I certainly didn't – and that everyone needs some one on one coaching in something, and I’m happy to provide that. I would not be able to swim if my parents hadn't hired a swimming coach – who was probably an underpaid uni student just like I am now – to patiently, one on one, teach me the art of not drowning. Tutoring is a very rewarding job, can be a great investment, and is an excellent way to gain life experience and earn money.

I have decided, however, to stop taking on board clients who wish me to prepare their children for selective schools. I just can’t support that mentality and I refuse to make money from a largely useless and potentially very damaging enterprise. And here is why.

1. Smart is subjective.

All-rounders are rare; people who are prodigiously good at everything are virtually non-existent. Your child is not da Vinci incarnate and is not good, and will never be good, at absolutely everything. I am considered exceptionally talented at English, but along with that comes some exceptionally terrible athleticism and my astounding ability to completely not process numbers.

When I was younger, my parents enrolled me into everything – all the ‘useless’ activities that other stereotypical Asian parents pooh-poohed. I learned how to read and play music, I learned ballet, I did jazz, tap and acrobatics, and I had brief flings with gymnastics, basketball, archery, and figure skating. I went to art school and I was in drama troupes. If I had been Royal Ballet Company material or had Olympic potential, I would have found out about a decade ago thanks to all those hours spent prancing around in tutus and falling on my arse on solid water.

2. Smart is innate.

I tutor specifically for exams, assignments, how to not fail the English WACE (compulsory to study and compulsory to pass if you want to go to uni) and how to uni. These are all times when a set amount of knowledge is taught and is expected to be demonstrated, and I am happy to help if there is some issue in that process of absorbing and reproducing learned skills.

Tests for entry into selective schools, however, are not testing your knowledge of the Crusades or whether or not you ate a dictionary or have memorized the periodic table. The tests as I remember them are horrendously obscure, difficult to explain and impossible to teach; these are things that academically gifted and talented children have a knack for. It is a highly visual, imaginative exercise that no amount of linear equations or rudimentary chemistry is going to help with.

When I was younger, my parents never had to push me to read or write. It was a deep, innate, powerful love – my first taste of lust, a thirst that I constantly had to satiate. It became my refuge and my sanctuary and I think my parents would have utterly destroyed me if they had somehow managed to turn it into a chore. And all these parents were looking at my parents in blatant envy, going ‘lucky you’, whilst ignoring their kid’s prodigious talent at football, or their child’s breathtaking painting, or just that kid who is nice to everyone in a way that I have never managed to emulate or synthesize.

3. Children need to go where they need to go, not where their parents think they should be. 

Not everyone belongs in an academically select school. This is sort of why they exist.

Academically selective schools are places made so kids who are often bullied, bored, and possibly physically underdeveloped have a shot at a normal schooling. The primary advantage is that the curriculum moves faster so that you don’t get bored. When I was a child I was bored to the point of depressed and destructive; I was angry and frustrated all the time, which in turn made everyone around me angry and frustrated. Sometimes people slip the system and end up in academically select schools when they really shouldn't have, and I've seen it slowly fuck with them. Low self-esteem, bad grades, inability to relate to peers, sudden interest in everything other than school…I've seen it all.

4. ‘Selective’ doesn't mean ‘superior’

I had some great teachers at school who were passionate and dedicated and extremely talented, who instilled in me a deep love of learning and a wealth of knowledge I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I also had a lot of lazy, shitty teachers, lots of mediocre, indifferent teachers, and lots of clueless, out-of-their-depths teachers. I also, sadly, had a few teachers who bullied and humiliated me on a regular basis even though I was supposed to be in a safe space.

Selective schools are not nirvana. There are still popular kids. There are still nerds. There is still bitching and bullying. There are – shock horror – relationships and interests outside of the classroom. There was drugs and sex and alcohol. It’s a high school, after all.

Going to a selective school does not, by any stretch of the imagination, guarantee that a) your kid will get a good education, b) your kid will do well  or c) your kid will get into that absurdly high-ranking university, get rich and famous, and fund your retirement. Sorry.

5. Smart doesn't mean happy.

Smart doesn't mean happy. I was a ‘smart’ kid but I struggled with poor self-esteem, body image issues, depression, anxiety, bullying…pretty much just like every other kid. I was bullied for what I was good at and bullied for all the things I couldn't do. Smart never meant happy.

Smart doesn't mean studious, either. I’m a terrible student. I lack the discipline and the concentration span.

Smart does not mean rich; I've been the butt of many a ‘would you like fries with that?’ arts-degree jokes to know that. We don’t live in a society that privileges academic talent or respects academics, so why do we insist on pushing our kids on this path in the false belief that this is the one and only path to guaranteed success and happiness? It’s not.

Smart does not even mean capable. The last time I tried to boil an egg it exploded. I don’t know how to change a tyre; I don’t even know how to drive. I can't open jars and I can't reach the cheap canned goods on the top shelves in supermarket aisles. I fail things and struggle at things just like any other person.

Forcing your children into taking paths that they don’t like and that don’t suit them is not at all conducive to leading a happy, successful life or making financially stable and/or vaguely capable adults. The academic life, believe it or not, is for…academics.

6. Irresponsible tutors 

I am not a trained teacher. I grew up being looked after by older cousins and then I looked after the younger ones. I adore children and in my other job I am paid to look after them. I love what I do and I find it quite easy to teach it.

And I believe that absolutely anything, bar flu shots and Brazilian waxing, can be fun.

My teaching methods are unorthodox; but I’m unorthodox, and I was taught by unorthodox teachers. There are lots of movies. Lots of YouTube videos. Lots of chatting and laughing. I've had students who are blatantly more into science or sports than English willingly pay me out of their own meagre pocket money for extra sessions. I believe that there is great power and potential in one on one, personalized teaching, but also a limit on how much you can teach and how much one can do, and in these realistic parameters and a focus on conscious and fun learning, I've seen my students excel under my inexpert tutelage.

I have seen tutors drill children like they've just been enlisted in the army, yell at them for being bored, sleepy, hungry or fidgety in the long tough hours straight after a whole day of school, I have seen tutors turn my favourite texts into torture devices of acute boredom, and I have seen tutors willingly take money to feed parents a load of bullshit advice about the virtues of academically select schools and how to get into them. It’s irresponsible, it’s a waste of money, and it’s child abuse. A kid who is constantly told that he is rubbish and needs to work harder will give up on the whole notion of studying entirely, and will possibly give up on the idea that they have any kind of self worth at all.

Tuition is an excellent investment to consider if your child is struggling in school, dislikes school, doesn't thrive in the group environment, and their teacher has voiced concerns over basic skills that will be required for many years to come, regardless of what career path they take. You need to know how to write essays and comprehend basic documents and, allegedly, know that 1 hour and 22 minutes does not equal 88 minutes. But, above and beyond that, your kid will find their groove if you give them space to dance with opportunity.

Tuition is also a great way to provide a boost of confidence and to improve your understanding during tough times like high school finals, compulsory university units that nobody likes, and the inevitable essays that pop up even in the most non-artsy majors.

Tuition is not a good way to get into an academically select school. If you feel the need to hire a tutor, your child probably doesn't belong there. Love your kid for what they are, move on, and save up for a new pair of ballet shoes or put a basketball hoop in the backyard.

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