Tutoring lower-income students for the past seven years
25-year-old Terryin Tan is a very busy woman.
In a week, the final year SMU Business Analytics student attends school, clocks two four-hour shifts as a part-time barista and cashier, and spends Saturday and Sunday at church. She still manages to find time to be with friends and family as well as tutor secondary school students as a side gig for extra cash. If that wasn’t enough, she also tutors kids for free just because.
When we bring up how impossible it seems to do it all, Terryin laughs.
“Sometimes tuition is not just one hour, it can go up to three hours, twice a week. Especially if the kid I’m tutoring is taking their O-levels that year, I’ll want to give them more attention and make sure they do well.
“Sometimes, I’ll feel very tired but after I overcome the inertia and just get to their place, then I’m not tired already.”
Taking into account her crazy schedule, what we really want to know is: what’s driving her to give free tuition to students from families with financial difficulties for the past seven years?
Online tutoring session with Terryin.
PHOTO CREDIT: TERRYIN TAN
How her tuition journey began
Terryin was 18 when she began giving free tuition. A then 15-year-old girl from her church approached her and asked if Terryin was willing to tutor her. She explained she needed help with mathematics but couldn’t afford paid lessons due to her family’s financial difficulties.
“Back then, I was still in poly. I didn’t have much experience teaching except for when the younger people at my church would just ask me one-off questions. But I said ‘yes’ because I wanted to help her and I also wanted to build my confidence and tuition portfolio.”
Since then, Terryin has taken on at least one student per year. Currently, she is privately tutoring one student for free. She is recommended to her tutees by people in her church community or her paid tutoring gigs. Mostly, she teaches Elementary Mathematics (E. Math) to Secondary 1 to 5 students. At the Primary school level, she offers both Math and Chinese tuition.
Over the years, Terryin has organised and signed up for other free tuition programmes. As an SMU student, she was required to complete two years of service-learning, so Terryin signed up with a centre that provides free tutoring services.
In-person tutoring session with Terryin.
PHOTO CREDIT: TERRYIN TAN
During the circuit breaker and Phase 1 periods, she volunteered with COVID-19 Tutoring Support for Students (CTSS) to tutor children from low-income families over Zoom.
Since 2019, Terryin has organised a series of twice-yearly group tuition lessons. These lessons are conducted before the mid-year and final-year exams, and serve as a last-minute crash course for whoever wants to attend. As she primarily teaches E. Math, she also recruits other volunteers to teach different subjects like Additional Mathematics (A. Math).
Being the best possible tutor to her students
To familiarise herself with the secondary school syllabus, Terryin buys assessment books and studies them. Then, she makes and prints materials and worksheets for her students’ use. Each practice paper is adjusted so that its difficulty level corresponds to her student’s understanding of the subject.
When asked why she spends hours creating these worksheets, Terryin said, “The fear of not being able to teach them properly or produce results lingers. I feel that I shouldn’t shortchange them of good educational support just because it’s free tuition.”
To her, she believes “finances shouldn’t be a determining factor on whether or not you have the opportunity to get a good education and do well in school.” But her main motivation stems from a desire to pay it forward.
Learning through teaching
Through Secondary 2 to 4, Terryin was taught by a tutor who went the extra mile. Not only did Terryin’s tutor care for her academic performance, but also her personal well-being. She made it a point to get to know her, even bringing her to concerts and on overseas trips.
At that point in her life, Terryin’s tutor was her life coach and their interaction impacted her tremendously.
She said: “Throughout the years, what I really enjoyed about tutoring is that I could build relationships with my students, journey with them and build genuine friendships.
“With my students, I value academic improvement and grades because good grades can open doors to opportunities. But what I value more is their emotional health and their growth as a person.
“A lot of the time, these students come from slightly more difficult family backgrounds. So sometimes my tuition sessions is, honestly, one hour teaching you Math and two hours listening to your rants about your problems.
“That’s why one of my proudest moments as a tuition teacher was when my first student collected her N-level results. Not just because of the grades she achieved, but also I saw the amount of effort she put in to achieve those results.”
Terryin is graduating at the end of the year and plans to find a full-time product managing role. However, she is likely to continue giving free tuition to those in need as she can’t bear to give up her ‘baby’.
In the grand scheme of things, she recognises her efforts pale in comparison to large-scale projects. But like the story of a young boy throwing starfish back into the sea, Terryin knows, one at a time, she has made a difference for each of her students.