What a teacher imparts is more than just knowledge. It is also life experience, world view and values. As such, in choosing a teacher for your child, it is a good idea to understand the background of the teacher.
This is mine, from 2001 to 2020. As you read, you will find frequent reference to God. That is because I am a Christian, and I originally wrote this as a reflection of how God guided me through these 20 years.
In 2001 I graduated from Nanyang Technological University with an Engineering degree. After working as a M&E Engineer with a local main contractor for two years, I decided that it wasn’t my cup of tea. I tried my best in my job and took risks to volunteer for positions with a very steep learning curve. I struggled with the workload, I felt little satisfaction when I finished the project, and I wasn’t happy with how much I was paid. The last straw for me was when I looked at my division head, and asked myself, do I want to be like him when I am in my mid-40s. The answer was a definite no.
It was during this period that I attended a course called AsiaWorks, to try to discover myself and what I really want in life, instead of following the path that my parents and my education has prepared for me. Eventually I decided that I wanted to work with people more, and I was not really going anywhere with my job. I left after my project had ended.
NIE and first contact with EdTech
For the first time in my life, I felt really lost. Thanks to a good friend, Tsin Ray’s introduction, I became a Project Officer in National Institute of Education, supporting a research project into asynchronous online collaboration tools. After about a year, I left this low-stress job because I didn’t see where it could lead me to. What I did not know is that, it was my first contact with EdTech. There are more EdTech to come, many years later.
In my search for something meaningful, glamorous and profitable, I ventured into the insurance industry, confident that I would do well with my circle of friends and my natural friendly disposition. I didn’t expect a tough 6 years. Through sheer ignorance and inexperience, I trusted the wrong people and got myself into some rather serious trouble. I struggled with very average performance and very little income. It transformed me from a somewhat cocky young men who knew nothing about selling but thought the world was his oyster, into someone more weathered, and perhaps meeker.
During these 6 years, I was driven to a few things. Without the desperation during that stint, I probably wouldn’t have turned to Christ, and I probably wouldn’t have taken up an adjunct lecturing position in Republic Polytechnic to supplement my income, as I grew up believing that “real men don’t teach”. It was my first discovery of my talent and passion as a teacher.
BNI and Trevor Woo
I joined BNI during my insurance days, to get more referrals. I would discover that I had a talent in connecting people. I got to know my mentor, Trevor Woo, during this season. He remains someone I highly respected. He is a living example of resilience, as he is recovering from a serious stroke and is back to running his programming business. He had faith in me as an entrepreneur when I could not even see it myself. I am deeply grateful to him for this.
There are many invaluable lessons and outstanding entrepreneurs I know through BNI. My training in insurance and BNI taught me about how to understand another person’s unique selling proposition and how to give him or her quality referrals.
I also dabbled with MLM, or Network Marketing, specifically Amway, with an organisation from Malaysia. I was driven by the promises of great health, possibility of building a lucrative business with small outlay, mentors to guide me and also that the business was based on building relationships with people, which is natural to me.
I bought and took lots of health supplements, made countless cold calls, listened to countless speeches by successful network marketers, and for two years I spent every weekend travelling up to KL to attend some ra-ra conferences. I learnt about the power of dreams, and the power of organisational culture. And that not everybody who had “made it” in MLM is worthy of my respect and emulation.
Through the training and education I received in my MLM days, I understood some basics about human body systems and how various micro and macro nutrients help us maintain health. Useful information in life, I suppose.
At one point during these years, I took a break and worked as a recruitment consultant with Achieve Career Group. I learnt many things about transferable skills, and how ill-equipped job seekers can be to seize opportunities. I was given opportunities by Mr Joshua Yim, the founder of the company, to do various things like marcom, account management, and client data analysis.
My way of seeking God’s will during this season was so primitive that it was almost laughable on hindsight. When faced with tough decisions, I would take my little black NKJV Bible, randomly flip a page and start reading. Whatever verses I chanced upon, I would meditate on them and make my decisions based on them.
But how did this season as a recruitment consultant fit into God’s grand plan, I really had no clue. For one thing, I did have the chance to see how Christian practices could be part of a company’s culture. I remember we had things like lunchtime fellowship, cheerleading after weekly meetings, and book sharing every Friday. Some of these felt weird while I was doing it, but looking back now, I understand why Mr Yim implemented them. It was to build a strong culture.
Exit from the insurance industry and into the tuition industry
When I got married in 2010, I was battered and jaded about my insurance career. My wife got a one year overseas posting to Frankfurt, so I made a few trips there to accompany her. It was a time of wilderness for me, as I was again lost about what to do next.
Amazingly, while I was overseas, an acquaintance used FB Messenger to contact me, and invited me to explore working as the centre manager of his tuition centre. I readily said yes. At that time I truly believed that God opened the door for me.
It was to be 2 years of hard work, irregular dinner, late night meetings, emotional / psychological challenge and broken promises. I gave up everything, including my adjunct lecturing job, to wholeheartedly pursue this opportunity. The learning curve was steep. Many a times I was literally thrown into the deep end, and had to figure out my way to stay afloat. It was during this time that I developed chronic back pain because I bent down too much to teach while standing.
I asked God why He opened a door only to let me suffer. I also doubted myself, whether I was blinded by my own desperation. God did not answer, or at least I did not notice. I prayed really hard in that season and had to rely on God’s deliverance in sticky situations. Eventually I got a call from Republic Polytechnic again, and I left that tuition centre. It was the year 2012.
On my own
In that same year, my elder daughter was born. I also started my own company, Love To Learn Education Hub that year. It was like raising two kids at the same time. They each have their own needs, yet they both needed my time, energy and love.
When I was planning my new company, a brother in Christ, Donny Lim, sat down with me and threw me a bunch of questions about my vision of the company. I couldn’t answer most of them. Interestingly, although I didn’t exactly know what kind of company I would want to create, I knew very clearly from my time in the previous tuition centre what I would not want to create. I guess God gave me a plan in the negatives. He told me what not to do, in a true “thou shall not…” style.
I lost all my initial capital to pay for rent in the first tuition centre I started. It was a painful lesson about establishing demand before setting up shop. I also learnt that being a good tutor does not mean that I can run a tuition business well. It may help a bit, but the skill set is totally different.
With no money left to rent a new place, I had to take a step back and switch to home tuition. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, because without the worry of overheads, I could afford to adjust my schedule according to the needs of my family. I could also try out teaching different kinds of students. During this period of about 6 years, I taught from primary school kids to undergraduates. Gradually I also increased my fees, until I was charging about $80-120 per hour.
Still, deep down in my heart, I knew that I was merely a self-employed, not a businessman. The moment I stopped working, my income would stop. There was also a strange yearning in my heart, as though I knew I would die with regret if I would remain a tutor throughout my life. Call it arrogance or ambition, but the feeling was very real. What I was doing day-in, day-out was still a far cry from what I aspire to create. To do bigger things, I needed a team.
It seemed like God opened another door for me at around that time. Some of my old colleagues from the first tuition centre finally also left the company after my departure. They started their own company and were doing pretty well, so they were thinking of expanding to a second branch. They wanted to rope me in for the expansion. We talked, and all seemed well. I was overjoyed. I thought God gave me a team, and finally my dream of growing an education business would come true.
But after the initial euphoria, reality sank in. I realised that the team was not really aligned in expectations and direction, and that although we are all great teachers but we lacked business sense. There was no marketing plan, no human resource plan, no product development. The first centre worked because it had a great location with plenty of walk-in customers and while the partners did all the teaching. We could not replicate these strengths in the new branch. Business did not go well. I offered some business ideas to help, but my ideas were deemed to be impractical or not thorough. At one point, the lead partner even had to ask me to stop rocking the boat. My fire for this new business quickly died down, and I started to focus again on my own company, Love To Learn.
Learning through games
When I started out to build Love To Learn, I asked a close friend for referrals. We had the following conversation, which I remembered to this day:
Me: “Hey man, can you introduce students to me? I know some of your friends and colleagues are parents.”
Him: “Sure, can you tell me how are you different from other tutors? My friends and colleagues already know some tutors.”
Me: “Well, I am caring. I am friendly. I explain things well. All my students love my class.”
Him: “Every tutor I know say this about themselves. Is there something unique about what you offer?”
Me: (Feeling defensive) “I just told you. I am more caring than others. I am friendlier than most. In fact I don’t scold my students at all. Don’t think that is trivial, right?”
You have probably guessed the outcome. My close friend, despite being eager to help, couldn’t find any compelling reason to recommend my services. After getting over the unhappiness, I realised that I needed a unique selling proposition to distinguish me from the crowd.
Some time later, when I was talking to that same close friend, we hit upon the idea to make games that teach maths principles. Combining his expertise in board games and my expertise in maths, we came out with four tabletop games that teach algebra, speed-time-distance, coordinate geometry, and real numbers. The games are not perfect but we did manage to let many students have fun with them, and learn something through playing. I am very proud of this effort, but I don’t have the will, the long term plan and the resources to bring it to the next level.
This is to be another piece of puzzle in my career, the purpose of which, God hasn’t revealed to me yet.
Another effort to differentiate myself from the crowd comes in the form of online tutoring.
In 2016, I got to know the founder of ClassDo.com, Chiew, through a tutor gathering I organized. I was persuaded by him that online tutoring is the next big thing in the tuition industry. Almost no one else was talking about online tutoring, let alone practicing it, so I thought, why not start early when no one wants to do it? One day when the world wakes up to embrace the idea, I might be in a position to be the authority of it.
I could never imagine, that the world would one day be besieged by a virus, and that every teacher and student would be forced to adopt online learning in a hurry.
I worked closely with Chiew to introduce online tuition to my students. It was hard to be a pioneer. A few times I got so frustrated with the technical glitches, and got so disheartened with parents’ unwillingness to try online tuition, that I was going to give it up. Chiew was very encouraging and his deep conviction helped me to pull through the initial years. From 2016-2019, my online tuition classes started to gain traction. I was even interviewed by Channel 8 News in 2019 and by CNA in 2020 on my views on online tutoring. I saw these as God’s sign to me to keep going down this route.
An old door opened and closed firmly in my face
In late 2018, I got in touch with a senior from Hwa Chong, who is a high profile social media personality. He presented to me a business model that promised to tap on my network of parents and my credential of a maths educator, to make more money through providing financial advice and selling insurance plans to them.
That is something very familiar to me, and I like the new approach which I was hearing. I thought I was finally connecting the dots of my very disjointed works in education and insurance in the past. I thought God was showing me the next step.
After some exploration, I was convinced that the new business model might just work better for me. I did all the work to get licensed. I was jittery and felt sheepish that people around me would ridicule me for going back to an industry which I have left many years ago. My wife was very worried, but agreed to let me explore. I understood her anxiety, because she was with me through my struggling insurance career and saw how I have struggled through my insurance years. Her gut feel was that I was never suited to the insurance industry, and that 6 years was a mistake in my career. I pressed on with my exploration anyway, attending events and started to lay some foundation for the business.
In Feb 2019, I received some really unexpected news from the insurance company I was about to join. Their management dug up my old files from more than 10 years ago, when I acted out of ignorance, misjudgement and trusting the wrong people. They deemed that I was unfit to work in their company. The whole venture fell flat. I stopped all my work with them.
A door which I thought God opened, was closed firmly in my face. A small consolation from this turn of event was that at least my wife could sleep in peace.
I am such a person who doesn’t like to strive alone. When I started to believe in the feasibility of online tutoring, I wanted to spread the word to more people. There is strength in numbers, I reckoned. So I worked with Chiew from ClassDo to create the workshop called “How to start a successful online tutoring business”.
We ran the workshop with my friend Jeffrey Teo’s premise of his Ace Your Econs, a highly successful tuition centre for JC Economics. After about a year, I moved the workshop online with the help of Carol from ClassDo. All in all, we trained about 150 freelance tutors and small tuition centre owners.
Through knowing these tutors, I got to know that there were many talented and innovative educators out there, and I have much to learn. Gone were my smugness about being “caring, friendly, and able to explain things clearly”. My close friend was right. Just being these was not enough.
Interestingly, out of so many tutors we trained, only a handful really became active in doing online tutoring. It puzzled me greatly, so I had another idea. I proposed the formation of a community of aspiring and practicing online tutors, so that we all have a sort of companionship. Besides, I was also sick and tired of being alone in my tutoring business. I needed a professional family of like-minded educators. Since there was none in existence, I wanted to create one.
Six educators, including myself, responded to the idea. In July 2019 we started Tutors Assemble! (complete with an exclamation mark) via ClassDo virtual room. We had a WhatsApp chat group too. Little did I know that this small initiative would grow into a much bigger community in just a few months. Along the way, we were blessed by the addition of many more very talented and generous members, who helped to build more structures and stronger culture into the community.
We received many positive testimonials from members, on how they benefitted from the community, in one way or another. Some found companionship, some found collective wisdom, while some found technical and professional support through this community. Real friendships blossomed. In all these, I believe that God is pleased.
Yet, if you ask me, how does this excellent community play a part in my career, I cannot exactly answer you. I know that something very good is happening, but I don’t know how to make sense of it.
In my heart, I feel personally responsible for this community. I want to serve the educators here. Where it will bring me to, I really don’t know, and I leave it in God’s hands.
I am not particularly attuned to God. I often feel that I am not serious in pursuing a Godly life. I have been struggling – and achieving at times – for the past 19 years. So I often wondered whether I am indeed following God’s plan for my career, or am I just a self-deluded, stubborn and worldly soul.
Looking back, it seemed to me that my feet have been firmly planted in two things: entrepreneurship and education. In both arenas I remain keenly interested, and there remains so much I need to learn.
I pray that God continues to guide me, bless me and prosper me, that I can bring glory to His name through the works of my hands, and that I can provide for my family.