BEIRUT: Top-tier, expensive private schools aren’t enough for many Lebanese, with demanding parents also shelling out to send their children to private tutoring centers.
With the tutoring industry becoming more organized, operators of centralized service providers in the country say that the vast majority of their students come from the state’s best schools.
“Most of the students come from A-class schools,” says Salim al-Kara, managing partner at Etudia, which offers tutoring to children from age 4 up to the second year of university.
Likewise, a representative of Tutors Lebanon says most of the students seeking their services attend “expensive private high schools.”
While at Tutors United, Mohammad Yahfoufi, the Hamra-based center’s founder, says “All my students are from IC [International College], ACS [The American Community School], CIS [City International School] and Al-Amliyeh.”
Private tutoring is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. University students have long earned pocket money by offering their services, and many qualified teachers supplement their salaries by giving pupils extra lessons on the side.
Indeed, asking not to be identified, one section head at a prominent private school tells The Daily Star: “I’ve always heard a lot of teachers make most of their money from tutoring.”
The section head also discloses that in any one subject approximately 20 percent of students receive private tutoring, while in official exam years this rises to 30-35 percent.
A parent, who prefers not to be identified and whose three children attend private schools, suggests that across the board the figure may be much higher: “I can assure you that 50-70 percent of the parents hire private tutors to help their children.”
Meanwhile, Charles Tabet, a teacher in the French section at IC, confirms most of his students receive outside tutoring of some sort.
This high demand for quality tutors has made supplementary education centers a profitable business model in Lebanon.
Parents, who have often been through multiple tutors without finding the right fit, are eager to hand over the quest to a third party, while tutors are happy receive a steady income and have someone else find their students and coordinate their schedules.
But while business is booming, the question begs as to why students attending what are purportedly the best schools in the country are in such dire need of supplementary education that parents are willing to shell out anything from $20 – for a university student – to $100 – for a very experienced qualified teacher – an hour for them to receive it.
The reasons, tutoring service operators believe, are manifold.
At base is the simple fact that parents are able to afford the service.
“These are all schools with high tuition fees which make it easy for parents to spend money on supplementary education,” Yahfoufi says.
Kara meanwhile points out that some students attend to “enforce their skills, learn more and anticipate other chapters which have not been covered yet.”
Beyond this, operators explain the demand for their services as based on two main factors:
First, the failure of teachers to differentiate in-class lessons to cater for students of multiple abilities or to appeal to all learning styles.
Second, the “pushy parent” phenomenon, whereby parents, with no regard for their offspring’s natural aptitude or interests, are determined their child achieve high grades in subjects deemed essential for him or her to pursue the career chosen for them.
Describing Etudia as “a platform to work next to the school,” Kara says that in classes of “around 25-35 students” schools may find it expensive to provide differential education.
“For example, to put three teachers at a time in the class and then to divide the class into groups depending on levels – I think it’s becoming costly and the schools are not applying it,” he says.
Kara adds that teachers usually proceed at the pace of the best students, leaving the average and weaker class members to lag behind and in the process creating “an urgent need for tutoring to help them compete.”
Meanwhile, at Tutors United, Yahfoufi says that “sometimes you come across teachers who are not that interactive with their students,” meaning the latter fail to learn in class.
In other instances, he says, there is a personality clash and the student simply “doesn’t like a teacher and this is the reason why he struggles in class.”
In such instances, a tutoring service can prove a child’s salvation.
Yahfoufi gives the example of one student who came to Tutors United for assistance with physics. Having found an experienced tutor to help, the student, with just five hours of lessons, managed to not only improve her grade to a passing level but achieved 95 percent on her exam.
In feedback afterward, she told Yahfoufi, “Our physics teacher is a lousy teacher and I wish I had a teacher like the one you sent me.”
But not all tutoring yields such tangible results, particularly when the child is unmotivated.
Tutors Lebanon tells The Daily Star that only 5-10 percent of the students they receive come of their own volition; the rest are pushed into tutoring by their parents.
Parents in Lebanon are often adamant that their children become engineers, doctors or pharmacists, Yahfoufi says, and they are willing to dig deep into their pockets in pursuit of these dreams.
However, even with extensive tutoring a child may continue to struggle if he has no aptitude for the subject.
With this in mind, Yahfoufi emphasizes the need for thorough career guidance, replete with placement and personality tests to identify where students’ strengths lie.
Yahfoufi – who himself overcame his father’s yearning for him to become a doctor in order to pursue an international affairs masters – is currently working to incorporate a career guidance component to the services offered by Tutors United.
However, he adds that he often wonders whether it’s the parents who need to attend their children’s career guidance sessions: “Parents are the most ignorant people [in terms of career options for their children].”
At Etudia, Kara says, the issue of pushy parents is overcome by requiring students aged 13 and above to prove their motivation and interest in learning before the center gives them a place.
“We do a trial period ... Once [the student] is convinced then we accept him. It is not the decision of the parents. They come here and they request a place. We take our time to see the psychological status of the student. If he’s willing to work [we accept him]. If he’s not willing to work then we are handicapped [and] we cannot help him,” Kara says.
Parents, however, may hold alternative views as to why their children need additional assistance.
The father of three who spoke to The Daily Star contends that children, distracted by technology and social media, are not concentrating in school and view it simply as a “social center.”
“My children go to school but they don’t pay attention to what the teachers explain to them in class, so I have to hire private tutors at home to re-explain their lessons to them – otherwise they will fail.”
When challenged that he is the one providing his children with the technology he deems so detrimental, he agrees this is true, but says, “You know what society is like – the children get jealous of their friends and parents and start to demand smartphones and Internet so they can feel they are equal to them.”
He also argues that a tough curriculum and high standards mean that at “some schools students simply need to be geniuses to pass.”
In other circumstances, the father recognizes, a sudden drop in grades may have a more innocuous cause: “My son used to be the smartest in his class, but when he began dating girls he neglected his studies.”
Also of note is that while tutoring service providers acknowledge parents often gripe about having to pay for supplementary education, teachers attest that on occasion the extra tutoring is provided by the child’s own teacher.
When asked whether this practice may create impetus for teachers to ensure their students need tutoring, private school educators explain that their institutions guard against such abuse.
Only with the approval of the director may teachers tutor their students, Tabet says.
Meanwhile, the section head The Daily Star spoke to explains that smart schools impose a rule that teachers cannot tutor their own students.
However, she adds, “I’m sure discreet tutoring goes on in every school.”