Zak Elmasri is a 34 year old private English tutor from the UK who has been working in the English teaching industry since he first came to China at the beginning of 2007. beijingkids met up with Zak to talk about English tutoring.
How do your students find you?
I have been in Beijing for nearly seven years, so I get a lot of recommendations from old students and friends who refer me to people they know. I also get a lot of my work from an agency called TSL Britain. They make the effort to understand teachers and their skills, so they know the students they send me will learn well under my instruction.
What are your qualifications and experience?
I have an advanced TEFL qualification I did in England before I became a teacher; I am also a qualified IELTS examiner and have a Business studies degree, which allows me to teach Business English and Corporate programs. I have taught for over ten years in three different continents and nearly ten different countries; more than six of those years have been in China alone.
What age kids do you teach?
In the past I used to do more older, advanced learners, but as the eldest of six kids I have always been very good with managing children. In recent years, I have started to focus a lot more on younger learners. I think in China (even more so than in other countries), it is important to start teaching the kids English the proper way at a young age to make sure they avoid adopting a rote learning approach to language as used in the state school system. The emphasis on memorization of words and phrases as well as the teacher-centered approach really kill many young peoples’ passion for learning English.
Where can tutoring sessions take place?
I do lessons from home mostly. I have a room in my house that is a dedicated teaching room and I have spent a lot of time and effort in kitting it out with all the right materials and resources. Sometimes I’m willing to go to students’ homes if they don’t live too far, but I have more resources at home and it’s better for young children not to learn in a place they feel too comfortable with as they can get lazy and lose focus.
How many students do you tutor at a time?
It varies. Parents here often like to give their kids extra classes during the holidays or in the lead up to exams, so I often see a peak at those times. Some students come more regularly and these are the ones who make the biggest improvements. At the moment, I have about five regular students a week, but at peak times I can have as many as ten.
How do you prepare for class?
I design most of my class materials myself and try to avoid using coursebooks. That way, I can directly address the needs of each individual. For my longer-term regular students, I have a planned curriculum that we work through.
What is your teaching style?
Again, it depends on the student. Age is obviously an important factor, but you also have to take into account the student’s individual character and interests. With younger learners, you really have to find what works with them and try to teach them through their interests.
One child who came to me earlier this year had a lot of behavioral issues due to a lack of parental support at home. In general, he was very aloof and disinterested when it came to learning. At the beginning, I taught him in a very relaxed way, essentially gaining his trust and friendship.
After that, I helped him develop new interests by doing classes and activities outside. After a trip to the aquarium, he became fascinated by animals and the sea. From that, we moved forward; I am now able to push him a lot more. I’m planning to take him diving with sharks at Blue Zoo Beijing next month for a birthday surprise. Rewards are a brilliant way to motivate young learners, and I use them a lot with my young students.
Do you assign homework?
Yes, I think this is particularly important for younger learners as they tend to switch off once they shut their books and get home. By making them do homework, you ensure that when they are not in the classroom they still go over class materials. This helps reinforce language and makes them develop healthy study habits.
How do you select materials to use with your students?
I’ve got a lot of materials that I bought from England, such as flashcards and learning games that I use with my young learners. I also make nearly all of my own worksheets and I have a backlog of these on my computer which I can reuse and adapt for different level learners. Different people learn in different ways, and different learners prefer learning with different materials. I think any teacher that has one teaching style and one set of teaching materials/resources is a bad teacher.
What do you think of the English tutoring industry in Beijing overall?
There are a lot of bad teachers out here. I think the problem is the industry is not very regulated and in most instances people are buying a product that they don’t really understand. Many parents think if their child spends one hour a day with a foreigner, they will speak fluent English within a year. It’s this sort of thinking that provides half of BLCU’s foreign language students with weekend beer money – which is great if you’re young and looking for an easy income, but it’s not great for the students.
At the other end, people who turn to big institutions in the hope that they will provide a more professional service are also being sold short. Schools like New Oriental and Wall Street spend 90 percent of their money on marketing and sales; the product’s quality is of secondary concern. I’m not saying all teachers at these schools are bad, but they are not paid well and the teaching materials provided by the schools are often outdated and overused. Good teachers move on or end up just going through the motions.
What advice would you give to parents looking for English tutors in Beijing?
Do your research. The more you understand about the different services that a school/teacher offers, the more you will understand what you are getting your children into. Make sure you ask potential teachers/schools questions! Even for parents who don’t understand English, they hopefully understand their child and what their child’s needs are. By assessing the different options, they can hopefully decide what is best for their child.
Remember, what works for one person might not necessarily work for another, so it is important that you take a proactive approach when finding a teacher and don’t just send your kids where everyone else does.
Teach Me More is a series of blog posts outlining various aspects of tutoring, with particular emphasis on the services available in Beijing. The series is intended as an aid to parents in weighing up pros and cons, and steering a steady course through the various options available. Future posts will cover topics such as SAT and GMAT prep, look at tutoring for specific subjects, and ask broader questions about the tutoring industry in general.
You can find the first post in the series here.
We’ll hear from Zak’s student Justin Jiang in an upcoming blog post.
Photos courtesy of Zak Elmasri