I have been teaching on and off for the past nine years in Shanghai, China. I have worked for a famous international school, a few private tutoring companies, a drama english academy, an urban clothing store, a shipping logistics company, and, currently, a one-on-one tutoring company that prepares students for studying abroad at a number of top boarding school in (predominantly) the UK, Switzerland, and the US. My students have ranged in age from seven to thirty-three, and my subject knowledge includes English literature, grammar, writing (persuasive, analytical, essay), geography, biology, chemistry, maths, drama, and SAT, TOEFL and IELTS test preparation.
I encounter all kinds of students in my line of work. Intelligent, creative, hard-working, crafty, even inspiring. I've met many who I see as being really ahead of the game, ones who may very well prove to be something special one day in a wide array of vocations. I have also met quite a few students who were lazy, stupid, uninteresting and disinterested in anything beyond their hand-held, personal electronic device.
Then there's the one who cried last week when I asked him to read a book- Great Expectations, which he had selected himself as he was familiar with Dickens- write down any words he did not know, and then look up and write down their definitions so he would have a better understanding of what it is he was reading. My goal was to strengthen his vocabulary as part of his Verbal Reasoning training This was an eleven-year-old boy who had already been attending a boarding school in the UK for the last year, who very well understood the concept of being responsible for completing his work... when he was at school and when he was given an exact amount of time to do so.
As he cried (this wasn't an all-out ball, but there was a steady stream beneath his glasses), I gently asked him what the problem was, and he explained that there was no time to do his work because he had so much English homework. He produced his other work: a crossword puzzle and... nothing else. I continued to ask questions, and he was continually flummoxed by the notion that although he was not at his conception of school, I was his teacher, he was my student, and he had to figure out time to read and write without someone dictating to him when to do so. I asked him what his current schedule was like, and he described waking at 10 AM, showering and eating for an hour, laying in bed, eating lunch, and then coming to my company for tutoring for the afternoon, then heading home, eating, attempting to work on his homework, and going to sleep. Rinse, repeat. Then I investigated his boarding school schedule: 7 AM wakeup, 7:30 AM breakfast, 8AM-12PM various classes, 1.5 hours for lunch, sports, studying, supper at 6, homework (which was turned in before leaving), in bed at 8:30, asleep by 9:30. Rinse, repeat.
So it was quite clear: his boarding school scheduled all of his time for classes, eating, sports, and studying, but when he was left to his own devices he had no concept of time management and doing work. He had a firmly established relationship with time in which he believed he 'had no time' for anything when his time wasn't managed for him. A young student studying in a foreign country certainly needs guidance, but the fact that he was so upset by the simple tasks I was asking of him was alarming.
Perhaps it wasn't so simple. Maybe my view of the situation needed adjustment, for I was talking to a young boy whose English was not his mother tongue, who perhaps in his upbringing had never actually been asked to do anything for himself. This was completely possible, and, given the amount of tuition paid by parents to send their students to my current education company and then to study abroad, there may very well have been something to this. China, after all, is giving birth to more affluent families, with more new millionaires and billionaires annually than the rest of the world in the last several years. With this affluence, there are many cases in which the children cannot grasp the idea of personal responsibility. In most cases this is harmless, but in a few it's deadly.
In the end, I saw that what he needed was a different sort of guidance, one that gave him confidence in his ability to be responsible for his time and his work. It took a lot of coaxing and reasoning, but he agreed that it was possible to use his time differently if he wanted to do well. He began to believe in the idea.
In our next encounter, he had re-read the beginning of the book and showed me a page of a dozen new words and their definitions. He was pleased, I was pleased. The next assignment: Rinse, repeat.