Conversations with Irwin See

By Chang Zhun Lyn and Luo Dan

Irwin See, a former junior college teacher, started Irwin’s Study, a tuition centre with heart and purpose, in 2009. 9 years on, not only is Irwin still doing what is doing – and enjoying what he is doing – he has also launched the social arm of the centre, The Seed Initiative, which funds and mentors promising projects that promote social good, as a way to give back to society above and beyond helping students in their work and school life. As most of the centre’s functions fall to him, Irwin also does the administration, accounting, marketing – even cleaning and maintenance of the place. Despite this, he has stayed the course, believing teaching to be a unique profession: you really impart not only your knowledge, but also your skills, your values – and you never know when you end up touching a student’s life in a lasting way because of what you said.

Irwin: I don’t teach every day; I have classes on most weekday evenings and on weekends during the daytime, in the morning and the afternoon. There isn’t really a typical weekday. Every day is kind of different. Usually, what happens is that classes start at 5pm and 7pm. So, in the morning and afternoon, I would take time to prepare for lessons, do marking, reading, spend time with family, exercising – so it’s quite a good work-life balance.

Irwin: There are a lot of things that give me satisfaction in this line of work. I am thankful to be able to, firstly, teach students who are 17 to 18 years old, who are able to be mature when dealing with a lot of issues we touch on in General Paper. We talk a lot about social issues, current affairs and global issues. I think a good work day is when students actually get exposed to some issues that they had not really known about – and  especially when we touch on themes like identity, meaning and purpose: life issues. I notice that at those times, students will really resonate with these issues we’re discussing in class, because I think they don’t really get to discuss these elsewhere.

Irwin: I think I love to teach General Paper because it is a very broad subject. So, we talk about science and technology, media, all the way to the environment and education. Because it is so broad, it makes it really interesting for me. No lesson is the same – but for myself, what I like to touch on would be the topics that deal more with values. For example, we talk about empathy, kindness, even social narcissism – some of these current trends – and I get the students to just think a little bit deeper about these things that are happening in our society: inequality, discrimination, inclusivity. It’s quite a long list.

Irwin: I think there are formal responsibilities and also what I call informal responsibilities. Formal responsibilities, of course, would be conducting lessons in a way that is meaningful and helpful for students. Because I only see students once a week – they come for class once a week, for 2 hours, so it’s a very limited time that I have with them – so I try to make sure that those 2 hours are well spent. This is also because I know that students are very busy these days and they have a lot of classes and activities. For me, my responsibility is: when they come, their time is not wasted. So, I would make sure that I read beforehand, I will curate some newspaper articles, think through some questions for them to consider and then pick up the necessary skills for the subject.

But I think that’s the formal side to helping them to really do well for the subject. The informal side is really to also build their confidence and their passion for a subject like General Paper. I think for most students, when they come for General Paper tuition, they are already quite disheartened by the subject because they have not been doing too well. For me, I just want to make sure that they at least feel that it is something that they can improve on – not to lose heart, not to be discouraged; just for them to give themselves time to learn about the subject and also see how they can actually improve.

Irwin: Actually I taught in a junior college as my first career and after teaching for a number of years, I found out that I still love to teach, but I also wanted to try teaching in a different environment. So, I tried lecturing in universities, working as a part time lecturer in polytechnics. Eventually I found that I still preferred to teach  a subject like General Paper, but more maybe on my own, so I started Irwin’s Study in 2009. This gives me a lot more control, a lot more flexibility in terms of how I prepare my lessons, how I deliver my lessons.

Irwin: The Seed Initiative was launched about two months ago, June 2018. Around the beginning of this year, I started to think a little bit more about having an impact on society beyond just helping students in their academic work. I feel that I have been very blessed in my business in the past nine years and I feel that I really want to be a blessing to others. This is because one of the principles I believe in is that you are blessed to become a blessing to others.

I feel that there are so many needs in society – there’s low income group, there’s educational needs, healthcare needs, ageing, mental health. So, for me, I wanted to have a very broad platform where I can invite groups to come, who might do doing social projects to make an impact in society. What I can do is to provide a little bit of funding and mentoring, so that these projects can go a bit further. Currently, I’ve spoken to about twenty over groups dealing with different issues. I’ve been very encouraged by the work they’re doing.

Irwin: I think teaching as a career is something which is very rewarding in many ways, but also comes with its own set of challenges and areas of growth. Typically, what students see of their teachers is just what goes on in the classroom, but there’s actually a lot of work that goes on beyond the classroom. So, youths must also be prepared to do the other administrative work, lesson preparation, meeting parents, attending committee meetings. That is actually something they can ask their current teachers, to find out a bit more about the occupation. But I think teaching is quite a unique profession as you’re really imparting not only your knowledge but also your skills, your values – and you never know when you end up touching a student’s life in a lasting way because of what you said.

Irwin: I think there are other responsibilities you have to juggle, which is something I didn’t know about before I started. But even if you knew about this before stepping into the profession, there are things you wouldn’t really understand until you start your job. A lot of times, it’s about discovering these along the way, adjusting, and just growing your capacity. The best thing to do is to speak to someone who has impacted you as a teacher, whom you wish to model after and ask what teaching is like for him or her.

Irwin: It is very hard to say as the tuition industry is very wide; there are many different tuition experiences that students go through. But I feel that if a student finds a tuition centre or tutor they do benefit from and is effective in helping them understand the subject, then I do not see it as a burden; it’s supplementary to what they’re already learning in school.

Most of my students come here through word-of-mouth, so they’ve probably had a senior, classmate or relative who studied here, who recommended it as they felt that they benefited from and enjoyed the experience. In other cases, it would be through social media such as Facebook and Instagram, where my students sometimes post about their experience.

And I do take charge of the centre’s marketing too. It might sound difficult but I enjoy the fact that there are times where I do the teaching, where there’s a lot of mentally-demanding work, but there are also a lot of times where I get to do the other kinds of work, such as administrative affairs, accounting and marketing. I even clean this place myself; I’m the only one running it after all. I actually like to clean the place before each lesson as it gives me a sense of preparation so that when students come they find it comfortable and conducive. In a sense, it gives me more control and also keeps me grounded.