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[LLG] Why this tutor teaches for free

Frustrated math tutor quits tutoring for pay, discovers path to mutual growth through free lessons with those who choose to learn

April 24, 2024 - 14:02 By Song Seung-hyun
Han Si-nae teaches her students at her home in Daegu. (Song Seung-hyun/The Korea Herald)

DAEGU-- Han Si-nae, 36, is no ordinary tutor.

Her students, totaling 10 and ranging from primary to high school, come to her house after school for supplementary math lessons. After challenging their brains with math quizzes, the students fill their stomachs with an ample amount of snacks and dinner whipped up by Han.

The best part? None of them pay a single penny.

So, is Han an altruistic benefactor for future generations with deep pockets?

Listening to her speak for a brief moment, it becomes obvious that this is unlikely.

The free lessons are, in fact, a small social experiment driven by a disgruntled tutor determined to instill appreciation in return for her efforts.

A student studies at tutor Han Si-nae's home in Daegu. (Song Seung-hyun/The Korea Herald)

'Ungrateful' pupils

"It all started with some ungrateful students."

Han said outright at her home one day in late March, as she shared her story with The Korea Herald.

Speaking with a strong Daegu accent, Han expressed herself with unwavering ease and nonchalance, without any sign of hesitation or caution. In fact, Han's attire for the pre-scheduled interview was also notably casual.

Her short hair appeared uncombed, framing her bare face without makeup, and her outfit was far from fancy -- a fluffy pink hoodie paired with shorts.

When asked if she would like to polish up for a photo, she casually declined, saying she prefers to be “natural.”

Until three years ago, Han was part of South Korea’s notorious private education industry, offering math tutoring in exchange for payment, she said.

Out of a desire to excel in her role and provide the best support for her pupils, she offered additional services: a study space in her home, snacks and meals. But, her students took these extra services for granted.

The tipping point came when a “particularly passionless” student, as she described him, complained to her about her teaching and stopped taking her lessons.

Han was left questioning her efforts.

"Is it worth investing my time in people who don't recognize my value?" she pondered.

The answer, she concluded, was "No."

With that, she quit all her paid tutoring engagements at once and decided to try a different approach.

She set a new rule: "Free lessons, only for those truly eager to learn."

From then on, the new chapter of her tutoring career unfolded swiftly and seamlessly. A community service center linked her to nearby schools and the slots for her free lessons were soon filled.

"Now, everyone here wants to be here. No more nagging necessary," she said.

Food prepared for students at Han's home in Daegu (Chicken Class 2021)

Growing in tandem with students

Although Han did not request financial compensation, she did anticipate something in return. She desired recognition, appreciation and reciprocity for her benevolence from her pupils.

"When I first started offering free tutoring, I felt like if I'm giving this much, then my pupils should at least do that much. Out of this thought, I kept on pushing them,” she recalled.

Frustration became a frequent companion as she grappled with these expectations, which also led to the dismissal of quite a few students.

"I'd spend three hours cooking for them, only to find them dozing off or whining about how much they don't want to study. Then I'd tell them to leave and not bother studying," she said.

As her frustration deepened, she began to reflect and seek insights to gain a better understanding of both herself and her students.

Books on child education were particularly helpful, opening her eyes to the realization that the kids were just middle school students and that such behavior is normal.

In her interactions with teenagers, she now tries to be open and authentic, before assuming the roles of a tutor and adult.

Han openly shares stories about her own life, including her experiences with dating violence, alcoholism, gaming addiction and what she referred to as wallowing in self-pity.

On her blog, Han details how the bankruptcy of her father's hanbok factory, around the time she graduated from university, led her to turn to tutoring for immediate income.

Despite it all, she writes that she found the strength to bounce back and rebuild her life.

"You know, even though people tell my students not to be so pessimistic just because you're having a hard time, it didn’t sink in with them. But now, after (the students) read my blog posts, they started thinking 'Oh, it must have been tough for her too,'" she said.

Han added that there were even some students who would voluntarily come up to her and talk about the hardships they were going through.

Han said her years of working as a free tutor have led her to mature as a person.

"I realized I wasn't truly an adult myself before," she admitted.

Snacks for Han Si-nae's students are displayed at her home. (Song Seung-hyun/The Korea Herald)

Han’s rules

Han's "study house" has some peculiar rules.

Everything is free for students there, including a variety of foods that she cooks, ranging from sweet desserts like cookies to meals like barbecued meat and chicken.

However, no one is allowed to bring their own snacks.

"If they have snacks they want, they can enjoy them outside. Inside, only the snacks provided here are allowed," she clarified.

This rule stems from her consideration of students from low-income backgrounds.

"Some kids have more pocket money than others, so they can buy whatever snacks they desire. But I worry about those who may not have enough. So, I provide snacks here for everyone to enjoy," she explained.

Her consideration extends to the students that she chooses to teach as well. She accepts anyone with the self-motivation to study, regardless of their financial status.

"I did consider only accepting students from less fortunate backgrounds. But then, I worried about the potential stigma. So, my only condition for selecting students is a genuine desire to learn," she emphasized.

Han also refrains from communicating with students' parents to prevent any disparities.

"For example, if one parent gets involved and brings food, it might make other kids (whose parents can’t do such things) feel bad. The only thing I ever accepted from kids' parents is some kimchi," she said.

In her home, students are encouraged to pursue their interests.

"It's your choice to be here. On days you don't feel like studying, feel free to engage in other activities like painting or reading," Han said.

Han also recognizes that every student's abilities are different and encourages them to set their own goals rather than fitting them into a standard mold.

Just like her unique philosophy in organizing the study space, she too has a unique goal as to where she wants to go with what she is doing.

She said she has a lot of interest in urban regeneration and believes that the study house model that she is organizing can play a crucial part in creating a community.

"I have lived in this neighborhood since I was an elementary school student. It has a special place in my heart," she explained.

Han added that she feels sad that the population is aging in the neighborhood and hopes to contribute to forming a lively community.

Lastly, but perhaps more importantly, how will Han continue to sustain her free lessons financially?

During her paid tutoring days, to earn respect from her pupils for the food she provided for free, she filmed the cooking process and uploaded it on TikTok, which became a financially successful endeavor.

She now has branched out to YouTube, where she runs a channel called “Chicken Class 2021" with over 134,000 followers. There, she chronicles her free lessons and interactions with her students.

Standing for living, loving and growing, LLG goes beyond the realm of daily news, exploring the vibrant tapestry of modern life, as told by real people. -- Ed.