I think I have waited too long to write this first blog post after the launch of our website. When a new student asked me recently, “How long has it been since the start of PACE clubs?” I answered her, “A little over a year.” This answer shocked myself also because one year seems like such a short time and yet it felt like so much has happened in just this one year. When we started in September 2018 we only intended to have 2 clubs, the World Scholars club and the Math Challenge club for Grades 5-8 students, but the demand from younger kids to learn math was so strong that we ended up having another math club called the Math Pilots club for Grades 2-4. But the parents of the younger kids were worried about the 2-hour class time being too long. However, to their surprise, the Math Pilots kids told their parents that the class went by too quickly each time. I guess the old saying is right, “time flies when you are having fun.” I think it is hard for many to wrap their heads around the fact that “math is fun and exciting”. But this is precisely what we have achieved with the PACE Math Clubs.
I think back to our first orientation for the World Scholars club, when none of the students nor parents who came knew what this competition was about. They came because they trusted us, only knowing that whatever this club was, their kids would be in good hands. That’s a lot of pressure!! But after just a few weeks of the club sessions, we were beginning to see changes in so many of the kids. Shy kids started to open up, soft-spoken people started to project their voices and looking at the audience when speaking. We saw similar changes in our other clubs. Shy Math kids went from covering their answers and unable to communicate with each other, to opening up and working together in order to win as a team in mini challenges. The feedback from parents has also been heart-warming. These changes didn’t just happen in the classroom, but also at home and in school. The one “complaint” we hear the most from parents is this: “My child wants to spend a lot of their time doing PACE homework because that’s the only work they like to do.” To that, we have no answer, we can only say that PACE Clubs are addictive.
Not only am I the founder/program director for PACE, I am also a PACE parent. My 12-year-old son also attends 3 of the PACE Clubs. My son was a “typical” young boy when he started attending the clubs - he would rather play than work, he would rather stay home than attend any classes. So, the 2-hour long club time sounded like a long time for him at first, especially the first year where he would have two classes back to back! But looking at him now, he looks forward to each club and tackles the work he gets with good time management and effort. His growth in this past year has been remarkable. He went from being barely able to write a decent paragraph to now being able to write a full essay with well-organized structure. He went from being unable to remember anything from books and never having actually studied anything to becoming the “Literature” subject winner in the World Scholars Global round in Sydney, beating over 1500 students. The best part for him is that he finally finds a community of children who can grow together, learn together and persevere together with him, now they are fired up for learning, and eager to go above and beyond to challenge themselves.
People used to say, “it takes a village to raise a child”. With the modernization of society, villages become less and less common. Families have become more nuclear, and even though most kids go to school 6 hours a day 5 days a week, they still find themselves unable to connect with their fellow classmates. At least that’s what my son experienced. Now whenever I see him in the PACE clubs, be it debating excitedly with peers or helping each other in math, the smile on his face and the laughter in the room makes all the effort to start PACE worth it for me. The same glow and smiles I see in all the PACE kids truly make me realize what education is all about. It starts with TRUST, RESPECT and APPRECIATION.
Some people might think that we are “just another” tutoring center in Vancouver, but the philosophy and discipline we uphold is probably the only one in the world… Some people used to point out the fact that we operate under a very restrictive business model which will probably lead to eventual failure. But we didn’t care. Most education centers want to have as many students as possible and they will let in students anytime any level any attitude, but we only recruit once a year, only students who pass our test can get in, and students who show bad attitude or do not do homework 3 times will be kicked out. This basically guarantees that our class sizes will keep getting smaller throughout the year. But we didn’t care. We wanted to protect the learning environment of the students who do care about their learning, and the effect of knowing that an opportunity can be taken away from you when you don’t care was enough to motivate most of the students to try hard in class. To our pleasant surprise once they know our rock-solid principles, kids who normally like to push your boundaries (as most parents can attest to) can respect them because they come to realize PACE is different. It is a privilege to be able to call themselves a “Pacer”. Nowadays, we have almost 100% homework rate in each club class, with students emailing us ahead of time when they need to be absent due to another event, taking an active approach to ask us for their homework assignment and what they missed in class. Most of the students went from fearing homework (who doesn’t?) to actually embracing work now and being responsible for their work. Now some students even do their homework the moment they get home from class, even though they could have one week to finish it. In one year, I have witnessed the transformation of our Year 1 students, not just my son, but everyone who was able to “persevere” through this first year with us has shown tremendous growth in so many areas of their lives, not just academics.
If you skim the surface, PACE is a business for sure, measured by all metrics. Students pay to attend PACE clubs, we pay our staffs and we pay taxes. However, in my mind and heart, I never view PACE as a business. Some people might have laughed at my naivety, but if education is business, then that’s not something I want to do. To me, education is heart. Parents are often puzzled that despite the fact I am a very strict teacher to the kids and my classroom rules are unbreakable, the kids find me approachable and like me a lot. Parents always struggle between being strict and relaxed in their parenting, so they wonder how do I do it? My simple answer is heart. I repeatedly let the students know in my words and actions that “I don’t want their money, I want their effort!” If they can’t bring me their effort, then they shouldn’t stay at PACE. While that might sound like a harsh thing to say, the atmosphere we maintain at the club is so fun and positive that students become drawn to giving their best. Through time, the students might have come to realize and trust me because I don’t only have eyes for the top students like the other teachers that they are used to. In fact, I value attitude more than aptitude. The amount of effort and improvement they put in is more important than anything else. This allows students of all levels to feel safe in the PACE environment. There were even times when we observed a student looking worn out and tired in class, and we felt compelled to communicate to the parents and said this child is over-scheduled and needs to cut down on his activities. People laughed and said what if they cut your club? I said so be it. It’s for the child’s best interest. Would a “business” do something like this? I guess if we have to say PACE is a business, it is a very poorly run business, because I am incapable of having a cold-hearted focus on profit margins. I look at the students as people and I don’t see them as a dollar sign.
I am very thankful for how much the students have shown me how much they love PACE. There was a time where a Grade 8 student asked me in a very serious tone and rather sad face that, “Lisa, what is the maximum grade someone can be in the PACE Club?” At first, I was puzzled, then I realized he was afraid that he would outgrow PACE and has to leave when he grows older. So I replied him that, “For World Scholars’ Club, you can be as old as Grade 12 as long as you still want to participate in the club.” I saw his brain did a little bit of math and a smile came to his face, very satisfied with my answer. Another time, I was chatting with a few boys who attend private schools. One of the boys complained that they didn't learn much at school, then he went on to say, "good thing we have PACE".
When we implemented the point system for the clubs, some people were skeptical about its effect. I understand that these students are all from affluent families and have nothing they really need. But soon we find out that to the students, every point counts!! They get points when they finish their homework, volunteer to answer questions in front of the whole class, work together in team challenges and more. At the end-of-term auction, everyone bids excitedly for PACE merchandise and there are also table full of items they can use their points to redeem. I guess having money is one thing, but using your hard earned points to buy things you like brings an entirely different level of gratification.
Looking back, we had about 100 people at our first orientation at the Hellenic center for 3 clubs last September, at that time, we had to do everything ourselves, from set up to check in to clean up. However, in this year’s orientation at UBC, even though we had over 200 people testing for the 100+ spots we offer for the 6 clubs. Many parents came to help with the setup and cleanup, current students came to volunteer to check people in and helped in any ways they can. The orientation was a huge success. We couldn't have done it without everyone's help. Some students even got upset at their parents for not being able to volunteer for PACE. In one year, we have truly grown into a community. I am thankful to all the parents who share my education philosophy and trust us with their kids and their time. I am thankful to all the "Pacers" for trying their best, challenging themselves, and even calling PACE their second home. I always like to say, if the attitude and work ethics are right, the rest will follow, improving test score should never be the No. 1 priority.