Nine-tenths of education is encouragement: the reflections of a tutor

Tutor portraits
Tutoring kids is a wonderful job. By 'tutor' I mean a private after-hours 1-to-1 student assistant. Speaking from experience, I view tutoring as a joy, as it is an opportunity to share precious learning moments with young students, seeing them mature in personality and character. Tutoring is also a juggling act. It often involves more than just explaining core concepts that the student doesn't understand; often it also involves 'behavioural management' for when kids misbehave or become restless, due to their limited attention span. Tutoring kids is a partnership between the tutee and the tutor, an agreement to go on a journey of learning together.  Any teacher will know that teaching children involves a healthy dose of humility. To tutor a child is to give them a gift, teaching them skills and discipline which will hopefully be of valuable long-term.

"Nine-tenths of education is encouragement." ~ Anatole France

A joy

Tutoring is a joy. Aside from knowing I'll be a little more tired than I was before a tute, I look forward to tutoring. When Michael* (year 8) has a 'Eureka' moment when he 'gets' something he hasn't previously understood before, it is indeed a precious thing. Whether it's the priceless look on his face, the simple thank-you or the magic of the learning process on those around, tutoring is special. I think of every tutoring session with Michael as a fascinating character and childhood study, as I observe and interact with him as he learns. I just feel sorry for his parents who don't get to share much of this fun journey with him like I do.

A juggling act

Tutoring is a juggling act. Kids have their quirks and differing needs, so tutoring is an act of multitasking between making I am explaining things clearly and checking that my student is actually listening! Josh (year 8) often needs to be brought back to reality from day-dreaming, so I often break up tasks with a bit of 'Simon says'. This takes his mind off the math problem at hand and allows him to relax and stretch a bit before refocusing. 'Simon says, "Get back to work!"' Tutoring involves relating to the student as an individual, which means asking myself 'am I addressing their unique abilities, attention capacity, difficulties and barriers to learning?' I'm currently tutoring two year 8 boys in both maths and English and one year 7 boy in fast-track ESL English, and during this last semester I've improved in my juggling skills!

A partnership

Tutoring is being in a partnership. It's certainly much harder to work with students when there is animosity between you and them. It's also better in the long-term for students to know a teacher is approachable and not superior to them. It's a tricky balance sometimes, though, as some young students at times take advantage of friendliness and take it as an invitation to misbehave. As a tutor, I realise that I cannot make students love learning. I might be able to show unmotivated students that there is value in learning or inject fun into an otherwise bland subject for them, but if they have already decided that school is boring, then it's difficult to change their mind by age 12 or 13, if not earlier. However, when a young student does view learning as a joint venture and a venture that is worthwhile, even fun at times, then that makes tutoring much more enjoyable and effective.

A sense of humility

If tutoring is a partnership, then this means that, as a tutor, I need to be willing to admit I don't know something at times. It also means congratulating the student when they find an alternative approach which works. When I tutor in maths, I sometimes have to sit for a minute and figure out the problem without being of much help to the student. I try to get the student to explain to me what they understand about the question (while buying me thinking time!). And actually by not explaining everything and instead getting the student to do that, this deepens the learning process for the student. I need to be humble enough to listen and not always be the one talking, whether it's English or Maths tutoring. Regardless of the tutoring subject, humility is an important ingredient for the effective tutor as there is lots that we don't understand as teachers, and we're always learning how to better communicate the ideas we do understand.

A gift

I love being a tutor because to be a tutor is to be a gift giver. I get this sense of gift-giving when I tutor Josh in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes each Thursday afternoon. I am essentially given Josh the key to communicate and engage effectively in writing and speech. Being able to communicate well is a priceless, life-long skill. It's exciting for me as I see my student make improvements in his English grammar and reading comprehension. Tutoring Josh in English is also indirectly aiding him in his ability to appreciate English literature. Indeed, helping a child be able to appreciate others' good writing is a beautiful gift. I realise being paid for tutoring may seem like it contradicts idea that it is gift-giving. I think this is an example of how getting paid for serving in the community doesn't lessen the good of that service, although it might expose the motives of the worker. Overall, I've immensely enjoyed being a tutor and view it as a great job. It is a joy to tutor the next generation. It's also a juggling act. It also requires a sense of humility. Finally, tutoring is giving a gift that keeps on giving. I recommend you students out there who have enjoyed learning under a good teacher(s) to giving to others a helping hand in learning by being a tutor yourself in some form.

*Students names have been changed.

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