Teaching and tutoring

The best of both worlds ...

Tutoring Your Own

Teaching & tutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Fri, February 01, 2019 11:46:56

We have all failed some of our students. The ability to face this without fear or self-loathing is essential to a teacher’s professional development, not to mention sanity. This inescapable truth means it’s generally a bad idea for a teacher to act as a private tutor to a struggling member of his or her own class.

Part of the essential magic that tutoring can provide depends heavily upon the tutor as a voice external to the classroom. Tuition provides a safe environment for children to ask every daft question that would frequently spark a classroom chorus of “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE WE DONE THIS?” (probably led by teacher themselves). A tutor provides a fresh voice and a new perspective, a different approach to explaining things and an alternative supply of resources.

My previous school had a strict policy that its members of staff should not tutor anyone within the school, never mind whether they taught the student or not. This policy was somewhat excessive and was certainly far more about protecting “the brand” than it was about pedagogy. I ignored the policy once and once only, when a child who had joined the school late (and therefore missed the boat as far as Latin was concerned) approached me with the request to study Latin; I tutored her (in my classroom after school!) and after two years she had progressed sufficiently to join the GCSE class along with the others; the Head never questioned how she got there and we never told him.

My current school has a far more enlightened approach and I am aware that many members of staff have tutored their own students. I still avoid it, as I believe that any student who is struggling in my class would benefit from a different tutor and I am happy to name alternatives. Two of my students have benefited from an excellent local tutor, who has helped them both beyond measure; I have written before on the advantages of a classroom teacher who can embrace the support of a tutor rather than feel threatened by them, and the fact that I am in touch with this tutor has been immensely helpful to my students.

I have made one exception to my own rule, not for a child who is struggling but for one who is missing my classes due to injury – an entirely different situation. When her mother expressed her openness to the idea of a hiring private tutor to help her daughter keep up, not only was it obvious that I was the perfect person to guide her on what she was missing in my own classes, but I also realised that she lives 5 minutes from my doorstep; in this particular situation, it seemed genuinely daft not to work with her.

Tutoring is an ever-increasing reality for our students, and those of us still part of the traditional chalk face should embrace it with open arms and open eyes. We must be alert to poor tutoring (there is plenty of it out there) and the more receptive we are to the concept the more guidance we can offer parents on what to look for and what to avoid.

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Why Study Latin?

LatinPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, December 09, 2018 15:01:05

I am still slightly stunned when apparently well-educated people ask me this question.

Studying Latin helps with so many other languages; as the root of all Romance languages, it can help you find cognates when there appear to be none in the English language. For example:
















Ah, I hear you cry – so what of it? Why study the dead language and not just its living derivations, noting the similarities between those languages as one acquires them? Well, the study of Latin is of value precisely because it’s a dead language – this means that it’s taught to be read, not spoken, taught entirely through its grammatical rules, not conversational usage. Learning Latin promotes an understanding of the mechanics and structure of language; someone who has studied Latin can use it to grasp the rudiments of any language – not just the “Romance” languages which have their origins in Latin but also others such as German and Polish, which have complex inflection like Latin does.

Latin also improves and enriches your English vocabulary. If your job is a sinecure, should you quit? If something is indubitable, what is it? What exactly is juxtaposition? (Most trained English teachers get this one wrong). What is an expatriate? Would you consider yourself to be audacious? These words are all easy to deduce if you know your Latin.

Modern sciences began their development about 500 years ago, when all (yes, all) educated people studied Latin and Greek, so the technical terms in biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy derive from Latin and/or ancient Greek. To take one example: trees that lose their leaves in winter are described as deciduous — not an easy word, unless you know your Latin. A Latinist also understands why the plural of fungus is fungi and the singular of bacteria is bacterium.

Beyond the sciences, Latin is also the language of law and government — all legal and many political terms are lifted straight from the Latin. Here are just a few examples that you may have heard of … referendum; veto; habeas corpus; subpoena; in loco parentis; de facto; de iure; caveat emptor; pro bono; quorum; quid pro quo; ad hominem; non sequitur.

Still not convinced? Well, learning Latin enables you to read the great Roman writers, from Virgil to Cicero. These men lie at the head of the western tradition in writing from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Milton to Keats and beyond. When it comes to understanding English, Irish and American literature, a knowledge of Roman literature puts you at an incalculable advantage over other students; I genuinely struggle to comprehend how anyone can study Western literature at a high level without this knowledge.

There is a reason why Latin is highly respected by the top universities and has one of the strongest recruitment rates in business and commerce as well as in the law and in politics. Latin teaches you to think precisely and analytically and develops your intellectual rigour. This, combined with the fact that no one can even begin to understand the purposes and merits of Western culture without a grasp of its Classical origins, makes the study of Latin a sine qua non.

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Herd Mentality

MusingsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, November 18, 2018 11:42:20

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself.

There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner and find many people frankly depressing.

Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the tragic and violent death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials.

Herd mentality – in all its forms, both ancient and modern – is probably the thing that frightens me most in the world.

That is not to say that my failure to merge cohesively with a group has not caused me some anguish over the years – it can be a lonely existence. A few years back, it meant separation from a group of writers with many values that I share due to my innate inability to agree with them on everything – or at least, to pretend that I do. More recently, it has meant the editor of the magazine blocking me for defending people's right to ask questions. Apparently, I am "no longer an ally".

As a lifelong supporter of social justice, the new wave of “social justice warriors” and their denunciation of healthy debate has come as a horrifying shock to me. Until recently, I believed that the fight for equality would herald a new age of empathy, diversity and understanding. Instead, many of my previously liberal allies have been taken over by the cult of victim-hood and a collective fear of rejection. Like the teenagers in my classroom, they constantly check in with each other to affirm whether or not what they think is acceptable – and who can blame them? The consequences of dissent are excommunication from the tribe.

Experience has certainly taught me that being part of a group is not in my nature, and broadly speaking I am proud of the fact that I won’t play ball for the sake of staying on the team. It may not be my most attractive quality, but it’s the one that will drive me to raise the alarm whilst everyone else stays silent; it makes me the kid who will shout that the emperor’s got no clothes on.

In the past, I found myself briefly drawn to a range of people, many of whom describe themselves as “libertarians” – only to find once again that there’s a hymn sheet of horrors I'm expected to sing from. According to most of the Americans that I have met online, to be accepted as a “libertarian” then I have to be in favour of guns. Lots of guns. I have to agree that the act of carrying a gun is a liberating experience (I mean – what?) and certainly that the act of carrying one is none of the government’s business. Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic), I am simply told that I’m “not a libertarian”. So there we are.

Another “libertarian” approach that I struggle to respect is the puerile desire to offend, bolstered by the dubious claim that this is somehow a noble and worthwhile antidote to the equally tedious culture of taking offence. Certainly, I relish challenge and debate, and I also believe that free speech is more important than the inevitable risk of causing offence to some. As Salman Rushdie said following the horrifying attacks on the staff at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, “I … defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.” But in an article on what he has termed “cultural libertarianism,” Breitbart author Allum Bokhari argues that “deliberate offensiveness plays an important role in the fight against cultural authoritarianism, … showing that with a little cleverness, it’s possible to express controversial opinions and not just survive but become a cult hero.”

This surely sums up the unambitious and self-seeking aims of those who make it their business to offend – preening contrarians whose sole function is to cause shock and awe, their online communications a heady mix of clickbait, worthless insults and self-aggrandisement. Depressingly, I have observed this behaviour on #edutwitter as much as anywhere else; I thought better of the teaching profession, but once again I am proved mistaken. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone’s personal liberty is furthered by such infantile sneering; yet swarms of self-proclaimed "liberals" rejoice in this toxic effluence with excited applause, like an encouraging mother will celebrate her toddler’s first shit in the potty.

Maybe I am still that little girl on the edges of the playground, the one with the problem joining in – but as I stand at the periphery, I see the herd mentality all around me. At its best, it gives us a sense of solidarity as we strive for the greater good or find our feet in the world. At its worst, it gives us mindless thuggery, the kind of collective violence exemplified and explored in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On a mundane level, however, it gives us neither of these; it simply endorses mediocrity and prevents us from thinking.

This is an updated version of a piece I wrote for Quillette magazine in 2016.

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In Defence of "Teaching to the Test"

EducationPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, September 23, 2018 11:14:01

This week I must complete my results analysis, a task made considerably easier by the excellent performance of my students last summer. Despite spectacular results, I will be asked to justify the three students that ended up below par. One student was one mark off a 7, so what went wrong there? Until this stops happening to us (and I fail to envisage a future in which it does), teachers will “teach to the test”.

Yet this is not the only reason that teachers do so, and I would argue that “teaching to the test” is only undesirable when it happens to the exclusion of all else. When “teaching to the test” becomes the sole purpose of education, of course we have a problem; but “teaching to the test” is an essential part of a functioning education system, and we’re doing the students a disservice if we pretend otherwise.

Examinations are a game – a sport, with complex rules. Students with privilege are taught how to play the game and are drilled over time for the match. They have parents that support them in their training and cheer from behind the touchline. They have coaches with experience in honing their skills and their mindset. They have the right equipment. One of the most powerful things that we can do for our students is to teach them the rules and practise for the game; to send them onto the field without such preparation is setting them up for failure.

The notion that well-taught students will perform to the best of their ability without direct and explicit preparation for a particular examination is a ludicrous fantasy, and I am stunned at the number of high-ranking educationalists that seem wedded to it. Until we find a way of testing students other than written examination (which hasn't happened to date) what would we all prefer: a teacher who understands the examination process or a teacher who doesn't?

One of the single most useful things that a teacher can do is to mark for the relevant exam board. The training that you receive demystifies the examination process and the unhelpful mark-schemes filled with phrases such as “wide-ranging response” and “answer fully shaped for purpose”. Train as a marker and the chief examiner will enlighten you as to what the hell these statements actually mean (for example, with a ball-park figure on the number of points expected in a “wide-ranging” answer). Marking is a tedious and stressful responsibility to take on board on top of your teaching load and is certainly not worth it for the money – but the benefit to students is immense.

My subject is notoriously difficult and is offered in our school as a part of our provision for academic stretch and challenge. The notion that I could guide my students to excel in the examination without furnishing them with skills that are transferable to A level is startling to me. Who is actually doing that?! This does not mean that students will find the switch to A level unchallenging – of course they will find it difficult, and so they should; but the analytical skills that I have taught them will transfer, as will the study skills, as will the method of approaching an exam with their eyes wide open, armed with the knowledge and know-how required to succeed. If this is not the purpose of what we do, I’ve been getting it wrong for two decades.

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Ask me no Questions

Teaching & tutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sat, September 08, 2018 09:57:23
Meeting two of my four new Year 7 classes this week, I am once again reminded of a key difference between classroom teaching and one-to-one tutoring: the role of student questions.

The importance of questions from the class has, in my opinion, been over-emphasised in education over the last decade; indeed an ageing display that I really must get round to changing in my classroom celebrates the role of "great questions", the brain-child of our then Deputy Head.

Questions are indeed important, but in recent years we have at times been told to encourage them to excess. As so often, this move has been driven by specialists in the Humanities, who seem to shape every INSET I have ever sat though. Notions like "there are no foolish questions" and "everyone's opinion is equally valid" might work to a degree in an RE lesson, but such an approach is frankly disingenuous in many other subjects.

Excessive questions from the floor can truly derail a lesson and this is never more true with Year 7. In my first two lessons this week I have had several children so bursting with excitement and desperation to share their ideas that their arms are waving like a windmill. As Ben Newmark has argued in his excellent post on this topic, students like this can dominate a lesson to the detriment of the majority; in a class of 32, it is my duty to divide my attention and focus as evenly as I can, and allowing one or two students to dominate with questions and anecdotes is unfair to the others. Moreover, as Ben also argues, children who are obsessively thinking about their next contribution are not focusing on the lesson, nor are they listening to anyone else.

Tutoring, by contrast, can be based entirely around a student's desire to ask questions. Tutees who gain the most from the process are the ones who come with a barrage of questions and this can be a wonderful outlet for children who feel frustrated by having to wait their turn in the classroom. By contrast, it can also provide the opportunity for those less confident students to ask the questions that they might not feel able to ask in class (including the foolish ones); one of my key aims as a tutor is to encourage these questions right from the start, providing a safe environment for a child to start this process - for those who are significantly behind in their subject and who have spent months or even years trying to hide at the back of the classroom, it can take some time to break down these barriers.

Once a child is confident with a private tutor the opportunities are endless, but both student and tutor must remember that these opportunities are peculiar to the one-to-one relationship and cannot be mirrored in the mainstream classroom. As someone who tries to do their best in both worlds, I am constantly reminded of this fact.

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Back-to-School Nightmares and The Last Supper

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, September 02, 2018 15:43:17
No matter how long you've been on this side of the desk (almost 20 years for me), the back-to-school nerves never seem to go away.

It's completely inexplicable. I like my job very much, I have a good work-life balance and I know for a fact that the second I set foot in the classroom, all will be right with the world. I don't recall having a terrible first class with any group, certainly not since my training days; yet without fail, at the end of every summer, the feeling returns.

Over the years I have learnt to manage the process more effectively. I accept that it will be difficult to sleep the night before our return, so I stock up on an over-the-counter sleep remedy, which helps. After one awful year when I was plagued by horrendous anxiety-related gut cramps, I also watch what I eat and drink and am careful not to overload on food or on alcohol on the couple of nights before term starts; it's just a little bit too easy, past experience has taught me, to enjoy the Last Supper only to end up paying for it in agony.

The last few nights of the summer holiday are often visited by anxiety dreams. For me, these tend to take the form of the nightmare class that won't be quiet. Again, this is something that I do not expect to happen in reality but clearly the anxiety is there. Other colleagues have reported classic anxiety dreams involving lateness to work and (my personal favourite) being so late for a school trip that it was absolutely essential to leave home immediately and get behind the wheel of the school minibus completely naked; there was simply no time to get dressed, apparently.

My family and non-teaching friends find the nerves surprising and to some extent concerning. In truth, they are neither. For I know from others that my experience is not uncommon. As I settle into bed on the last night before the new academic year rolls around, teachers like me across the whole country will be lying awake.

There is comfort in that solidarity.

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Superprof purchase of The Tutor Pages

TutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 30, 2018 10:22:46
Some disturbing stories have come out surrounding the recent purchase of the UK-based site called The Tutor Pages by global brand Superprof.

Many tutors have reported that The Tutor Pages was their main source of clients and it must have been an unimaginably devastating shock to learn that the site had been disbanded with no warning, no consultation.

I am disturbed by reports that Superprof have been unhelpful and unwilling to issue refunds to clients unhappy about this extraordinary takeover, yet I am even more shocked by the behaviour of the now-defunct company they have bought. What kind of company says nothing about an impending takeover to its paying customers? This wouldn't matter so much if the new company had bought the domain name and maintained the service as it was - but this is emphatically not the case; indeed the look of the new site, the way it operates and its general approach could not be more different.

Superprof operates under a completely different business model from that set up by The Tutor Pages. Tutors can sign up for free but are (of course) encouraged to "upgrade" to what's marketed as a superior service for a fee (and I wonder whether tutors previously signed up to The Tutor Pages were assumed to be new paying customers for Superprof? Hmmmm). Their main source of revenue, however, lies in charging potential clients for tutors' contact details. They are by no means the only company that operate under this model and I'm not saying it's a bad one - the point is that the model is completely different from that used by the purchased company. Tutors (myself included) who had previously signed up to the now-defunct Tutor Pages paid a fee upfront to advertise on the site - potential clients were not charged. I can see why people are angry at being migrated to a site that operates under a completely different model, as well as one that is yet to prove itself as a reliable source of UK-based clients.

I advertise as a tutor on a range of sites and until the recent takeover The Tutor Pages was one of them. As it happens I have gained relatively few clients from this kind of advertising. My own website performs very well on Google thanks to the combination of my relatively obscure specialist subject and a killer domain name; most of my referrals therefore come via my own website, local advertising, word of mouth and (weirdly) my Facebook page.

The first Tutor Pages customers learned of the takeover was a chirpy email from Superprof informing us of the switch and assuring us that our details had been transferred without a hitch. Hmmmm I thought. Reading on, it seemed that I had been assigned a laughably insecure password and this in itself was enough to send me scrambling to the computer to delete my details with immediate effect. (How all of this is allowed under GDPR is anybody's guess).

Following the precaution of deleting my transferred details, and since I tend think it's worth sticking an advert wherever one can (especially for free), I signed up afresh with new details and even started the process of asking old clients to make recommendations on my Superprof profile. I'd never heard of Superprof before but thought "ah well. Why not?"


Having done some further research I have deleted my account again. The way this whole takeover has been handled is shocking and I do not wish to be associated with such a company. In addition, I noticed that my details were appearing under Superprof on a Google search with entirely the wrong fees listed (half the price of my actual charges) plus the link was broken. I queried this with Superprof and having waited over 24 hours for a response I had already decided to cut my losses and delete the account. I had also read complaints from numerous tutors that their fees had been listed wrongly and having browsed the site I know for a fact that there are tutors on there with their listings still incorrect - I have seen them advertise elsewhere and know their rates - some of them have had their rates slashed by two thirds on Superprof and no doubt they are blissfully unaware.

I note from Twitter discussions that lots of tutors have had an outrageous battle to get their registration fee back. I wasn't too worried about chasing them for a refund of my original fee paid to The Tutor Pages as on checking my records it was due to expire in a couple of months so I figured it wasn't worth the hassle. Others have been more determined and I congratulate them on not taking this lying down.

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Those Who Can't Preach

Religion in SchoolsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Fri, August 24, 2018 10:01:01

My first novel contained a thought experiment in which a somewhat inept RE teacher finds herself out of a job. Her demise came as a result of one well-meaning but thoughtless response to a vulnerable student and, as I crafted the tale, I felt sympathy with that character, even as I fashioned her downfall.

As a teacher, I fear it’s impossible to keep your thoughts, emotions and biases out of the classroom completely, however hard you might try. Teaching is personal – it has to be. We throw ourselves into it and, if I believed in the soul, I would say that teaching is a part of mine. It’s also immediate, and it’s not like the construction of a carefully-worded article. It’s us, in the flesh, on our feet, all the time: as an educator, a guide, a philosopher, a fool, a blagger, a gatekeeper and a showman. Speaking as a teacher and indeed as a person who could probably benefit from closing her mouth on occasion, I felt a certain sympathy for my ill-fated creation, even though her views differed wildly from my own.

But there is a darker story behind the tale that I told, a real version which dates back to the early 1980s, when I was on the other side of the desk. You know, the good old days when some schools still had corporal punishment and teachers could say whatever they liked? I share the real incident now as an illustration of the sort of thing that can happen when preaching is allowed to enter the classroom.

In my final year at a Church of England all-girls primary school, the headmistress took it upon herself to give us a talk on ‘the facts of life’ or ‘body matters’ as she called them. There was a general sense of excitement and trepidation amongst most of the girls, but I remember being bored during much of the talk; it was pretty tame stuff and besides, I already knew ‘the facts’ from home. Despite my disinterest, I have a hazy recollection of zoning back into the room as the head was intoning her views on abortion.

Abortion was wrong. Fact. If we had ‘sinned’ (by having sex before marriage), and in doing so had gone and got ourselves pregnant, then that child must be born. Something told me that her views were a little extreme, but before I had even had time to make sense of them in my head, I suddenly heard my name and then realised that everyone was looking at me. In her eagerness to make her point, our headmistress had decided to cite me as an example of someone who could ‘quite easily’ have been lost to the world as a result of a termination.

Head swimming, I tried to make sense of what she was saying. My parents were happily married, so how did my home situation fit with the den of iniquity she had been describing thus far? As far as I could gather, due to the fact that I have a mild version of a condition called Goldenhar syndrome (which does not, by the way, affect anything other than certain aspects of my appearance) my parents might have decided not to have me. Now, there was a thought! But the headmistress put her hand on my shoulder, warmly and benevolently, and turned me to face my classmates. ‘Wouldn’t that have been terrible?’ she asked them. They all nodded, dutifully.

Now it may not surprise you to know that my ten-year-old self had not exactly contemplated my own termination as a possibility before. I was blessed with loving parents, who made me feel like the most important thing in their lives. Why on earth would the idea have occurred to me?

Quite why this headteacher felt it her place to introduce me to the idea seems impossible to fathom – until, of course, one remembers her convictions. I’m quite sure she thought she’d done a marvellous deed, and I wonder to this day to what extent she succeeded; did she persuade the majority of girls in that room of her beliefs? I do hope not.

My objection to her tactics, speaking not as the person affected but as a teaching professional, is this: it was clearly more important to her to preach her morality than it was to consider the individual welfare of a child in her class. And that, I believe, is the biggest danger with preaching.

This piece was first published in 2014 in Humanist Life.

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