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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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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A Warning from the Chalkface

Teaching & tutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 16, 2018 08:42:14

An extreme case of unprofessional tutoring ...

To illustrate the risk that I believe parents are taking when they employ a tutor without asking the right kinds of questions, I wish to share the story of a student in my current school. It is perhaps the worst case I have come across of a family being let down at the hands of an unqualified, inexperienced and frankly unprofessional tutor.

At the end of Year 9, this student opted not to continue with Latin to GCSE within the school Options system. However, her mother decided that she would like her to pursue the subject outside of school through private tuition. Sadly, this parent did not seek my advice, and the first I was made aware of the situation was when the child came to see me in the January of her final year and asked if she could sit the Latin Mock examination along with my students. She explained that she had been receiving private tuition over the last two years and hoped to sit the exams that Summer.

It was fine for her to sit the Mock that I had written, I said, but there would be a problem if she had studied different texts from the ones that my students had been working on.

She looked at me blankly. “Texts?”

“Yes,” I said, “the verse and prose literature that you have studied. Which texts have you covered?”

To cut a long story short, it quickly became apparent that she had not studied any texts or indeed any sources material. This meant that she had not covered around 50% of the examination material. When I pressed further, it transpired that she also had not been given the required vocabulary list of around 350 words to learn. I was aghast.

I contacted the girl’s mother urgently. Upon further investigation it turned out (of course) that the child had not even been entered for the exam, her mother completely unaware that this is a formal process that must be done (and indeed paid for) well in advance – it doesn’t just happen by magic. It took me some considerable time to explain that not only was it probably too late for her child to be entered that year, it would also be simply impossible for her to sit the four compulsory written papers and perform well in them given her lack of formal preparation; even giving the tutor the benefit of the doubt that she had taught the grammar well (I must admit I am doubtful about this), the child did not know the required vocabulary and the literature papers would be a complete mystery to her.

Remarkably, the child’s mother defended the private tutor hotly, insisting that she was happy with the service she had provided. I pointed out that this tutor had taken her money, claimed to be preparing her daughter for an exam that she knew absolutely nothing about and failed to advise her on the entry process. Still, she defended her; it was quite extraordinary. In the end, we agreed to disagree on the woman’s professional qualities. The only other contact I had with the girl’s mother after that was when she passed on a brief request from the tutor in question – could I send her a link to the subject specification?! Unbelievable. Given that this was publicly available information and something she should have looked at two years previously, I’m afraid I refused.

This case is obviously extreme, but it does illustrate the potential risk that parents are taking when they assume that all tutors are the same.

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Should you employ a tutor who is not a teacher?

Teaching & tutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Wed, August 15, 2018 13:47:26

Writing this makes me nervous. It has been on my mind as a topic for several years, but until now I have avoided committing my thoughts to writing. This is partly self-preservation: I am not keen to receive an onslaught of complaints. Mostly, though, it is a desire to protect other people; I have met numerous private tutors without formal teaching qualifications, all of whom seem committed and passionate, many of whom clearly do a great job. I do not wish to denigrate what they do.

My concerns about the explosion of unqualified tutors offering their services do not mean that all tutors without professional qualifications are to be avoided; however, I do have serious concerns about some of them and I believe that parents should approach the situation with their eyes wide open.

Let me be clear from the outset that my core concerns are in a particular area, namely tutoring support towards a specific examination goal. If your child is struggling in a subject and you would simply like their confidence boosted, there are a huge range of tutors that can probably help with this, including your enthusiastic nephew in his second year at university. However, if you would like your child tutored to a particular examination, and particularly if you are relying on the tutor to prepare them for that examination in its entirety, I would urge parents in the strongest possible terms to think carefully about what kind of tutor they employ.

Private tuition has exploded in recent years and the number of parents choosing it as an option for their child has risen to a record high. More and more parents are spending money on the service and the plethora of private companies touting for business in this field is frankly bewildering. I have been approached by dozens of providers keen to add me to their books and to take a slice of my profits for doing so. I have registered with some services that allow tutors to maintain full control over their work, and some have been diligent in chasing up evidence of my qualifications and experience. Most, however, have not.

It is my belief that this industry will soon face regulation; the government is already under pressure to address the fact that there is no current requirement for tutors working with children to have a DBS check. It would not surprise me if, within the next three to five years, tutors are forced to go through some kind of registration process at the very least. Will this make a difference to the concerns that I have? Highly unlikely.

If I were seeking a private tutor to guide my child towards a particular examination, these are the questions that I would be asking:

1. Is the tutor a qualified teacher? If so, what experience do they have? What was/is their specialism (both subject and age group), what kind of school did/do they work in and for how long? What were/are their results like?

2. If they are a retired teacher, has the syllabus that they will be teaching to changed since they retired? How have they ensured that they are up-to-date with the new specification? (Full time teachers in service have training provided, much of it directly from the examination boards; when I retire from classroom teaching, I will choose to set aside funds to pay for my own training when required).

3. Have they ever worked as a professional marker? If not, why not? I would make this a priority question if I were considering an unqualified teacher. Anyone with the right subject knowledge can apply to work as a professional marker; you receive superb training and you get paid for it! If a tutor hasn’t opted to do this it would suggest to me that they have no interest in gaining an insight into the examination process.

4. How much experience have they had with one-to-one tutoring? Can they give examples of students that they have helped and can they share testimonials from parents who can vouch for previous successes in the relevant examinations?

In addition to these questions, a fairly recent article in the Telegraph, written by a qualified teacher and experienced tutor, gives some really good advice on how to choose the right tutor for your child. Ignore it at your peril. In my next blog post, I will be sharing the most shocking case I have come across to date of how an unqualified and inexperienced tutor can let you down.

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Dusting off the Chalkface

Teaching & tutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Mon, August 13, 2018 11:57:42

Many trained teachers try their hand at tutoring: demand is high and the money is useful. I first returned to it when my husband gave up work to re-train, but have found myself bound to it by more than just financial necessity; I now believe strongly that private tutoring has had a profoundly positive impact on my work as a classroom teacher.

It may sound absurd, but it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re paid to do in the frenetic world of mainstream education; marking and administrative tasks – not to mention the 35 “Teachers’ Standards” – can overwhelm you to the point where you lose perspective on what’s actually important. Tutoring, by contrast, has reignited my passion for teaching on a fundamental level; not only has it taken me back to some essential skills, it has made me question the value of some other things that were taking up too much of my time. It has made me better at saying “no” to things that might impact on my ability to perform my teaching role to the best of my ability; as a direct result, I have stepped aside from roles and responsibilities that were in danger of doing so.

Furthermore, tutoring has exposed me to a wider range of specifications and teaching methodologies. Habits inevitably become entrenched when you teach the same subject in the same system to the same age-group for a number of years: tutoring has forced me to think again. The highest area of demand for tutoring in my subject has been for Common Entrance coaching, so – despite the fact that I am a secondary school teacher – this has now become my tutoring specialism. Finding out what some 10-year-olds are exposed to and can cope with has made me question where I set the bar in secondary school; it has also made me ask myself some fundamental questions about what, when and why I teach the core principles to older students.

Yet by far the biggest impact on me has been a powerful shift in mind-set that is hard to quantify. In the last two years, I have taken several students from the bottom of their class to the top. What this feels like is hard to convey, but suffice to say it is emphatically empowering. This positivity has filtered into my classroom practice and has somehow made me feel as if anything were possible. This is not to say that I am naïve about the fundamental differences between what can be achieved through one-to-one tutoring and what can be realised in the mainstream classroom – indeed I have written before on this very topic. But experiencing the irreplaceable value of one-to-one attention has forced me to think of ways in which I can provide more of this in the classroom, particularly for our Pupil Premium students (those who are defined by the government as coming from disadvantaged backgrounds). Blessed with an excellent trainee teacher this year, I have taken the opportunity to act as an expert Teaching Assistant to our Pupil Premium students in her classes, coaching and guiding them to make more progress than they otherwise could.

For the future, I hope that both my tutoring and my classroom teaching will continue to develop and to impact on each other both in practice and in outcomes.

This piece was originally published in July 2018 on the Tutors Association blog.

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