Alejandro Escamilla

Private tutoring is an excellent option for any professionals with the appropriate credentials. Academic qualifications are obviously a pre-requisite, but they are only a part of the story.

Holding a First Class Honours degree in your chosen subject specialism does not make you an excellent teacher or tutor. There are a whole host of other skills and qualities that are necessary to become an effective private tutor.

Many of these are similar to the skills that lead to success as a teacher in schools – both primary and secondary – but they are not all transferable. Private tutoring often requires coming at things from a different angle and using alternative approaches.

Having said that, what is the same in being a teacher and a tutor, is that only those professionals who reflect on their practice and always strive to improve, develop and update their skills will remain outstanding at what they do.

Here are some tips on how to become an effective private tutor.

1. Curriculum knowledge 

Subject knowledge (and a passion for it) should be a given, but effective private tutors need to have a comprehensive understanding of the curriculum and the relevant examination specifications.

Parents seek private tutors for their children for a wide variety of reasons. While it’s possible that they want a professional to support their child with basic literacy or numeracy skills or specialist needs, such as dyslexia, it’s far more likely that the services of a tutor are required to prepare for an examination. Whether that’s KS2 SATS, the 11+, GCSEs or A levels, whatever your specialism is you need to know the examinations inside-out.

Where there is more than one specification (from different exam boards), an effective private tutor needs to get to grips with the course that one of their tutees is studying.

The four main examination boards: AQAEdexcelOCR and Eduqas cover GCSE and A level qualifications. All the board’s websites contain a wealth of useful information and resources for students and tutors alike.

But keeping up-to-date with subject knowledge is about much more than keeping abreast of curriculum changes. A tutor needs to be aware of any developments in subject pedagogy. Membership of one of the many professional bodies that exist for particular subjects is useful. For example, NATE (National Association for Teaching of English) is excellent for teachers/tutors of English at all levels.

2. Experience of examining

Nothing gives a teacher a better knowledge of an examination specification than having experience of being an examiner for it. As a teacher or a tutor, you need to be able to say to students: ‘this is what the examiner will be looking for’. You will have more credence making this statement if you are an examiner yourself.

Most examination boards have vacancies in most subjects for GCSE and A level. The work can be fit around other commitments, and it is a useful extra source of income. However, the greatest advantage of becoming an examiner is the insight it gives you into the whole examination process. Rightly or wrongly, it is through performance in examinations that students are judged as being a ‘success’ – the more knowledge a tutor has of exams, the better it will be for the tuition sessions they give. Examining experience sharpens your teaching. It’s a fantastic extra ‘string to your bow’.

3. Get to the root of the problem

To be an effective private tutor, you need to get a firm grasp of what the student’s ‘problem’ is. What is the barrier to learning? What is exactly that they struggle to understand? What are the hurdles they can’t jump over?

Getting to the root of the problem means that a far better placed to fix it. It’s always an excellent idea to carry out some form of assessment with a tutee early on in the learning programme. This might be a practice paper or a selection of questions. You need to use your professional judgement to decide what would make a suitable assessment.

Asking to see a student’s school exercise books and/or assessments is also useful. This will give you a flavour of their ability and will usually expose where the weaknesses and barriers to learning lie.

What you are doing, essentially, is gathering an evidence base and forming a profile of a tutee’s ability. In virtually all cases, it will also help you to identify the root of the problem. Underachievement at school might be as a result of any number of factors, but from a purely subject-based point of view, assessing the student early on will give you valuable information.

4. Be an excellent listener

 Crucial to understanding what a student’s difficulties are is having superb listening skills. Listen carefully to what they have to say. Flexibility is the key so that you can tailor your sessions to meet the needs of a particular student. This, of course, is one of the main advantages on one-to-one tuition. Unlike a classroom situation, where you potentially have 30 students all vying for your attention, here there is just you and your student.

5. ‘One size fits all’ will not work

 Teachers will understand fully that no two classes are ever the same – even if ‘on paper’ their academic data suggests they should be. Taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach to class teaching and assuming that what worked with one class will automatically have the same impact with another is a recipe for disaster.

With private tutoring, this is even more so. It is your job to produce bespoke, personalised learning. This is what parents will expect to see. In a whole-class situation it can be a real challenge to personalise learning and cater for the variety of individual needs that students will have. In private tuition, the personalisation is really the key aspect of what you need to do.

6. Be engaging

 Although the reason you are tutoring a student might be, essentially, to ‘get them through’ an exam, it doesn’t have to be dull and boring! Yes, the focus might have to be on past examination papers, but always look for innovative approaches that will inspire the learner.

There are various websites that provide access to a vast range of resources, such as Teachit, for most subjects and levels. Many of these can be easily adapted for private tuition.

Otherwise though the principle of planning a private tuition session should be the same as it would be for planning a classroom lesson. Start with your aims and objectives – what it is that you want the student to have learned in the session (be that a skill, topic or type of question); then think of engaging an innovative ways of supporting the student to reach the aims and objectives.

7. Connect with your tutees

Getting through to a student is vital. All of us learn in different ways and prefer different styles. It can be hard to cater for everyone in a class of 30, but it’s essential to a class of 1!

An effective private tutor understands a student’s needs precisely and can devise strategies to address those needs.

Patience, a friendly nature and being clear in your teaching are all vital. A tutee needs to feel that you are helping and supporting them in becoming more confident in a subject.

8. Embrace technology

Young people are intuitive with technology and are very tech savvy. Look for opportunities to build on this in your sessions. It will help with engagement – and it could be a useful way for a student to extend their learning in their own time.

One option is the vast range of revision apps that are currently on the market. Take a look at Educational App Store to see just a small selection of what’s on offer. Microsoft PowerPoint (although hardly new) is still a useful and engaging way of communicating information to students. Another presentation tool that is particularly engaging is Prezi.

Video can be a superb way of engaging students, and as most smartphones and tablets have video capability these days, video is a media form that has become much more accessible. Even simpler than that is using ‘voice memo’ functions on a smartphone – making it easy for a tuition session to be recorded so that the student can refer back to it at a later date. Podcasts can be another excellent way of extending learning. These are relatively easy to produce for your students, and there are businesses that specialise in this area too. For example, Audiopi produce a range of A level and GCSE audio tutorials and podcasts in several subjects. These can be an effective way of extending and building on the work that you do with a student in a tuition session.

9. Set homework

On that note, it is important to set homework that builds on the content of a tutoring session. Using apps could be a way to do this. You don’t want to over-burden a student, but follow-up work, independent study or research is always beneficial.

One of the potential problems of one-to-one tuition is that the tutor can sometimes actually be too supportive to the student. You have the opportunity to help and guide at every turn (unlike whole class teaching). At the end of the day, they will need to show what they can do totally independently. Homework tasks are an excellent way of gauging whether a student has grasped what you have taught them.

10. Make it personal

You will be thoroughly professional at all times, of course. But making tutoring sessions personal is one of the most important factors in becoming an effective private tutor.

Use personalised approaches that suit the needs of a learner. Create an individualised learning plan and take a personal interest in the student. A brief chat about hobbies, interests or what the student has done in the week before can make a big difference.

Follow these tips, and you will become an effective private tutor – one who inspires and has a real impact.

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