3 Lessons I Learned From Being a Tutor

Tutors are everywhere in American culture.  Almost everyone I knew growing up, including me, had a tutor at one point or another — music lessons and ACT prep were as common as dirt among my group of peers.  As a society, we are very focused on individual achievement, so it makes sense that we have tutors to hone our skills and make us the best people that we can be.  What we don’t realize is how much our tutors learn from us, too.

I have a (very) little experience being a tutor.  The summer before I started college I taught a beginner flute student, and last semester I was asked to tutor a beginner Spanish student here at Tech.  I knew both would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how inadequate I would feel.  Through teaching, I learned a lot of important lessons about teaching, business, and myself.

1.  Teachers aren’t responsible for output.

I am very results driven.  I love to cross items off lists.  If I spend two hours working on a project and don’t finish it, it bothers me a bit that I can’t mark it out of my planner yet, because if I don’t acknowledge accomplishments somehow, that time feels wasted.  I really had to rethink this last semester when I had my Spanish student.  Foreign languages aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that they are difficult.  But even when I did my best to quiz my student on vocab and explain weird grammar concepts, her grades didn’t improve much.  For the first month or so, this really bothered me.  I felt that I was failing her as a teacher, and thought that maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

I talked to my mom about it, because she has been a tutor for years.  She helped me realize that I wasn’t responsible for my student’s grades.  My job was to do my best, and the rest was on her.  There was only so much quizzing and explaining I could do in an hour a week, and then it was up to her to study and quiz herself.  Teachers can explain stuff till they’re blue in the face, but students are responsible for their own learning.

2.  Boundaries are extremely important

Last semester, I really wanted to be a good tutor.  I wanted to make myself as available as possible, and that desire led me to hold several extra sessions without asking for payment.  Part of this was because, as I said above, I felt bad that my student’s grades weren’t improving, and I didn’t feel that I deserved to be paid.  But this meant that I lost hours of valuable homework time during one of my busiest semesters ever.  By the time I realized I should have been compensated for my time, I had already set a precedent.

If I ever decide to take on another Spanish student, I won’t be so altruistic.  Tutoring, like any other service, is a business, and I needed to separate my own emotions from the service I was offering.  If there is a next time, I need to be sure to mention up front whether or not I’m willing to fit extra sessions in, and need to explicitly mention that I expect to be paid for every session, which most people, I think, would find reasonable.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every time someone benefits from my Spanish knowledge, I expect to be paid.  I’m more than happy to help a friend with an assignment or read over a paper.  However, this was an instance where I needed to view tutoring as work.  I wouldn’t have taken an extra shift at a regular job for free, so I shouldn’t have tutored for free either.

3.  No one ever stops learning.

When I first took on my flute student in high school, I had 9 years of my own private flute lessons under my belt.  I wasn’t the best player by any means, but I could definitely hold my own in a band or as a soloist.  But when I started teaching my beginner student, I realized there was a lot I had forgotten.

The very first lesson I taught was a disaster.  I had trouble filling up the half hour because I didn’t know what to do or say.  I showed my student a few things, but I realized I didn’t remember enough about being a beginner to teach.  That week, I went back to my own teacher for pointers, and she reminded me of several things to look out for — good posture, finger positioning, and embouchure techniques that had become second nature to me.

This happened with my Spanish student, as well.  I was used to using a lot of different verb tenses, for example, but had to remember how to explain when and why each was used.  I also had to relearn a lot of vocabulary that I had been taught, but had not used in a long time.  Both of these experiences were very humbling, and it reminded me that just being good at something doesn’t make me an expert.  Albert Einstein once said,

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

I don’t know if I will ever tutor again.  I enjoyed it, but there are so many other things I want to try to do with my life.  However, my small experience as a tutor has definitely given me a whole new appreciation for teachers everywhere.

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One thought on “3 Lessons I Learned From Being a Tutor

  1. dkmathstats

    With regards to the first point in the article, tutors can only do so much. Us tutors can be compared to (tennis) coaches. It is up to the player/student to come up with the results they really want.

    I have found that tutoring sessions help not only the student but the tutor as well. Over time as a math tutor, I have observed and experienced a variety of personalities and learning styles. One has to be prepared to adapt to student needs and provide solutions appropriately.

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