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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Flute? You Still Exist??

Besides a certain few people, there are only a few things I truly love in this world.  One is words.  And the other is music.

I played flute almost all of middle and high school, which equals out to about 9 years.  It was where I made some of my best high school friends and made some of my favorite memories.  Band gave me a sense of belonging that I had never found anywhere else.  But since I started college, I’ve barely played.

Why I Haven’t Played My Flute in Ages

  • No time.  How am I supposed to spend time with my boyfriend and my friends and my family and keep up with my classwork and sleep a little and still find time to play?  (Well, if you would quit watching Netflix, that would probably help…)
  • No one to play with.  While flute solos are wonderful, it gets a little dull just paying for myself after six years of concert band.  (Church orchestras!  University ensembles!  Start a band!  Your boyfriend plays guitar, for Pete’s sake!)
  • My teeth don’t want me to.  When I got my braces put on, it made it difficult to keep a good tone.  When I got them off, it made it even worse.  (Wah, wah.  Like you didn’t know music was hard work.)

The italicized side of my brain, prodded by said guitar-playing boyfriend, inclined me to pick up my flute the other day and play a few scales.  And even though I wasn’t perfect, my tone sounded significantly better than it did the last time I tried, and the last time, and the last time.  I ended my little practice session in a much better mood than I was in when I began.

Why I Want to Start Playing Again

  • I was good.  (Yay, talent and self-esteem!)
  • I know exactly what I need to do to hone my skill again.  (Long tones, here I come.)
  • I spent 9 years learning to play well.  (Waste all that money?  I don’t think so.)
  • It just damn well makes me happy.

Cheers to being happy.  Even if it means work.

Flute Lesson Take Two

I am writing this is an haze of elation.  My blood is jumping in my veins and I feel like I can take on anything!  Even the most mundane tasks are okay to me right now, and I’m actually motivated to do them.

This is how success makes me feel.

Last week, I taught my very first flute lesson, and it turned out a disaster.  I was not prepared, I was nervous, and I had no idea what was coming out of my mouth.  I sent my student and her mom out the door wondering if they would come back.

I panicked a bit today when they weren’t here at four, when they said they’d be.  Did she drop everything and run? I wondered.  Did she decide to go for someone more experienced?

But no, they showed up around 4:20, to my relief.  And this time, I knew exactly what I was doing.  

If it wasn’t for my own amazing teacher, this week would have been just like the first.  But at my own lesson this week, she gave me some teaching tips, and even copied off some pages out of a beginner book for me because I gave away my own.  She reminded me of a lot of technical stuff that I now take for granted, such as what to look for when you hold your flute.  I’ve been playing for so long that I just pick it up and blow, but there is a lot of skill that goes into just that.  She reminded me of finger placings that are very difficult for a beginner, things I wouldn’t have even thought about.  That woman is awesome.  Teachers are awesome.  

Because of that, I knew just what to say to A, my student.  I watched her blow into her head joint and gave her a few tips on that.  Then I made sure she was putting her flute together correctly and helped her with her finger placement.  Then we practiced making a good sound with the whole flute.

We spent most of the half hour doing that, and unlike last week, it passed really quickly.  She would blow into the whole flute until the sound wouldn’t come out anymore, then we would take the head joint out and try with just that a few times.  Then we’d put the flute back together, place our hands correctly, and blow into the whole flute.

I’ve realized that a lot of a flute lesson is teaching the student how to practice.  I can give A tips, and correct her mistakes in lessons, but the vast majority of skill comes from the student.  I have to guide her so she can teach herself.  And it’s really a cool thing!

I did make a few mistakes, of course.  I told A all about time signatures and measures even though she won’t be reading music for a while yet.  But maybe that will help her remember better when the time comes.  Who knows.  Right now I’m just happy I didn’t fail completely.  

The half hour was over before I knew it.  I copied off a name-that-note sheet for A to fill in and wrote out pretty detailed instructions for when she practices this week.  Then I sent them out the door, much happier, I’m sure, than last week.

I’ve taken several spiritual gifts tests over the years, and teaching always comes up as one of mine.  I’ve wondered about this, because I’m not really great at explaining things unless I write out what I’m going to say.  But today confirmed that those tests aren’t wrong.  Now I feel like I really can do this.  I really can teach A to be a good player.

Teaching is already helping me to know myself better, as well.  My main spiritual gift usually comes up as administration, and I’ve read that spiritual administrators write everything down — just like I have to write down how I explain concepts.  Now I can see how my gifts work together within my personality.  They aren’t separate attributes; they are two parts that are distinct, but that blend together to make me who I am.  That, my friends, is really a profound discovery.

You know how people say that teaching teaches the teacher more than the student?  I get that now.

Thank Your Teachers

After yesterday, I have a new appreciation for teachers everywhere.

In my last Forpy post, I told you that I now have a flute student, which is awesome because I could use the money.  I was nervous for our first lesson, but really, I thought, I’ve been playing for nine years.  How hard could it be?  I googled some flute basics, because I can never seem to remember the exact mechanics of how a flute makes sound, but other than that — dude, I’m practically an expert.

insert extreme sarcasm

 My student, A, and her mom came around 4.  I welcomed them in, chatted a bit, and looked at A’s flute, a pretty Selmer.  I told her the names of the pieces and showed her how to put it together.  Then I asked her to blow into the head joint, and my (already very minimal) plans fell apart.

She had a beautiful tone for a beginner. When I started playing, it took me a month just to make a sound.  A had had her flute for a week, and she already had this gorgeous tone.  I had planned on spending most of the half hour teaching her how to hold her mouth, but obviously that went down the drain.  Great going, Sarah.  

After that the lesson was a mess.  I gave her a few embouchure tips, and then I sort of said, “Well…”  I awkwardly looked at the clock.  About ten minutes had passed.  I was going to die.

“She does need to learn to read music,” her mom said helpfully (or unhelpfully).

I had completely forgotten about reading music.  What musician forgets about music??  My thought train was so scattered the next few minutes A and her mom must have thought I was nuts. 

Oh, yes, I thought.  Music.  That thing.  Well, A, this is the musical alphabet.  It only has five — no, six — how many letters are there?  Let me count on my fingers.  Do I have staff paper anywhere? I used to…let me kill a few minutes searching for some.  Hmm, can’t find any…notebook paper will do.  Here’s a staff, five lines…this is a treble clef…you know, flutes play in treble clef…here are the space notes and the line notes…isn’t there some kind of mnemonic for learning those?  Anyway, I’m having a really bad time explaining this to you, so let’s just learn how to hold your flute!  Seven minutes to go.  Arrgghhh.

I showed her how to handle her flute properly, then I was at a loss yet again.

“Is there some sort of book she’ll need or anything like that?” A’s mom asked.

Ah, yes!  I wrote down the name of the book.  Then, I gave up on the “expert” front (or rather, acknowledged that it had been given up twenty minutes ago).

“You know,” I said, “you are my first student.  I know I’m not really explaining things the best way, so please [please, please, please] let me know if something doesn’t make sense or there’s anything I’ve forgotten.  I’ll definitely be learning along with you, A.”  It’s sure a good thing I’m giving you a discounted rate.  I really hope you think I’m worthwhile.

“Yes, we’ll do that,” A’s mom responded.  “We literally know nothing about music, so as much detail as you can give us would be great.  Can you write down exactly what she needs to practice this week?”

I did.  There were still three minutes left.  “Well, I really don’t know what else…”

“Can you play a bit for us?” mom asked brightly.  

Sure, sure.  I went and got my flute, explaining that my tone wasn’t great because I had just gotten my braces.  I played a few scales and went into the high and low ranges.  Then finally, finally, the lesson was at an end.

I showed A how to clean her flute, A’s mom and I discussed payments, and I sent them out the door.  Then I shriveled into a crisp of shame.

Ya’ll, teaching is phenomenally harder than it looks.  For one thing, it takes a lot of planning, which I really didn’t do.  (Shame on me.)  For another, it takes talent and practice to be able to explain things in a way that someone can understand them.  I’m afraid I do not have that gift, but I can learn.  (Yes, I can!  I can hear you doubting.)  

I better learn fast, because A is coming back next week.  Man, weeks have never seemed so short.