by R. Brandon Horner

A beginner’s guide to tutoring.

As a New Englander in a small southern liberal arts college, I was intrigued by the small but natural differences in the way my classmates spoke. It wasn’t just “y’all”—in addition to their inflections and accents, there were phrases that I’d never heard before, phrases that made total sense to my peers and none to me. Twenty years later, one of these phrases has stayed with me: when a grade came back in a class, instead of asking “What did you get?” my southern friends asked, “What did you make?”

As in, “What did you make on the Econ midterm?” I loved that. It’s easy to think of a grade as something a teacher “gives” to a student, instead of realizing that a grade, more than anything else, is a product of the student’s creation.

After two decades as a classroom teacher, I can appreciate even more the symbolism of this phrase, and I make a point to tell my students this quick anecdote at the start of every school year. I think of this distinction often when parents ask me about arranging a tutor for their children. Both as a tutor myself (and as a classroom teacher whose students occasionally need additional help outside the classroom), I’ve come to realize that the best tutoring experiences occur when the student and parent understand that tutoring is not a Band-Aid. Instead, it’s an opportunity for a student to make themselves better, to change both in habit and philosophy. Tutoring is, to riff on the phrase, whatever the student is willing to make of it.

To clarify, there are a lot of kinds of tutors—tutors for academic remediation are the first that come to mind, but there are also tutors who work with students in lower-stakes situations. When a child is doing so well in school that their parents decide to supplement their education with additional support, tutoring becomes less stressful and more engaging—like a piano lesson for an accomplished musician or a training session for a skilled soccer player. There are tutors who help students in non-academic ways as well. (I was once hired by a parent to give “social-awareness” lessons to their child. We covered some basics like how to shake hands, how to look people in the eye, how to make polite conversation, how to write a thank-you note.) Like enrichment tutoring, the stakes are low in these situations. The flip side is a tutoring situation in which the stakes are very high and there is a specific, external goal in mind. Most often this occurs with tutors who specialize in preparing students for certain tests—the SAT, for example—and this kind of tutoring is more formulaic and has a clear end-goal.

But tutoring when a student is having difficulty in school is the most common kind, and it can be fraught right from the beginning. One of the first questions I’m often asked by parents when their child is struggling in school is: “Do we need to hire a tutor?” Some parents ask this question with a lot of trepidation, as if the answer is a kind of loaded diagnosis. Others ask the question clearly hoping my answer is “yes,” because then at least they’ll have what looks like a way to fix a problem. But hiring a tutor to occupy a weekly hour of a student’s life doesn’t instantly solve an issue, and so the tutoring question is one I have to weigh carefully before I answer. Because tutoring works really well in some situations and not so well in others. Sure, a lot depends on the quality of the tutor—their knowledge and experience and expertise. But there are a number of other factors at play.

In a perfect world, parents don’t have to make this call on their own: their child’s school does the responsible thing: after observing the student for a few weeks and meeting with a team of professionals, the school administration recommends that the child receive some academic help outside of school. Maybe the school even has a team of tutors whom they recommend, seasoned educators who know what they’re doing. And maybe, after a handful of sessions over the course of a few weeks, whatever academic issue the child was having disappears. This is an ideal scenario, but unfortunately, it’s not how it often plays out. In fact, it’s a bit of a fantasy.

Instead, the decision to hire a tutor usually comes in response to pain. Parents see their child struggling at home and it hurts. There is nightly pushback and fighting and exasperation: tears at the kitchen table because they don’t understand how to do their homework, a crumpled test at the bottom of their bookbag. Maybe the child becomes secretive about their performance in school; when their peers talk about their marks on the Spanish quiz or their study plan for the upcoming Math exam, the child clams up. Parents turn to tutoring as a kind of last resort.

I would hope it doesn’t get to that. Actually, I would hope that every parent would consider hiring a tutor for their child, even if they don’t think they “need to.” Too often, parents rely on non-academic extracurriculars to round out their child’s schedule. Instead of signing a child up for that third sport, why not have them work with an academic tutor who could take them beyond wherever they’re going in the classroom?

A tutor should commit to working with a child regularly, but I would avoid meeting more often than once a week. I have found that 45-minute sessions are best for middle-school and high-school-aged students; anything longer can be a drag. I’m happy to travel to students’ homes to work with them, but I do ask that there is a dedicated and semi-private workspace is made available. Parents certainly want to avoid having their child work with a tutor in the middle of the house, which, depending on the family, can seem like Grand Central Station. Though parents like to “listen in” during a tutoring session, I find that students are less willing to engage if they know that Mom or Dad is listening from the hallway.

There have been a few times when I’ve worked privately with groups of students, particularly when we’ve read the same novel and the session operates as a kind of book club. This can work if the children all know each other and are comfortable with speaking up in front of their peers. Certainly, students benefit from attending another academic experience that mimics a small-sized class. However, though this kind of tutoring can seem beneficial and less intense, I don’t see the individual growth in the participants that’s often found in one-on-one tutoring.

It helps to see tutoring as a temporary experience for a finite amount of time. Both for the tutor and the student, understanding that their work together is not going to last forever can add urgency and meaning to their sessions. If I know I’m only going to meet with a student six times, I can set what I want to accomplish in that time period, and the family has the opportunity to reassess after we’re done. I can focus on the skills that I’m trying to impart, and our sessions are more likely to stay focused on an end goal. One thing I refuse to do as a tutor is to become the homework police. If students are not intrinsically motivated to complete their work, their parents are the parties most effective in creating change—having a stranger’s encouragement doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. This can be difficult for parents who believe that hiring a tutor “takes it off [their] plate.” Above all else, tutors should never complete a student’s work for them. There’s a clear line between supporting a student and covering for them, and in my experience, parents don’t seem to mind crossing it. I even had a parent ask me to log in to their child’s college application portal and complete all the submissions for them, simply because their child refused to do it herself. Tutors should run away from situations like these, as I did.

Sometimes when I’m calculating grades at the end of a marking period, I notice that despite the two-dozen-or-so assessments over the course of a few months, a student will have almost the exact same average as they did in the previous marking period. The answer, of course, is that the student is the same person they were in the fall, and this is not always a bad thing. It’s hard to change. Expecting quick miracles, especially when children are involved, can be a waste of time. Instead, I’ve learned to look for small, incremental improvements; a student whose average goes from 84% to 88%. These are the kinds of changes that parents can expect from good tutors, given the correct circumstances. EDGE