02 October 2013

Some advice for new tutors

1) Do not take anything for granted

The more I tutor, the less I assume about what any given student can or cannot do. In fact, now assume that my students do *not* possess any given skill until they’ve clearly demonstrated to me that they’ve mastered it — and that includes reading the words that are actually on the page. Harsh? Perhaps, but I’ve learned the hard way that students, even high scoring ones, often have unexpected and sometimes very large gaps that need to be addressed as quickly and directly as possible.

Here’s a brief sampling of things students of mine have not known:

-SAT passages have arguments; they’re not just “talking about stuff.”

-Introductions and conclusions contain important information

-Discussing an idea is not the same thing as agreeing with that idea; phrases like “some people think” indicate that an author is introducing an idea they do NOT agree with.

-Main ideas usually come before, not after, specific examples.

-The word “important” is important>

-A colon can be used to introduce an explanation.

-“Is,” “are,” and “were” are all parts of the verb “to be.”

-Singular verbs end in an -s; plural verbs do not.

-How to sound out unfamiliar words (thank you whole language!)

And the following vocabulary words: permanent (two students in the same week, both native English speakers — I’m still reeling from that one), surrender, compromise (first meaning), tendency, and chronicle.

2) Take everything your students say in stride

Do not *ever* criticize or make fun or them for not knowing as much as you or your other students. You have no idea what they have or haven’t covered in school, and I’ve met some pretty bright kids who were missing some pretty serious basics. It’s nice that you could figure things out on your own, but alas, the same does not hold true for everyone else. No matter how surprised you are by something they sincerely don’t know (and aren’t just being lazy about), try not to react. Your students are starting from where they’re starting from, and jumping on them for not knowing what *you* think they should know won’t really accomplish anything. Explain what you need to as neutrally as possible (or have them look it up) and move on.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine had her daughter try a session with a tutor she’d met by chance at the gym. She didn’t know anything about him, but he talked her into a trial session. When he met with her daughter, however, he spent virtually the entire session berating her for not knowing things that “all” his other students knew, and he made a point of telling her that they were scoring 2200+. That’s nice for his other students, but guess who lost a job?

3) You are there to focus on your student, not yourself

Doing well on the SAT and teaching someone else to do well on the SAT are two totally different skills, and what worked for you might or might not work for them. Don’t get hung up on your own accomplishments; they’re only relevant insofar as they allow you to help other people achieve their goals.

4) Be precise, but don’t over-explain

You might be able to recognize all those picky little grammar rules without knowing what anything is called, but your students will most likely need to be taught things directly. Avoid saying things like “well… it’s kinda like this,” or “you’ll just know how to recognize it after a while.”

There’s a fine line between giving someone just enough terminology to be able to understand a concept clearly and giving them so much information that they start to feel overwhelmed. It’s your job to know what information is relevant to the test and how to explain the necessary underlying concepts, and which information is superfluous or likely to be confusing.

5) Don’t ask students whether they understand, just test them or have them explain it back to you in their own words

Kids are not always the most accurate judges of what they know, and plenty of times they’ll just say “yes” to get you off their back. Go by what they do, not by what they say.

6) Adjust your approach to the student’s level and needs

This might sound very obvious, but different students may have very different sets of needs — a student with a weaker background may need things explained slowly and repeatedly, while one with stronger preparation may only need to hear things once. If you treat the former like the latter, they’ll end up confused and frustrated; if you treat the latter like the former, they’ll get bored and tune out. One of the fabulous things about private tutoring is that you don’t have to follow a one-size-fits all approach; you’re free to focus on whatever the student needs to focus on. A student scoring below 600 usually requires a very different approach than one scoring 730 and aiming for 800.

7) Use College Board or ACT material only

This is exceedingly important for Critical Reading: most College Board passages are based on the “they say/I say” structure; they’re designed to gauge students’ ability to follow arguments throughout a passage and keep track of various points of view and attitudes. The passages used in most commercial test-prep books do not include this structure (or, if they do, include it in a too-obvious way), and students will not have the opportunity to practice identifying it and employing the many shortcuts that quick recognition of it can create.

8) Be realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish, and don’t make guarantees

If you’ve only worked with a relatively homogeneous, well-prepared group of students and have never encountered a student who couldn’t sound out “methodology” or didn’t know that “to found” could be a verb, it’s easy to overestimate what you can accomplish. Unless you’ve worked with the extreme low end (300s), persistent 400/500-range scorers, and/or students who were never properly taught to read, you have no idea how challenging it can be to help some students improve.

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