Beyond the chalkface

Why I left teaching after 21 years

Yesterday I listened to several panelists explain their journey into tutoring at the Love Tutoring Festival run by Qualified Tutor. Some of them had been a teacher for many years and some of them seem to have disliked it from the start. This got me thinking about my own experiences, for I was someone who loved my job, indeed I felt it had helped to keep me sane in times when I might otherwise have struggled to stay afloat.

No other job takes you out of yourself in quite the way that teaching does. No other job brings you so many laughs per hour, with so much variety woven into it, despite the fact that outstanding teaching can only thrive (in my humble opinion) within watertight perameters and established routines.

Teaching is a wonderful job and it genuinely pains me to see it talked down by the media. It pains me even more to see how the profession is haemorrhaging its own staff – often its best and its brightest – as we helter-skelter into a recruitment and retention crisis of epic proportions. When I left teaching in 2022 I was part of a very depressing set of statistics, as retention reached its worst level in history. There is something very terrible going on.

Some members of the tutoring profession, of which I am now a part, seem to me to have some rather fanciful ideas when it comes to mainstream schooling. Their belief seems to be that there is no “one size fits all” and that provision must be broadened to suit the whim of every child and every parent, to bend its nature to every individual need. The reality – of course – is that this is simply not possible. If the state is to provide a basic education for all children and if that provision is to be free to access – and I cling to the belief that these principles are not up for debate – then we have to provide that education in a setting where it can be delivered to large numbers of students at a time. There really isn’t any other option that works. Sure, you can tweak things around the edges and many schools do outstanding work accessing a variety of provision for individuals that goes beyond that model, but I haven’t yet met a sensible Headteacher that would throw out the model altogther.

One of the main problems in the profession, as I see it now from the outside, is that teachers are our own worst enemy. Whenever we are provided with models that take the pressure off us, we complain. Schools which centralise behavioural systems and provide staff with explicit guidance on how to teach and provide materials to use face complaints that teachers’ autonomy and professionalism is being questioned. It’s all pretty exhausting. I felt that morale was low amongst the teachers that I knew when we returned after Covid, but nobody seemed able to agree on why they felt this way. All of us seemed to have a different opinion on what the problems were and even where we could agree that something was an issue, SLT faced wildly differing takes on the solutions to that problem. I am very aware that whenever I beat a path to the door of my go-to Deputy Head, what I was saying to him probably contrasted irreconcilably with something that somebody else will have pitched to him just half an hour earlier.

So what I have to say is entirely personal and my pathway out of teaching – although not uncommon – is peculiar to my own experiences and my own responses to them. It is true that my attitude towards my job changed and that my feelings shifted quite dramatically over a reasonably short period of time. I am not sure that much could have been done to prevent this, although I have a few thoughts that I will choose not to share about how my departure could have been prevented, or at least postponed.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Covid pandemic played a part in my shift out of teaching. First of all, it exposed me to a different way of working. Tough as that period of isolation was, it did expose me to the experience of working from home and I didn’t hate it in the way I expected to – in fact, I rather enjoyed it. I liked the freedom of not having to be up, dressed, out and battle-face on by 7.30am. It made me think about the benefits of flexible working in a way that I had never done so before. Combined with this, the pandemic changed the world irrevocably, and this created other pull factors. I work in a very niche subject and I knew that finding enough work would rely on parents embracing the concept of online tutoring. I had pencilled this in as likely to happen within the next five to ten years, but the pandemic fast-forwarded the process overnight. Likewise, whenever I had previously considered the idea of quitting the chalkface in favour of full-time tutoring, I had dismissed it on the grounds that I would be free all day while my friends and husband were at work, and starting work at the point when they all became free; this seemd like a bad idea in terms of my personal life. However, once again, the pandemic changed all that. All of my friends – with the exception of those that are teachers – now work from home either some of the time or all of the time, meaning that their time is also flexible and that it is possible to schedule an early-morning walk, a coffee or a lunch into their day.

The year we returned to school after the switch to online learning during the pandemic was – let’s face it – hell on earth. Bubbles were a dismal failure in secondary schools, a frankly appalling and ill-thought-through brainchild of government that to this day I fail to see the point of. We were forced to teach in unsuitable environments, we were forced to be peripatetic, we were freezing cold, some of the time we were forced to wear masks and all of the time it was miserable. I hated every last second of it. So when we returned to normality the year after and I found myself back in my own classroom, mask-free, I expected my love of the job to return. It didn’t. Perhaps the experience of the year before had fast-forwarded a process that was already happening? I’m not sure. For whatever reason, the love had largely gone.

In the end, the decision to leave was quite sudden and precipitated by a couple of incidents that happened in that final year. A couple of incidents while on duty in the grounds of the school tipped me over the edge and made me feel – quite simply – that I did not want to do this job any more. Both involved groups of older boys and both found me as a lone adult, feeling threatened and being pushed around by a bunch of teenagers – either physically or emotionally. It was not pleasant. I handled it at the time and indeed was able to get back into my own classroom and get on with my job. But I was overwhelmed by a sense of fear and rage – fear that as I got older this would get less and less easy to deal with, and rage that I was expected to do so. Truly, there is no other job in which you can feel threatened – either emotionally or physically – by a gang, then be asked to reflect upon what you could have done better in that situation. Do I think that behaviour in schools has got worse since the pandemic? Yes, I do. Was it perfect beforehand? Far from it. But my tolerance has gone and I am simply not prepared to put up with it any more. Ultimately, this was what drove me out of mainstream teaching.

Photo by 2y.kang on Unsplash

Can Chat GPT write in Latin?

I’m always a little bit behind the curve when it comes to technology. If you’re looking for future predictions, I am definitely not the person to come to. You’re looking at the woman who said that texting would never take off and who confidently remarked in 1998 that the internet “didn’t sound particularly useful.”

Fast-forward to the end of 1999 and I was surfing like a Californian, thanks to a fellow student on my PGCE course. He sat down next to me one day and issued a statement which – on honest reflection – may have had more impact on my life than anything I read in my 8 years at university. “I’ve discovered a great new Search Engine,” he said. “It’s called Google.”

Now I didn’t know what a Search Engine was and my knowledge of computers to date had extended to word-processing (remember WordPerfect?) and the use of a CD Rom. I had been given an email address, which one accessed by logging into Telnet and navigating a series of processes so tedious and clunky that I really couldn’t imagine why anyone would wish to make use of it. Then Matthew introduced me to Google and the rest, as they say, is history.

So this week – around 6 months after it was launched, I took a look at Chat GPT for the first time. For the uninitiated, Chat GPT is a free chatbot which utilises artificial intelligence. It was developed by a company called Open AI and launched into the world at the end of November 2022. In summary, you can ask it questions and it will answer them for you, drawing on the internet for information. So what’s different for the user from using a super-clever search engine such as Google, you may ask? (I certainly did). Well, Chat GPT will generate a lengthy response to your question, written in whatever style-register you ask it to mimic.

Chat GPT’s ability to produce complex and extended verbal responses in a particular vocal register has caused a great deal of consternation in education, with teachers realising just how easy it now is for students to ask their computer to produce an alarmingly convincing response to an essay question. A student can simply type their essay question into the system (“what were the causes of the First World War?”) and Chat GPT will generate an essay-style response. The more information you give the system, the better and more useful it will be to you. For example, you can give it a word limit and you can ask it to pitch its response at a particular kind of audience. The system has also caused some wry consternation and a bit of self-reflection amongst journalists, following the news that The Irish Post was forced to withdraw an Op Ed arguing that fake tan is racist; the article turned out to be AI-generated and was submitted as genuine by someone in an undeniably successful bid to make the editors at the publication look foolish. The article was titled Irish women’s obsession with fake tan is problematic and its opening line read “Dear Irish women, we need to talk about fake tan.” Well played, chatbot. Well played.

As so often, I do find myself being thankful that this kind of technology was not available to me when I was younger and learning how to construct an argument or write persuasively “the hard way” – by actually doing it myself. Where Chat GPT will take us in terms of the future of essay, speech and Op Ed writing as a skill and as a means of testing knowledge I have no idea. I’m jolly glad it’s not my problem. It’s all a little overwhelming and makes me want to lie down in a darkened room for a while. Perhaps I shall do so, and Chat GPT can finish the rest of this blog post for me.

Given the inescapable fact that Chat GPT and its ilk are here to stay, I dived in with some consternation but with also a little glimmer of excitement that I might be at the point of reliving my Google moment in 1999. Could Chat GPT be as life-changing as that discovery was? Well, I am here to tell you that the answer is potentially yes.

Given the truly abysmal state of Google Translate, I was highly dubious at the notion that Chat GPT could generate accurate Latin. Well, it can and it does. Moreover, you can give it perameters, which makes it fantastically useful as a teacher-tool. You can ask it to write you a passage of Latin based on a particular story and instruct it to make the passage suitable for GCSE candidates: for example, “I need a passage of Latin, around 100 words, suitable for GCSE students, based on the story of Claudius Pulcher”. It can do that! You can ask it to generate a series of sentences to practise a particular grammatical construction: for example, “write me 20 Latin sentences using the ablative absolute, suitable for GCSE students”. It can do that too!

One thing that I have not yet fully established is how to force it to use only the GCSE vocabulary, and this brings me to the biggest complaint that I (and others) have about Chat GPT in its current form: it presents incomplete, dubious or frankly false information with the confident swagger of a scruffy blond Etonian. It doesn’t tell you what it doesn’t know, and this – given the open availability of the system – is somewhat alarming. For example, when I asked it to create a passage suitable for GCSE candidates using only the OCR GCSE vocabulary list, it claimed to have done so. I pointed out that a particular word was not on the GCSE list. “Apologies!” it said. “Here is the passage again, with that corrected.” It then produced the passage again, with that word replaced by another one that was not on the GCSE list. I pointed this out also, and again the system responded in a manner that suggested it was fixing the error. I then pointed out several other words that were not on the list and eventually it admitted that it was not able to consult “outside sources” such as the OCR GCSE list. Hmmmm. By the way, before anyway thinks that I’ve lost it, I am fully aware that yes, I was having a conversation with a computer-generated entity: the weirdness of that does not escape me.

I discovered through colleagues on the Twitter hivemind that it was possible to put links into Chat GPT, so I gave it a link to the OCR GCSE list. I also tried experimenting with pasting the whole list into the the chat box and asking it to use only that vocabulary. The latter seems to generate the best results and – in terms of creating a series of practice sentences – pretty much solves the problem if you work within tight perameters; for example, ask it to generate some GCSE-level sentences practising adjectival agreement, and give it the adjectives on the GCSE vocabulary list. It still utlises a wide range of vocabulary when creating an extended passage, so a teacher would still require a knowledge of (or the patience to check) all of the words listed by OCR, or whatever other examination body you are working to.

As for the accuracy of the Latin? It is extraordinarily good. Given that I work with beginning students and candidates up to GCSE level, I grant you that I am not asking it to do anything overly complex, but this is still a giant leap from anything else we have seen in my lifetime. Some sentences I felt were a little unnatural and would wish to tweak, but grammatical errors are minimal. This is borderline miraculous given that up until now the best we have had has been Google Translate. Nothing prior to Chat GPT has been even bordering on accurate and therefore useful in any way.

So, can Chat GPT write in Latin? The answer is that it can. In the hands of an expert teacher it is going to be a genuinely brilliant tool that will save infinite amounts of time and will assist in the production of high-quality resources. Chat GPT will produce the bare bones of a worksheet in seconds, leaving the expert teacher free to develop, tweak, personalise and perfect their new resource. This is a genuine godsend. It has the potential to mean that every new resource a teacher writes will be better, for it will already have been through much of the fine-tuning process which normally relies on students acting as guinea pigs. In terms of the hours it will save us, I am still slightly in shock.

Photo by Fotis Fotopoulos on Unsplash

A warning from the chalkface

Hiring a tutor can feel like a leap of faith. Tutoring is an entirely unregulated industry and anyone can set themselves up as a tutor. It is my personal belief that the best professional tutors are also experienced teachers and I am disquieted by the number of people in the industry that have very little or even no classroom experience. This is not the orthodoxy, as a growing number of tutors seem alarmingly anti-establishment and – perhaps most upsettingly – anti-classrooom teachers.

To illustrate the kind of risk that I believe people are taking when they employ a tutor who has not worked as a classroom teacher, I wish to share the story of a student in the school I used to work in. It is perhaps the worst case I have personally come across of a family being let down at the hands of an unqualified, inexperienced and frankly unprofessional tutor. I do not say these things lightly. Sometimes frankness is required. I share this story in the hope that people will think carefully before they employ someone with no experience of the classroom and the examination process. The story I am about to relate is extreme, but it is true and it illustrates the risk you are taking when you employ an inexperienced tutor. It involves a girl I used to teach. I shall call her Laura.

At the end of Year 9, Laura opted not to continue with Latin to GCSE within the school options system. However, her mother decided that she would like Laura to pursue the subject outside of school through private tuition. Sadly, Laura’s mother did not seek my professional advice, and the first I was made aware of the situation was when the child came to see me in the January of her final year (Year 11) and asked if she could sit the Latin Mock examination along with my students. She explained that she had been receiving private tuition over the last two years and hoped to sit the exams that Summer.

My initial response was that it was absolutely fine for her to sit the Mock that I had written, but I explained that there would be a problem if she had studied different texts from the ones that my students had been working on.

She looked at me blankly.

“Texts?”

“Yes,” I said, “the verse and prose literature that you have studied. Which texts have you covered? The specification offers a choice, so it depends which ones your tutor has selected. My examination will only be suitable for you if your tutor has chosen the same options as the ones I have been teaching.”

Well. To cut a long story short, it quickly became apparent that Laura had not studied any texts or indeed any source material. This meant that she had not covered around 50% of the examination material. When I pressed further, it transpired that she also had not been given the required vocabulary list of around 450 words to learn.

I was aghast.

I contacted the girl’s mother and upon further investigation it turned out that the child had not even been entered for the exam, her mother blissfully unaware that this is a formal process that must be done (and indeed paid for) well in advance – it doesn’t just happen by magic. That’s how schools make it feel, because they do it all for you: it is one person’s full-time job to manage the examinations entry process for all the students in a large school.

It took me some considerable time to explain that not only was it quite likely already too late for her child to be entered for the examinations that year, it would also be absolutely impossible for her to sit the three compulsory written papers and perform well in them given her lack of formal preparation; even giving the tutor the benefit of the doubt that she had taught the grammar well (although since she had not read the specification, I fail to see how she knew which aspects of grammar she was required to teach), the child did not know the required vocabulary and the literature papers would be a complete mystery to her.

Remarkably, the child’s mother defended the private tutor hotly, insisting that she was happy with the service that the tutor had provided. I pointed out that this tutor had taken her money, claimed to be preparing her daughter for a series of examinations that she knew frankly nothing about and had failed to advise her on the entry process. Still, Laura’s mother defended her. “She’s a good woman” she kept saying. That may well be so. However, she clearly had no idea about what was required of her as a professional.

Should a parent wish to pay for a child to be tutored in preparation for a public examination, it is essential that the tutor be an expert in that examination. My advice to parents would be to ask searching questions of the tutor – how many cohorts have they seen through that particular examination? What are their results like? What training have they received? This last point is one that is overlooked even by some classroom teachers, many of whom advise their classes on “what the examiner wants” when they have neither worked as an examiner nor attended any courses run by them – so this is something to ask about. Attending such courses and/or working as an examiner demystifies the examination process and gives teachers concrete guidance on what the examiners require from students.

A tutor should pride themself on their professional experience and continued professional development. This does not just mean being up to date on safeguarding (essential though that is). It means having a working and ever-evolving knowledge of your subject and the way it is examined. This comes at a price, and once a teacher has left the classroom it is one that they must be prepared to fund for themselves as and when necessary. So ask any prospective tutor what relevant training they have done: their answer may surprise you.

Photo by Nick Youngson

Keeping it short

New clients are often surprised by the fact that I recommend sessions of just 30 minutes. Many are swiftly converted to the idea when I give my reasons, but some remain deeply sceptical; I have even lost one or two leads as a direct result.

Given how critical many people are of the shortness of their own child’s attention span, and also given the fact that most people approach me because of the very fact that their child is struggling to cope in my subject, I do find it strange how bitterly wedded to the hour-long model some people are. I also find it strange how many tutors are still working to it.

The latter is perhaps easily explained: to be frank, it is easier as a tutor to fill your books and your time in hourly slots, as going with the half-hour model means that you have to source double the number of clients to make the same amount of money. However, I don’t believe that this is the reason why so many tutors are sticking to the hourly model, not least because I know so many who are already over-subscribed. I think it’s got far more to do with habit. We’ve always done it this way, so let’s just carry on. Some tutors to whom I have suggested the 30-minute model have reacted to the idea as if it’s some kind of revelation – it had literally never occured to them to tutor for any period of time other than an hour. Yet in the world of music teaching, for example, 30-minute lessons are really quite common.

The hour-long model for tuition is in many ways a hang-over from when all sessions were face-to-face and practicalities therefore came into play. Parents bringing their child to a tutor’s house probably preferred an hourly session; at least it’s enough time to nip round to the Co-Op and pick up a few basics, or do another quick errand. Half an hour would mean that they would probably have no choice but to sit in the car and wait. Yet these days, with online tutoring, 30 minute sessions are a viable, workable model and students gain untold benefits from working in this way.

Here are just a few of my key reasons for going with the 30-minute model.

  1. Most tutoring sessions are very intensive and can be taxing on the working memory, which is exceedingly limited. Over-burdening a child’s working memory is counter-productive and will hinder their progress.
  2. Tutoring is expensive for the client. Given what I have said in number 1, I truly believe that I am giving better value for money, because a child is more able to focus intensively for the whole session. Why pay for extra time that is potentially less valuable? This is why I recommend two sessions of half an hour if parents are really keen for their child to have an hour of my time – they pay me the same amount as they would at an hourly rate, but they’re getting better value for money.
  3. Not all children are exactly thrilled at the notion of spending extra time being coached in a subject that they are struggling with and/or that they don’t (yet) like. This is especially true of teenagers. A 30-minute session is a much easier sell to a disaffected, disgruntled Year 11 student, especially when they see how much progress they can make in that short time. I have had teenagers request to go up to two sessions per week once they realise the progress that they can make in a 30 minute slot. We must all try hard to remember what it feels like to be 14, 15 or 16 years old. An hour feels like an absolute eternity. I remember being almost in tears before double geography, just at the thought of the interminable boredom. (Sorry, Mrs Winslow).
  4. On a related note, 30-minute sessions also mean that I don’t get bored. Sorry if this is a shock to anyone, but tutors are human and we get tired during sessions as well, especially if that session involves the patient repetition and re-explanation of very simple concepts, multiple times, which it often does. I work with numerous students who need remedial help on very simple concepts. Keeping their sessions short keeps up the sense of urgency and the interest; I am fresh, focused and your child is getting me at my best.
  5. The 30-minute model means I can help more people. I currently have almost 40 students on my books and there is no way I could work with that many clients in hourly slots. I am already getting to the point where I am turning people away: while I do have some slots available, unless a parent can agree to a very specific time, I am currently having to pass them on to other tutors. If they have selected me for a specific reason (usually because they have read my website really carefully), this can be disappointing for them, however wonderful I know my recommended tutors are. I understand that, and I want to work with as many people as I can who want to work with me.

Finally, some thoughts about schools. While many schools work with hourly lessons, this is not true for all and indeed it is the most academic schools that tend to favour shorter lessons. The grammar school I used to work in had eight lessons per day, each one of 35 minutes. The pressure to get the students in, settled and working as soon as possible was high; as a result, every minute felt urgent and pressured, and that’s actually very conducive to a thriving learning environment. One of the biggest changes I noticed when I left this grammar school and joined a comprehensive was a terrifying lack of urgency when it came to lesson time. I remember being totally taken aback by a student who once commented “is it even worth starting this? We’ve only got half an hour.”

Many schools worry that the introduction of shorter lessons would lead to wasted time, as students will be moving between classes more often. In my experience, the exact opposite is the case. Shorter lessons put the pressure on both students and staff, and it’s easier to promote the sense that we must be making the most of every minute.

Image by Nathan Dumlao from Unsplash

How to get the most out of your online tutor

Online tuition is potentially life-changing; transcending geographical barriers, it can connect your child to the perfect provider. Since the experiences that we all endured during lockdown in 2020 and at the beginning of 2021, I have found that everyone is suddenly on board with online tuition. I rarely meet a new client who doesn’t think that it’s a viable option, this is dramatic contrast to what I found even as recently as 2019.

I am a cautious technophile, who places high demands on technology to work pretty much “by magic” – I don’t like wrestling with equipment and I get mightily exasperated when I have to. Yet with the kind of apparatus and software that so many of us have access to these days, I have been delighted to find that the technical hassles are minimal.

However … (you knew there was a “however” coming, right?) … there are certain pitfalls to online tuition, some downsides compared to face-to-face tutoring, which parents and guardians should be aware of. Happily, they are largely avoidable with a little bit of planning. Never forget: you’re paying for a service, and tuition with an experienced, qualified teacher doesn’t come cheaply. Don’t let the fact that you access online tuition in the comfort of your own home lull you into taking it that little bit too casually, or you may well find you get a poor return on your investment.

Is your equipment up to the job?
For online tutoring, there’s no escaping the fact that you will need reliable, fast internet access: this is a must. Whatever software your tutor chooses to use, they will be talking to your child in real time on the web – this is very demanding on whatever service you are using, so a poor WiFi connection or painfully slow broadband will scupper the session. Use this speed test to check whether your service is up to the job: click “Go” and wait for it to measure the speed. If your either your download or your upload speed is less than 5-10 Mbps then you might have problems: remember that online tutoring is a conversation, two people talking over the internet in real time, so the speed simply has to be there in both directions. If a clients is experiencing a temporary slow-down (it happens to a client I have in Cornwall on occasion) I suggest turning cameras off, which although not ideal does usually enable the conversation to continue.

You need to think about how your child will communicate with the tutor. Integral cameras, microphones and speakers are usually fine, but experiment with supplementary equipment if your child struggles to concentrate – students wearing headphones, for example, often find it easier to avoid distraction and focus on the session. Speaking of focus …

Session location: is your child in the right place?
Aren’t iPads wonderful? Many of my tutees access tuition via an iPad or similar tablet, and the advantages are obvious. However, don’t let the freedom that an iPad offers you detract from the fact that your child needs a quiet place to concentrate. If you’re having a conversation, cooking or hoovering in the background, not only are you distracting your child but you may cause noise interference to the extent that the tutor will really struggle to hear them. If your child is wearing headphones, that will help them to zone out the sounds around them but the same will not be true for the tutor – most microphones will pick up a great deal of extraneous sound, and the effect can become close to unbearable for the tutor if people are talking or using household appliances in the background during a session. 

Ideally, your child should be in a quiet room where they won’t be interrupted by noise or curious siblings. You may wish to be present while your child is being tutored for safeguarding reasons; this is fine, but you should prepare to do something quiet such as reading book. Alternatively, and if the only reason you wish to be present is for monitoring, you could consider recording the sessions – many of the platforms used by online tutors allows for this option.

There has been some recent anxiety on social media re. the safety of Zoom and similar platforms. The package works on closed meetings and the only way that an unsolicited third party could join a meeting is if the link to a meeting is shared online. If your tutor shares the link for each session with you and you alone, there should be nothing to worry about, but you should talk to your tutor about their safeguarding policy. Personally, I only use the “recurring meeting” function with adults; with minors, I schedule a unique Zoom link afresh for every single session with every single child. While this creates a little extra admin at my end every week, I believe that it is worth it in order to mitigate against the risk of a reusable link being accidentally shared with third parties.

Session timings: is your child ready?
If your child finds it difficult to get out of bed, you will need to think carefully about how to manage a morning session. I have tutored students on a mid-morning that have clearly just rolled out of bed; dazed and groggy, they are not even close to being fully awake and this means (of course) that their focus is poor. So, even if your child is entering that inevitable phase when wake-up time becomes something of a battle, do try to peel them out of bed well before the session is due to start, allowing time for them to have a shower and something to eat. They then have a fighting chance of their mind being on the tuition session ahead, not still under the duvet.

One of the great joys of online tuition is the time that it can save you. Some clients that are near enough to me to come for home tuition have still opted to go online; I am based in a heavily-populated area of Surrey and the reality of rush-hour traffic can turn even a 5-mile round trip into a potential nightmare. Online tutoring can open up a wider range of possibilities when it comes to time: take advantage of this and make it work for your child.

One final thing …
Your child is smart! They know that an online tutor’s field of vision is significantly limited compared to a tutor that’s in the room with them. So what do you know? They may well try to use their phone during the session, or to access other apps or websites on the machine they are using. So, especially if your child is currently preoccupied with a particular game or social networking app, do make sure that they leave their phone with you for the duration of the session and do check that they have closed down all their other apps and messaging services.

Image by Jé Shoots

One-to-one tuition

What is the benefit of working one-to-one with a student, and why does it trump group work every time? This is a question I have been pondering this week, as I listened to two podcasts aimed at private tutors, both released on the same day, both making the case for tutors like me to make the shift into setting up groups for online tuition. The podcasts were great. The group tuition model? I’m not so sure.

With the explosion of online tutoring into what amounts to one of the fastest-growing corners of the gig economy, I find myself and my recent career-change somewhat on trend. As usual, however, I also discover that I am swimming steadfastly against the tide. Well, thank goodness for that; being in the zeitgeist is definitely not something I’m used to and I’m more of a heckler than a celebrity.

Many online tutors are expanding their businesses into groupwork, to the extent that some are abandoning the one-to-one tuition model altogether. The reason seems obvious; as one parent pointed out to me when they first got in touch to seek help for their daughter, I could make a lot more money if I worked with several students in each slot. This does, of course, rely on there being a high-enough demand for a certain kind of tuition at a particular level: to be frank, in my rather niche subject – taught in only around 2.5% of state schools – I am not sure that’s ever going to be the case. I do have one group of three, which arose because a parent contacted me directly with the request that I work with three children of the same age who were all ab initio and wanted to learn together: in that circumstance, with three friends at the same level who are all keen to start a new project together, the model works very well and I’m enjoying it. But with remedial tutoring (by which I mean the process of supporting a student who has come to you because they are struggling), I have serious doubts. Firstly, I doubt that demand is high enough in my subject but secondly – and I am still idealistic enough to say more importantly – I do not believe that group tuition is a good model when it comes to making that kind of difference to an individual child’s progress.

One of the absolute joys in switching from classroom teaching to one-to-one tutoring is the incredible privilege of taking a child from the bottom of their class to the top. Taking a child who is failing and turning them into one who can achieve the highest of grades. Taking a child who hates your subject and turning them into a GCSE candidate. Taking a child who has been hiding at the back of their classroom for so long that they need a huge amount of coaching and coaxing before they find their feet. One parent told me that their child was coming home in tears after their Latin lessons because they simply had no idea what was going on in the class and had no idea how to access the learning; after working with me, that child went on to choose the subject at GCSE and achieve a very good grade. One of the client reviews I am proudest of reads “you have turned despair and dismay into enjoyment and enthusiasm”. Another says simply “your lessons were transformational.” None of this could be achieved without the one-to-one model. I stand by that. I simply cannot accept that you can take a child who is failing dismally in a subject and get them a top grade without working with them closely as an individual. It’s what tutoring is all about.

I have written before about the power of tuition and the overwhelming benefit which comes from the opportunity to delve in and unpick a student’s understanding – or rather their lack of it. A good tutor will uncover a whole raft of small misconceptions or gaps in a student’s knowledge within the first session. I likened a student’s developing knowledge of a subject to a wall; students who come to a tutor for help have often got bricks throughout that wall that are either misshapen or missing altogether, causing the whole structure to be at risk of collapse. One-to-one tutoring diagnoses the problems, finds the missing bricks and provides the repointing, replacement and reinforcement required. No amount of rhetoric will ever convince me that the same can be done in a small group. Of course, small group-work is great and you can achieve much more than can be achieved with a class of 30; but it still can’t beat the one-to-one model.

Quiet students can often suffer the most in the mainstream classroom – they can fall behind without being noticed or can have enormous potential in a subject – again, without being noticed. A good tutor (and indeed a good classroom teacher) is an excellent reader of body language. I’ve thought a lot in my work about non-verbal cues, those tiny indications that an individual student can give off when they’re not following something – a twitch of the mouth, a furrow of the brow. In a one-to-one session, that’s my cue to pause and rewind and it’s an absolute joy to be able to do so. In the classroom, not only did I not have the time to respond to every non-verbal cue but the reality of a large class meant that I more than likely missed the majority of them. Due to a quirk of timetabling which I won’t bore you with, I once ended up with an extra Year 9 class of 5 students. Yep. Five. I had another group of 24 and yet another of 28 and one of 5. Ask the previous Head why that ridiculous situation arose. Of course, the children in the group of five progressed – on average – better than those in the two larger groups. But it still wasn’t one-to-one tuition and they still didn’t progress as well as they would have done had each of them – in some kind of fantasy parallel universe – had a good private tutor as well.

I have no desire to stand in the way of progress and if enough online tutors are finding that there is enough demand for small-group tuition in their subject and can get decent results with that model then good luck to them. For me – and this is perhaps because I have spent far longer at the chalkface than any other professional tutor I have met so far, I do not believe my heart will ever be in it. I came into tutoring in the sure and certain belief that the one-to-one model is absolutely unbeatable when it comes to building a child’s confidence, tackling misconceptions, breaking down the mindset that they “can’t do it” and launching them onto a new path of success.

For me, nothing else will ever be as rewarding as that.

Mobile madness

Supermarkets are really good at making things go viral these days. Who didn’t love the image of a whole shelf full of wine bottles labelled “office essentials” during the height of PartyGate? They know how to push people’s buttons on social media in order to keep their brand in the spotlight.

One can only assume that the potential to go viral was the purpose of this display, photographed and shared by an MFL teacher called David on Twitter this weekend:

Predictably, and presumably as part of Tesco’s dastardly plan to go viral, EduTwitter went beserk. Huge numbers of us, myself included, were pretty annoyed about the fact that Tesco were depicting a mobile phone as an “essential” for children heading into school. Yet this notion is not an outlier and Tesco certainly did not come up with it on their own; I am reliably informed by multiple friends who are parents that it is now considered to be a “rite of passage” for children to receive a smart phone when they enter secondary school (if their parents haven’t caved in already), so Tesco know what they’re doing here.

There is overhwhelming evidence that mobile phones cause problems in a school environment, which is why so many schools have moved towards banning them in recent years. Many teachers have expressed growing concerns that smart phones pose a significant safeguarding threat and a tool which aids and abets bullying and child-on-child abuse. This is now well-evidenced. Most fundamentally of all however – given that schools are meant to be a place where children learn – the basic problem with smart phones is that they are weapons of mass distraction.

A blogpost by Innerdrive sums up the research evidence on mobile phone usage in schools and it makes for sobering reading. While much of the research focuses on the usefulness of banning phones in a school setting, there is also a great deal of evidence which should give parents serious pause for thought about their child’s usage of devices at home, particularly at night-time. In summary: please don’t let your child have access to their phone after bedtime and please make sure that you have access to everything your child is doing and seeing online and that you check this regularly.

What has puzzled me most in this whole thing is the number of people still willing to defend the notion of children having access to these devices throughout the school day. Unsurprisingly, not very many of them are classroom teachers. They are “educators”, EdTech pushers or – occasionally – much-loved children’s poets. Most teachers have been concerned about children’s usage of smart phones from day one, and those who have defended the notion in the past have in many cases shifted their viewpoint. One of the most irksome arguments used against banning phones in schools is the viewpoint that children must be educated in their usage and that banning them is part of schools being “out of touch” with the modern world. Okay. Apply that argument to sex education: children should be allowed to experiment with sex in school because they need to be taught how to do it responsibly. Apply the argument to alcohol and drug usage: children should be allowed to use alcohol and drugs in school so that we can teach them how to do so responsibly. And so on. Of course students need to be taught about responsible internet usage and the dangers of social media, and believe you me they get this by the bucket-load. But to suggest that in order to learn about the use of smart phones they need to have ready access to these devices in school (as if somehow otherwise they wouldn’t know what we’re talking about?) is laughable.

One of my earliest shows for Teachers’ Talk Radio explored the relationship that teenagers have with their smart phones and my guest, Dr. Kathy Weston from Tooled Up Education, used the phrase “digital hygiene” to summarise the kinds of discussions and agreements that should go on between parents and their child at the point when a child is given one of these devices. It’s important to note where the responsibility lies here: with the parents who, after all, are paying the bill. Of course schools should be addressing mobile phone usage as a part of their PSHE programme, and I cannot imagine there is a school in the land not doing so. But dealing with this issue in schools is a dismal attempt to hang a sheet over a door that a horse has not only bolted through but slammed so hard that the door is off its hinges. In my show I also interviewed Matt Crowley, lead DSL (Designated Safeguarding Lead) in the school in which I was working at the time; the serious safeguarding risks and the systemic damage to a child’s mental health, self-esteem and personal safety which can arise from the use of these devices – in school and beyond – simply cannot be over-emphasised, I’m afraid.

Defenders of the smart phone in schools piont to its “education benefits” and there is no question that there are multiple apps that children can make use of in their learning journey. However, it is a full-time job to micro-manage this kind of usage and that can only be done by a parent or carer. If only we could trust all of our children to make use of their phones to access their Latin vocabulary on Quizlet during break and lunchtimes! In reality, anyone who thinks that’s what they are doing with them is seriously deluded. During the period in which smart phones had become endemic amongst young people when I was working in schools, I knew of numerous cases of children accessing pornography and videos produced by terrorist organisations; I knew of cases in which these devices were used for horrific and systemic bullying, to film teachers and humiliate them on social media, and for children to watch age-inappropriate films and play age-inappropriate games. You name it, I’m afraid they’ve probably done it and done it in school. Is that what people want for their child?

So schools must hold the line and maintain their ban – not that I know of a single one that regrets it – and parents can (I hope) take inspiration from it. These devices are wondrous and I fully admit that I could not live without mine. I first attained a smartphone at the age of around 35, which is probably responsible enough. I cannot tell you how glad I am that they did not exist when I was a child.

My final thought brings me back to my new full-time role, as a professional tutor. It is a discussion I have had to have with numerous parents, advising them to take away a child’s mobile phone while they access my sessions. Working online, it is particularly difficult to spot when a child is distracted by their device, but I can still spot it. Most children find it too difficult to discipline themselves not to look at their phones whilst they’re doing anything (even something they enjoy!) so the odds of them being able to resist it during a tutoring session are vanishingly slim. So take control, which means take the device. They’ll thank you for it one day.

Why is tutoring so effective?

As a teacher of 21 years as I have spent my day job teaching groups of 25, 30 or even more. I remain fascinated by the different dynamics of the one-to-one setting in comparison to the mainstream model.

One-to-one tutoring is remarkably powerful compared to what teachers can achieve in the mainstream classroom. As a tutor, I have taken students from the bottom of their class to the top; I have also witnessed other tutors do exactly the same for students who were at the bottom of my own classes. So what is it about what tutors do that can make us so effective?

The overwhelming benefit comes – in my opinion – from the opportunity to delve in and unpick a student’s understanding – or rather their lack of it. I usually uncover a whole raft of small misconceptions or gaps in a student’s knowledge within the first session. I imagine a student’s developing knowledge of a subject as like a wall; students who come to a tutor for help have often got bricks throughout that wall that are either misshapen or missing altogether, causing the whole structure to be at risk of collapse. This is where tutoring comes in: repointing, replacing and reinforcing the bricks as required.

During the process, a tutor can build a real relationship of trust. Some of these students are so convinced that they’re “rubbish” or simply can’t do it that the revelation that they can understand the concepts in front of them is remarkably powerful. It is not that a tutor necessarily knows their subject and better than the classroom teacher – it is the fact that a tutor has one-to=one time dedicated solely to one child’s needs; it is also that the tutor is (or should be) skilled in identifying and resolving a host of minor misconceptions or gaps in a child’s knowledge that are holding them back. The result can seem like a miracle.

There’s a lot of talk in education that teachers can and should be doing this – that through the right kind of differentiation every single child’s needs can be met by their classroom teacher. The truth? This is absolute nonsense. Of course classroom teachers can’t do that, as anyone who has been one will tell you. Of course children with particular needs can fall behind in the mainstream classroom – those who have missed a large amount of the curriculum through absence, those with SEND, those who have fallen behand for whatever reason and indeed those who are ahead of their peers.

Students who often suffer the most are the quiet ones – they can fall behind without being noticed; yet they can have enormous potential in a subject – again without being noticed. I’ve thought a lot in my work about non-verbal cues, those tiny indications that an individual student can give off when they’re not following something – a twitch of the mouth, a furrow of the brow. In tutoring, that’s the moment to pause and rewind: it’s an absolute joy to be able to do so. In the classroom, not only do I not have time to respond to every non-verbal cue but the reality is I am more than likely to miss the majority of them in the sea of 30 faces.

Like anything, there are of course downsides to the one to one setting as well as benefits. Tutoring can be at risk of lacking direction – you’re potentially not following a set curriculum, rather tailoring each session to the child, and as a result the sessions can seem to lack direction and it can be hard for inexperienced tutors to assess where to go next in terms of content. Similarly, how does one pitch one’s expectations and also how does one manage those of a client who’s paying for our services? Some parents see a tutor as the panacea for everything, not realising that what their child needs is – for example – some basic but regular help with learning their vocabulary. Of course, tutors can and should advise on the methodology, and there is definitely a place for a skilled subject-expert working on vocabulary with a child as part of their time together; but parents sometimes need to invest a little of their own time in their children’s progress too. Vocabulary learning should be done little and often (ideally in short bursts every single day); so unless you can afford to employ a full-time live-in tutor (and believe me, there are some families who actually do so!) then you need to spend some time on supporting your child with their learning.

One of the biggest issues to consider in the one-to -one setting is the risk of cognitive overload, especially in sessions lasting an hour. (I counsel clients against the hour-long model for this very reason). One-to-one tutoring is remarkably intense, both for the student and for the tutor, so we really do need to consider how to pace our sessions to mitigate against this. Cognitive overload is counter-productive and can make students even more anxious and overwhelmed; tutors need to consider how not to over-burden students’ working memory during the session whilst still keeping the level of challenge high.

I have enjoyed my 21 years at the chalkface immensely and my time in the mainstream classroom has gifted me with what I hope will be a long-lasting insight into the problems that my clients are facing when they come to me; it also grants me an insight into the challenges faced by teachers and my aim will always be to support them in the almost insurmountable challenges they face. Tutors should never undermine the classroom teacher, nor use resources that could ruin their lesson: there is nothing worse for a classroom teacher than handing out a resource and then hearing a child pipe up “I did this with my tutor at the weekend!” So don’t do that, please! In an ideal world, a tutor should be able to communicate with the classroom teacher to enable a powerful support network to form around a child who is struggling – I think we are a long way off teachers reaching that level of trust just yet (something I might explored in another post), but I hope to see it happen before the end of my career.