Help me be an effective tutor!
July 22, 2011 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Help me be the best tutor EVER. Looking for any tips or advice, plus specifically tips for tutoring math, the kinds of obstacles I might face tutoring economically disadvantaged students, and tips for communicating with parents that may not speak English.

I just got a job tutoring. I have tutored in the past (Japanese, debate, and writing) but the most recent time was a good six or seven years ago when I was about 20, and at the time I didn't much know what I was doing. My students did well enough, and I know I taught them techniques and methods and ways of organizing and studying because it just seemed like the obvious thing to do, but that wasn't explicitly on my mind as a goal of tutoring. Since talking to my husband who was a tutor in college, and my friend who was a teacher and is now a tutor, I've come to realize that modeling the learning process is very important. I've also come to realize there are perhaps other aspects of tutoring that are important, of which I'm not even aware.

So! Do you have any general tutoring tips? Goals I should keep in mind? Resources (books, articles, websites to read)? Helpful anecdotes?

Also, any tips for the more difficult problems I might encounter, such as dealing with students with behavioral issues or lack of motivation? I have some plans for getting past this and some of my own experience (I have ADHD) but I figure everything helps.

Possibly relevant details:
- I am tutoring through a larger company for which I'm a contractor. This means I have only some control over what I tutor and who I tutor. Ultimately, they assign me to someone and I am expected to tutor this person in the assigned subject through the semester.

- I will be tutoring middle school to high school-aged students.

- I have made it clear to the company that I would much prefer to teach writing -- creative writing, English essay writing, and other more argumentative types of essay writing. I am quite prepared to teach that; I know multiple methods and perspectives and have explained these things to different people in different ways, and I use them daily in my own life.

However, I have conceded that I could teach algebra if necessary; I was skipped a few years ahead in math in high school, but I quit taking it after freshman year because I no longer needed the credits and didn't like it as much as liberal arts subjects. In other words, I don't feel NEARLY as prepared to teach math; I was able to handle math class, but I use very little math in my daily life, have never had to explain it to anyone, and have hardly looked at in nearly a decade. Whenever I've needed math for something like programming or a spreadsheet, I've just felt it out; I've never known how to describe what I'm doing and I've never been confident with math in the abstract.

They are particularly desperate for math tutors, apparently, so I want to be prepared if they give me a math assignment. (I think I would like math a lot more now and have meant to get more into it anyway, there's just a lot of subjects I've felt that way about.) Any advice for teaching math specifically would be welcome, as would advice for reviewing it.

- I will very likely be tutoring students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it is likely their parents will not speak English or not speak English well. This is not too worrisome to me as I grew up in a very low-income no-English neighborhood and I have some experience tutoring people from that background in a group; however for this job I will have to go to the place of living and deal with the student and their parent(s) directly, whereas in the past I always met students from that background at school and interacted with their teacher, not their parent. In fact, the only time I have ever had to deal with the parent of a student was when I tutored Japanese, and the student was from an affluent white family so there were no language issues or poverty issues or even a huge need for the tutoring; it was all elective.

The company has made clear that these students often face specific difficulties, and sometimes their parents can be difficult to deal with. Sometimes the student's education will fall in priority compared to economic needs. This means scheduling or even making the tutoring happen can be difficult -- as compared to simply meeting them at school -- and the parent may not be as enthusiastic or invested in their learning as a teacher would be. I am a bit apprehensive about this, but mainly because it feels vague in my mind and I'm not sure how to prepare or even what to prepare for; any stories of these kinds of difficulties would be appreciated.

I have also made it clear to the company that I do not speak Spanish (usually, but not always, the language the parents speak) but I'm not sure that they have many students whose parents they can guarantee speak English, and it sounds like it's very likely I will have to communicate with parents who don't speak English. The tutoring sessions will always be in English, and the students will always speak English, so I'm hoping the student will be able to translate for the parent when necessary. I am also trying to learn as much Spanish I can before I get my assignment in a few weeks. Is there anything I can try to prepare for, or anything about this kind of situation you wish someone had told you beforehand?

I realize a lot of obstacles can't be predicted, and I'll come back to AskMeFi if I get a really difficult or unexpected assignment. I have mentally prepared myself for the possibility of the assignment being an absolute nightmare, and I'm actually pretty okay with that; I am willing to handle a challenge for a semester and work through it. However, I would like some things to think about these next few weeks so I can feel more prepared. Thank you for any help!
posted by Nattie to Education (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience tutoring, pushing as much logisitics back onto the company -- especially related to money -- is a good idea.

Tutoring at the house, in my experience, is a disaster. The parents/siblings are around, plus tons of distractions. (And at my company there were liability issues, so we were discouraged from meeting at home.) Can you try to go to a library or coffee shop if possible?

It sounds like this tutoring service is something that the parents aren't paying for -- am I correct?
posted by k8t at 8:09 AM on July 22, 2011

k8t: The company handles the money pretty much entirely, so that's one good thing. You're correct that the parents are not paying for it.

When I applied for the job, the listing noted that the tutoring was either done at the student's home, or a library. However, when I actually interviewed for the job and got hired, the interviewer made it sound like the tutoring was done nearly exclusively at the student's home. (Similarly, the job posting said bilingual was preferred and not necessary, but the interview made it sound almost necessary.) I think whether it can be done elsewhere is probably going to depend on the student, their parent, and whether there is a suitable alternate location nearby.

I have wondered about the potential distractions too; thanks for the info, I'll be sure to pay particular attention to environmental distractions, and if it seems to be an issue I'll see whether it's possible to do the tutoring elsewhere.
posted by Nattie at 8:20 AM on July 22, 2011

If you need to tutor math, brush up here.

And you can probably get some ideas for generally how to teach math from the way he does his videos.
posted by empath at 9:40 AM on July 22, 2011

Try to find out what your students are covering in their classes before you meet with them so that you can prepare. No matter how good you are, you can still have a brain fart in the middle of trying to solve or explain a problem.

Come prepared with examples. If your student is studying how to factor, bring a textbook with factoring problems that they can work on with you. Many students to best when they have lots of examples, and they can be hard to make up on the spot sometimes.

Also, some districts teach math funky, so you might want to look into what's in style where you are.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:29 AM on July 22, 2011

First, I'd like to say that I've been tutoring for years and find it very rewarding. In my experience, caring about the student and being willing to keep trying will go a long way towards making things go well.

A couple things that I've found helpful:

Manipulatives! Money, blocks, pictures... Any kind of physical object you can move around goes a long way towards helping with math.

Modeling teaching. Get them to teach the idea back to you. If you have to work a problem, at each step ask them if you're doing it correctly and what to do next. This is a way of helping you know if they really get it, and also lets them have a chance in the driver's seat.

Praise. To me, offering positive reinforcement is everything. Students can be overwhelmed when you tell them all the things they're doing wrong at once. Be sure to offer praise as well as criticism. This kind of feedback can help keep them from being too discouraged.

Also, anytime you can make what you're doing into some kind of game/challenge, or offer small rewards (get this problem right and we can take a break, etc.) it makes it easier on everyone. My students and I have set formulas and plot summaries to music, come up with acronyms, and written (godawful) raps about the rules of grammar. (And yes, these were high schoolers and college freshman) It sounds goofy, it is goofy, but it's way less boring and way more memorable than flash cards. Just acknowledge the goofiness and they'll usually play along.

Good luck! I'm sure you'll be an excellent tutor.
posted by incountrysleep at 2:29 PM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that the company is behaving incompetently in demanding that you tutor in something that isn't your field.

I had to get a tutor for chemistry my senior year and if she hadn't shown me the long way of solving for x I would have failed the class.
posted by brujita at 2:50 PM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

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