Help a first-time tutor get started!
December 17, 2007 1:49 AM   Subscribe

FirstTimeTutorFilter: I'm plan to start tutoring Math, Chemistry, Physics and possibly ESL in January. Only problem is, I have *no idea what I'm doing*. Anyone have any textbooks, general teaching books, online certification courses, etc to recommend?

"No idea what I'm doing" is a bit of an exaggeration; I graduated top of my class at a major research university with a Mechanical Engineering degree, and I'm living in Austria, where being a native speaker of English is considered qualification enough to teach that subject.

I've spoken with some parents, and they're rabid for tutors - Austria is obsessed with education, but the teachers have no interest in spending one-on-one time with students, so there is certainly a big market for private tutoring.

I know the only way to really learn to teach is to do it, but are there any good resources for first-timers? Also could definitely use some good math, physics, chem and english grammar textbooks.
posted by anonymoose to Education (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As far as materials go, I can help you a little with English materials, or at least how to evaluate them. There has been a big shift from traditional grammar to modern grammar. There are still a lot of traditional grammar textbooks out there. Actually most of them are traditional, but modern ones have been appearing. A good litmus test is to look for the word "determiner". If words like "every" and "some" are described as adjectives, avoid those books. "Every" and "some" are described in modern grammar as determiners. Modern grammar is supported by computational linguistics. Traditional grammar is just a bunch of irrational opinions.

The best grammar book available is probably A Student's Introduction to English Grammar.

The best advice, though, is: care about your students.
posted by strangeguitars at 4:19 AM on December 17, 2007

In my state the Department of Education has lists of benchmarks for each subject and grade called Sunshine State Standards. It will be called something different for each state, but you might want to pick out a state and look on the Department of Education website for the benchmarks. It will tell you what they expect a student at a particular grade level to have mastered and how they measure those results. I don't know what the European equivalent to that would be, but you could look on a US website and get a very general idea.
posted by 45moore45 at 4:56 AM on December 17, 2007

You'll find that there's not really a uniform approach to tutoring. There's plenty of training materials out there, but every student's gonna be just a little different. Each one will have different strengths and different challenges.

Few years back, I was in a similar boat - I conned my way into writing-tutor job. I had skads of English classes under my belt, but not a moment of education training. After a couple weeks of stumbling, I came to see that successful tutoring really boiled down to three things.

1) Pay attention to the student.
2) Be patient
3) Be positive
4) And seriously, listen close to that student

Please don't fret so much about the success or failure of your tutoring session that you fail to hear the student's concerns. Through carefully listening during your conversations and paying close attention to their work, you'll begin to spot their trouble spots. If you're very lucky, they'll be trouble spots you faced yourself during your education - which will likely mean you have ready-made solutions to suggest to them. The more knowledge you build about the student's abilities, the better equipped you'll be to help them. So spend a lot of time on open, low-pressure conversation. You'll be surprised how much of the way forward this seemingly simple process will illuminate. Just listen to them. They won't bite.

When I felt myself growing impatient with a student, I'd try to remember how harmful it was to me when a teacher started pressuring me to figure out something difficult in a hurry. That made it easier to stay calm and stay helpful. The patience advice ties into the positivity advice, really. By the time a student has decided to seek tutoring, they may well be having quite a bit of trouble with a subject. With this comes a lot of anxiety and insecurity. The last thing you want to do is heap additional anxiety and pressure on a student who's already feeling plenty.

You know how when a little kid falls over and bumps their head, they tend to freak out more if their parents freak out first? It's a lot like that. They've come to you for answers, not pessimism and dread. If someone who is, at least in their eyes, an expert gets as freaked out as they, it'll just compound the problem. It's not about convincing them their task is easy so much as it is demonstrating that their task is possible -- and that with a bit of hard work and dedication, it's possible for them, same as anyone.

Keep it up long enough, and your experience will make you an expert on tutoring. But well before that mastery arrives, paying close attention will make you an expert on tutoring Student X and Student Y and whoever else you're lucky enough to see on a regular basis.

Best of luck!
posted by EatTheWeek at 5:30 AM on December 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

(three things, and a fourth added just before posting, that is)
posted by EatTheWeek at 5:31 AM on December 17, 2007

Seconding everything EatTheWeak said.

I don't know what your background is, so apologies if this is irrelevant:

For any given subject, make sure you know the specific terminology that's used to teach it in schools. E.g. if you know how to explain about geometric series in English but not in German it'll make things harder for you and your students. You can take care of that by checking out some typical high school textbooks or test prep books.

Which brings up another point: a lot of students will probably want to work with you from their school materials, so you probably won't need to worry much about assigning them your own books. On the other hand, school materials often suck, so you might want to find some resources that explain certain concepts well or provide good exercises and use them as a supplement. It'll be easier to evaluate how good a resource is once you get to know what sort of questions your students normally ask and what things they tend to have problems with. Again, don't stress about it when you're starting out.

Do be organized in your presentation. Use your first session with any student to figure out more or less what you'll need to work on and where their strengths and weaknesses are, and then go home and think about what to teach when. Do they need new ways of looking at tricky concepts? Do they just need a huge amount of practice? Before any lesson, think about what you'll be working on and practice explaining the material, paying attention to what that student might find problematic. You can never know in advance what they'll have trouble with and no lesson will go the way you've planned, and you'll have to adjust your strategy several times over, but if you've prepared in advance you'll give a much better lesson and be less likely to find yourself at a loss for an organized explanation. This is another thing that will get much easier with practice.

Don't get too sucked in to trying to make students be your friends -- you want them to feel comfortable with you, but not to the extent that they start derailing lessons. If you assign work and they don't do it, talk with them seriously about why you assigned it and what you'd both like to get out of your lessons. That said, have reasonable expectations of them.

About ESL: I think teaching language is harder than teaching math/science because students will have questions for which there's either no good consistent explanation or there is a decent explanation but it relies on tools from theoretical linguistics that are outside of the scope of your lesson (and likely not free of controversy either.) That said, I don't really agree with what strangeguitar said. Look at the materials the students are working with, look at a bunch of grammar books, both "modern" and "traditional," but keep in mind that language is messy and you will find yourself unable to explain things consistently sometimes. Just be prepared for that situation and don't be too flustered when it happens. And teach your students that for better or for worse, it can take a long time for a given language's patterns to feel natural.

I have to say again that what ETW wrote about listening to your students is the most important advice I can think of.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 6:18 AM on December 17, 2007

What level of math are you tutoring? Calculus, linear algebra, basic algebra? Schaum's Outlines are a pretty good source of practice problems (since they're just outlines, they might not be best to teach out of).

Can the texts be in English or are you teaching in German?
posted by bluefly at 1:11 PM on December 17, 2007

I teach English as a foreign language in Latvia and did so in Indonesia before this year. The credential I have is called the CELTA, which you can read about here; it's easy to get accepted onto a course and do it full-time over a vacation (it's only 4 weeks), but you've got to actually go to a school and do it, as online courses can't really replicate a real classroom environment. You don't really need it if you just want to do private classes, but it's a marketing thing for you to say you've got it, and let me tell you: if you do this course, your mind will be blown with all the grammar "truths" you think you know which are really just, well, bogus. strangeguitar's comment about computational linguistics refuting long-held opinions masquerading as facts is one of the reasons I love this job: there really is a lot of development in the field right now.

Two of my favorite reference/resource books are by the same author, which seems reckless, but has worked out well enough for me so far:

- Michael Swan and Catherine Walter's How English Works (winner of various awards; sample PDF page here) - basically, this book is chock full of grammar exercises with really basic explanations of common conventions and accepted rules (things like word order in questions, or when to use which and that), illustrated really well, and reasonably priced. I use it multiple times a week, and it's wonderful for individual study or working one-on-one.

- Again from Michael Swan: my go-to grammar reference is Practical English Usage, Third Edition, which is more about the language as it is spoken (backed up by corpus data!) rather than how people say it should be, and *thank God*, it's sorted alphabetically by subject area, so it's easy to find info on all the uses of "will", say, on their own, in a section on "will", not scattered between things like "the future" and "requests".

Also check out the Cambridge "In Use" series, especially the book on "collocations" (words which go together, like "social justice" or "civil war" rather than "societal justice" or "civic war").

- Access to some good online dictionaries: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (with Indo-European roots!) is available free online here. Your local library at home (you are a member, right?) may have access to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is great when you want to bring in some info on the relationships or etymologies of words to show how they're related (perhaps in a discussion about disasters, you mention that the "-aster" bit shares a root with "astronaut" and "astronomy", because they all involve (or were thought to involve) stars and outer space.

A final tip: let students tell you what they want and give it a go for a few weeks, but watch and listen for problems and keep a log of each student's issues. After a while, you'll start to see patterns, and that's where you come in with more specific action and guidance on what "grammar" needs to be practiced.

Good luck! E-mail's in the profile if you're interested in seeking more advice.
posted by mdonley at 4:45 PM on December 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Rather than highlight all of em, I'll say it in the thead: great comments, many thanks :)

bluefly: I'm planning on teaching mostly in English, and I have no idea what level math people will be requiring. I imagine I won't see anyone that needs help beyond, say, single-variable calculus. I'll look at the Schaum Outlines.

mdonley: Those look like excellent books; thanks
posted by anonymoose at 4:48 AM on December 19, 2007

« Older Need ideas for activities in DC for end of the...   |   Out of the Frying Pan into the Ire Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.