In 2016 I had the privilege of tutoring a student through her maths GCSE. It’s been a steep learning curve for both of us, to say the least. The speed at which my lovely student improved was unbelievable and I can say that I’ve learned a thing or two about teaching.
Teaching the material is only half the battle
Yes, it’s important to make sure that the student knows the syllabus, but it’s almost wasted effort if the student is convinced they’re going to fail the exam anyway. So much of the tutoring sessions that we worked through involved building my student’s (let’s call her Phoebe to save me calling her “student” all the time) confidence. It was twice as hard for her to work for the exams thinking she “can’t do maths”. It was an absolute pleasure watching Phoebe’s confidence in herself and (she probably won’t admit it) enjoyment increase whilst working through the maths problems.
It made me appreciate that teachers actually do so much more than make sure we shove the right information in our heads. The best teachers I’ve had developed my interest and enjoyment in exploring their subject. They enticed me to spend time learning about their subject out of my own volition. They probably ultimately improved the grade I got at the end of their course.
One student is hard enough
I could just about manage having one student in my “class”. I could prepare and deliver the material and give feedback when there’s only Phoebe to think about. I cannot imagine the mental effort it takes for a teacher in an average public school classroom to juggle 30 individual students’ needs at the same time. It truly made me sympathise with teachers in days gone by when I feel like I’m not getting as much as I can out of the lessons because the teacher’s trying to cater to 29 other students whose needs are all completely different.
You develop a unique relationship with your students
Perhaps it’s because I’m not that much older than the people I’ve taught, but it’s a weird not-quite-friends and not-quite-student/teacher relationship. I certainly enjoyed getting to know Phoebe and she ended up getting to know me a little too. But there’s always that detachment bred from the fact that I’m a tutor and she’s my student which means that we probably won’t call each other friends. It’s weird.
You need to understand your students and they need to understand you too
The early days are hard because I’ve had to learn how Phoebe best learns. I’ve had to learn the pace she’s comfortable with. I’ve had to understand how best to explain material that’s really difficult for her. I’ve had to offer an input in her decision as to whether to sit Foundation or Higher Tier. All of that I’ve had to do against the too-close November deadline of her exams. Plus, however hard I try to accommodate, Phoebe has to adapt her learning in maths because I’m doing quite a lot of it with her. It’s worth it when Phoebe and I eventually figured out how each other worked because it makes the sessions that much more productive.
It’s so rewarding
I got a text one morning with a photo of a result sheet with a single letter on it: a pass grade. I was so buzzed that it felt as if I was the one who passed the exam. Yes, teaching is stressful. Yes, teaching is hard. But it was so worth it for me to share Phoebe’s happiness of conquering her “arch-nemesis” when it comes to schoolwork.
I’ve learned that teaching is totally different to what I expected. It’s so much more draining and so much more satisfying than I ever would have guessed. Of course, I’m teaching a single student one specific subject so the stress is nothing compared to what schoolteachers go through. I’ve never appreciated teachers so much as after I tried walking perhaps not a mile, but maybe a few hundred metres in their shoes.