As a volunteer tutor for Action Tutoring, my approach to teaching vastly changed. I signed up to volunteer with the charity because I wanted to make a difference. I had always wondered whether teaching would be the right career for me. What I didn’t realise was that I also signed up for a journey. A few useful tips and lessons I’ve learned as a volunteer sum up this voyage. I tutored maths at three secondary schools in Bristol last year (and for two of them, part of the previous year).
Always remember to plan your session from your pupil’s perspective.
I called this pupil-centred planning; It might be easy to forget how a 15 or 16 year old might perceive maths or English. I prepared detailed examples and explanations for my first tutoring session. However, detailed solutions to problems aren’t always helpful. I found out that one of my pupils was dyslexic, so detailed, text-filled solutions confused, rather than helped him. I always start explaining solutions on a blank sheet of paper.
Before a tutoring session, it helps to look at YouTube videos or textbook examples of a topic that you’re tutoring.
As a PhD student, I taught university tutorials and I had a good amount of subject knowledge. However, I wasn’t great at tutoring numeracy at first. When multiplying numbers, some of my pupils preferred to use the grid rather than the column method. Before my first tutoring session, I didn’t know there was any other method for multiplying other than the column method. During the sessions, I used examples from revision books to supplement my explanations.
Always be resilient!
Sometimes pupils might not attend a session because of a conflicting school event or they might even have decided to skip the session. One of my pupils was playing in a school football match, but I didn’t know about it. I was discouraged during the session, but my Programme Coordinator found out about the match later that week and sent me an email. My pupil showed up to nearly all the other sessions. He was one of my best pupils and always had a smile on his face.
Let your personality shine.
Give praise and encouragement – having a happy attitude and/or being funny helps. You and your pupils are first and foremost human. Many (but not all) pupils do not like doing maths. Before you can convince them to like maths, it’s important to develop a rapport with them. I usually tell them cheesy jokes (often about pop music or television) and ask them about their day. One of my pupils always liked talking about his day at the beginning of sessions. Sometimes, I even tell the cheesy jokes as part of my explanation for maths problems! After a few sessions, he actually said that he thought my tutoring was entertaining. Even though some pupils might not continue to study maths after GCSE, I always wanted them to help them appreciate maths and have a higher chance for social mobility.
Always start with simpler problems and then work on more complex problems and also try and review concepts from a previous session.
When you start revising a topic with one of your pupils, start with a few easy problems. The aim of starting with easy problems is to check for understanding. Sometimes, if a pupil isn’t ready for a topic, you might try tutoring a topic that’s a prerequisite for that harder topic or work on a completely different topic. Halfway through this past school year, I tried to ask my pupils to do at least one problem solving or reasoning question at the start of each session. The reformed GCSE exams focus on problem solving, so building these skills is key. One of my pupils started on a predicted grade 4 in October, but by April, he was predicted a strong grade 5. His teacher’s instruction and my tutoring helped him get to that point.
Always break down the steps of a problem and scaffold, scaffold, scaffold!
If you ask a pupil to try a problem and they’re struggling on where to start or are having a really difficult time, give them hints. One way to do this is to model or show them how to solve a similar problem. If your pupil is an EAL pupil, ask them if they know the meaning of certain key words from a problem. One of my pupils was a Syrian migrant and she occasionally struggled to find the correct words to describe her mathematical thoughts. This made her feel a little nervous during sessions. I tried to help her to find the correct words and build her confidence through positive encouragement.
There is always a chance to improve!
One last lesson I learned was that there’s always room for improvement. It’s always helpful to reflect on what went well and what could have been better during the session. I always tried to understand my pupils’ misconceptions about concepts. If you have the time, I found using extra materials from revision books to complement the provided Action Tutoring Workbooks, always helped me prepare for sessions.
During this past year as a tutor for Action Tutoring, I was also a teaching assistant and did classroom observation at two schools (where I also volunteered with Action Tutoring). I observed many great teachers and received priceless advice from them. With the support of Hannah, Jess D, and Jess E from Action Tutoring, I learned to be a better tutor and potentially a great teacher. I was accepted into the Researchers in Schools programme (which is part of The Brilliant Club) and I am training at a SCITT (school centred teacher training programme) in London. Action Tutoring, The Brilliant Club and Teach First are three great non-profits that enable people to make a difference in disadvantaged pupils’ lives. Now, I am a trainee teacher. I will be teaching my first lessons in the next few weeks and I will be calling on my valuable experience with Action Tutoring. Of course, I have plenty to learn for years before becoming a great novice or expert teacher.
Each pupil you tutor is a unique individual. By becoming an Action Tutoring tutor, you take one small step in helping a pupil understand maths or English, but this step potentially becomes a giant leap with them succeeding in their SATs or GCSEs. Passing these exams makes a big difference in a pupil’s life because it opens up a world of opportunity.
Jason T Dungcan (Bristol)