Tips for the First Time Tutor

I never expected to be a tutor; somehow, I’ve been a tutor for the last four years. I’ve taught in elementary schools and middle schools, after school programs, summer academies and in-home sessions, with pre-planned lessons, original lessons, software-based lessons, and improvised lessons. I’ve worked with children that were falling behind in courses and I’ve worked with children who were excelling in their environment. I have been incredibly lucky to have been a part of so many students’ lives and educations.

Tutoring is an interesting profession. Tutors impart bits of knowledge and useful skills to tutees, using whatever means there are at their disposal. It is, I believe, the most difficult, most rewarding position I have ever held. The following points have helped me through my tutoring sessions and I offer them here in hopes they will aid you in your sessions.

Be calm and positive

Tutoring can be stigmatized— the same way that asking for any kind of help can. Let your student know, through a calm and positive atmosphere, that this is normal! If they ask you about it, be honest. Tell them about times where you’ve needed help. Build a rapport with them. Set expectations that acknowledge your student’s intelligence and abilities. If your expectations don’t fit your student’s abilities, change them! Just expect that they will do their best and work to help them achieve that.

Be creative

It’s possible that you’ll walk in to a session and find that your student does not connect to the medium you’d planned. This can be frustrating and it can end any productivity a lesson may have had— or it can be an opportunity to learn more about your student. Try new ways of explaining the concepts to your student— try visuals, music, movement, repetition. My favorite way to teach spelling is to break the word down into several other words and sing-song it, making the pieces easier to understand, giving them a life outside of what might seem to be incoherent lettering on a page.

Be patient

Taking the extra time to focus on one student and to creatively address their needs is easiest if you tutor one-on-one. It can be difficult to set aside this time, to be patient with your student and yourself. But it can also be completely worth it! Every tutor will come to know and recognize the “Aha!” moment that students have when they finally “get it”, and if/when this happens, it is so worth the time and effort put into tutoring that lesson.   

Other times, there won’t be an Aha moment, there will be frustration and confusion and this is okay. You are doing good work, and trying your best. Asking that of your student is important. Sometimes the moments where you don’t succeed will bring about lessons even more important than the success.

Be resourceful and communicative

Recognizing that your students are resources in their own learning is incredibly important! They know best what frustrates them, what makes things difficult — they may still be learning what best helps them learn, but through strong communication, you can work to find that together. Praise your students for success, if possible, in abundance. High fives can be awesome for building self-esteem. Just like your student’s abilities, their reaction to praise will be individualized. Tailor your praise to suit your student. For a student who learns kinetically, a high five might be great; for a student who becomes overwhelmed with touch, a reward chart could provide them with a visual of their successes.

Your student’s family and teachers will be incredible resources. Listen to the parents! Talk to the parents! Let them know when your student has had a rough day, when they found something particularly difficult, and let them know about their successes. When your student cannot communicate something to you, it’s possible their parent can.

Use the resources at hand! Learning Differences World has information on more than 20 challenges. Even if a student has not been diagnosed with a learning disability, understanding different learning styles can better prepare you for their lessons, whatever they may be.

Be a mentor

As a tutor, you are now a part of the community that is raising this child. Your work, even if in the smallest way, affects what and how they think. Your communication, respect, and patience can have a major impact on them. Get to know them - ask them how their day was - ask them about their favorite teacher - ask them about their favorite subject. Your interest in their lives can make a difference. It will help them to know that there are adults they can trust, and it will help you to know how to best teach them.

Teaching a lesson is only part of the job. Outside of the subject you tutor, you are helping a student to learn skills they can take with them. Whether these are organizational skills, communication skills, technology skills - your goals are to help the student however you best can, and however best meets their needs.

Be aware

To the best of my knowledge, every tutee will be different. All children learn differently, in one way or another.

In my experience, I believe I have worked with many students with bona fide Learning Differences. However, the stigma associated with different levels of ability or different statuses of mental health means that tutors are not often included in the need-to-know contingency determined by a student’s parents, teachers, schools, programs. . . Because of this, every child should be tutored as if they learn differently.

Begin with each new student by setting expectations for yourself and for your student, and be ready for the unexpected. Be ready to be patient, flexible, resourceful and creative - your student will need that of you, no matter what their abilities, but especially if and when your student has a Learning Difference. Tutors must always adapt their methods to best suit their students - this approach will lead you to the best path for your student and your student to a path of success.

I never expected to be a tutor, and many of my students never expected to be tutees. I know, though, that my students and I have left our tutoring sessions knowing more about technology, math, phonics and, most importantly, ourselves. Tutoring has changed my life for the better and I hope whether you are embarking on your first tutoring session or your thousandth that it will, or it has, for you and your students too.