Former classics tutor Josh Spero has observed all the vagaries of the hyper-competitive high-rollers but believes tutoring is about problem-solving.
I only got thrown out of a tutee’s house once. The boy was going for entry at 11 to a major public school’s feeder school and I was teaching him Latin. He wasn’t a natural Latinist, but he was making good progress. One week, his father said he felt doubling our hour on a Saturday morning would help; I (politely) said I thought this would be too much for the boy, and ineffective anyway. The father tightened up his face, which was rapidly going purple, and in a strangulated Scottish brogue advised me to leave there and then.
To me, this illustrates the most inadvisable attitude towards tutoring: thinking tutors are teaching machines who can crank up production – and results – at will, instead of knowing that a tutor over time comes to understand their pupil, their ability, their will and their desire to learn.
This is not to say my judgments have always been spot-on; I did once call a child a sociopath to her mother. But an attitude of trust is vital. This needs to be more than the basic trust in the security of your child in the tutor’s care; it should be a trust that the tutor will work with their child’s exact personality to get the best melding of styles of teaching and learning. Luckily, this was what I encountered over six years with the vast majority of the parents of my 120 pupils. (Who knew so many were still learning classics?)
Perhaps preceding trust comes an accurate assessment of your child’s needs – your child’s, I stress, and not yours. There is a tendency for an arms race in classrooms, where tutors are the payload: if Johnny has a tutor, then Jimmy needs one too. Call in the ranks of begowned graduates! Firsts only, please! You speak three languages? Disappointing, we were hoping for Mandarin too. Next!
But that is more about the parents than the child. For me, the joy of tutoring was solving students’ problems. Each one was different, though they often shared characteristics or causes, the most frequent of which was poor teaching – surprising at schools costing tens of thousands a year. What I found was that even in small classes, one who falls behind cannot be effectively helped: only tutoring can give them the attention they truly need.
Like a psychiatrist without the guts and gore, a tutor listens beneath what a pupil says and diagnoses the weakness; it might be to do with styles of learning as much as the subject itself, or it might be frustrations at latent capacities, but it’s more than blue ticks and red crosses. And all this for some Latin vocab.
Josh Spero is the editor of Spear’s magazine and is the author of Second-Hand Stories.