I wanted a job that allowed me to make a difference, do good things and have a big impact on the world. It was a toss up between nursing and teaching, but in the end I decided on teaching and I've never regretted it.
I thought I would get the freedom to use the gifts I'd got. So I did a teaching degree at Cheltenham. In the first lecture of the course the lecturer asked us to all the think of the first negative memory we has about our own time at school. We all had memories of teachers who made us feel small. I had a terrible one: I was five or six years old and I can remember the teacher telling me to walk around every member of the class and show them how awful my work was.
I've never forgotten it and even now, when I want to share a child's work – always to show how good it is not how bad it is – I ask permission from the child first. But of course this was 1986 so our memories were of the 1970s. I do think it is a rare teacher that does this nowadays – in the course of my whole career I've only ever met conscientious teachers – and that is definitely something to celebrate!
For me, doing a four-year teaching degree was perfect. I don't think I'd have responded so well to the pace of a PGCE. We had so many different teaching practices over the four years so by the time I qualified I had a whole range of vital skills.
Teaching is still fresh for me after all these years in the classroom because, of course, there are always new children. The joy of being a teacher is working with a child and thinking how is this person going understand this? How are they going to move on and get to the next part? It's a bit like solving a puzzle and needing to use all your skills and experience to do it.
As a teacher you have to use your powers of intelligence and observation to help them solve the problem and that's something I love doing. Finding out how people tick really matters to me.
I really want to help children enjoy their day at school and found you can make their day really appetising by being creative. But of course it's a big responsibility. When you are a teacher you have the opportunity to show individuals that they really matter. It's your job to discover their talents and help them find out who they are. This has always been a central part of my teaching. I really want to help shape people's lives, to help them discover they are important as individuals.
For the last seven years I've worked in a brilliant school, All Saints C of E primary school in Roffey. The school is only in its 11th year and I actually witnessed the laying of the foundation stone when it was just a muddy field. I do think that the school I work in now is extra special. The headteacher Susan Costa is the best head I've ever worked with. Teaching is a journey, you need to reflect every now and then. A great teacher will keep learning and teach on the basis of respect for the children. I've been really inspired by my current head who is constantly urging us to refresh and reflect.
We do what's called "the captivating curriculum". The whole idea is that we give the children memorable experiences. Every term has a "stunning start" to captivate the pupils. In fact, we will often start this before the term even begins, for example sending letters out to the children saying treasure has been discovered in the school grounds, or that they need to come to school on the first day of term ready to catch an aeroplane. There's a lot of dressing up by teachers as well as students.
I'm a PAA teacher now, which means I go into other teachers' classes while they can have some time out planning and creating lessons. You have to have a huge portfolio of specialisms. So I get to teach many different children over the whole school. I teach three days a week. I opted for part-time teaching as I wanted to invest a lot of time in my own children and being a parent has really informed my teaching.
Teamwork makes so much difference to how you feel as a teacher. The school I'm working in now has such a great ethos and culture of teamwork, and that comes right through from the head, to the classroom teachers, to support roles – and by extension to children and parents. We do feel valued and move forward as a team and that makes a huge difference to how you feel about your job. Teachers have to give their heart and soul and without that basis of respect for your colleagues it doesn't work so well.
There are always new horizons in teaching. I find it fascinating that teaching can stay fresh – you are always learning, always building on what you know. My latest thing is doing some forest school training. It's a way of children using their environment, being in the woods, making fires, building dens. Being outside gives teachers another way to help children find their skills and strengths. It's such a different way of learning and a different world for children to really shine. That confidence feeds back into what they are doing in other areas.
My worry about teaching now is that it's so hard to be a teacher these days. But there are many positives now that didn't exist when I started out, for example in the level of support a classroom teacher will get from teaching assistants is far more now.
And the very idea of PPA time is wonderful. I know teachers can't get all their planning done in this time, but the fact that it's formally recognised is a tangible way of admitting teachers work outside their teaching hours. It's got to be a good thing. When I look around at all the personalities in the class I think: here is our future, and I long for the right people to continue to go into teaching.
Mary Beal teachers at All Saints Church of England primary school in Roffey, near Horsham
Read Mary's resource on religious symbolism here.
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What makes a great tutor?
(Written in October 2008)
Having tutored students privately since 1998, when I was a freshman at Harvard University (and full-time since 2002), I have seen many tutors come and go. Some tutors are very good at what they do, others not so good, and sometimes it's hard to tell exactly why this is so.
Tutoring is a booming business, and every year more and more families hire private tutors. Tutoring allows naturally skilled teachers to hone their craft without having to earn a teaching certificate (which in some states is extremely difficult and time consuming, and often has very little to do with teaching) or presiding over an overcrowded classroom where discipline takes priority over learning. Great tutors can come from all walks of life, and they don't necessarily have prior teaching or tutoring experience (though experience is obviously helpful). It doesn't require a graduate degree or a laborious and bureaucratic certification process, so there are very few barriers to entry.
On the other hand, it is often difficult for students and parents to find a skilled, competent tutor because there are no well-defined requirements or qualifications for tutors. Companies such as Princeton Review and Kaplan make a fortune off hiring college-age kids, sending them to a weekend training course, then calling them “certified” and charging over $100/hr for their services (while paying the tutors only around 15% of what they charge). Thankfully, parents are starting to wise up to this marketing scheme after being burned by too many negative experiences with these inexperienced tutors.
(By contrast, instead of indoctrinating our tutors with a “one size fits all” method of teaching, we allow our tutors to develop their own teaching methods and styles. Of course, we do provide guidance, materials and training, but we know that tutoring is an art to be mastered, not a presentation to be memorized. This is why many of our tutors were former teachers or counselors in the local school system well before they became tutors. We also pay our tutors very well for their services, and keep close track of their experience as well as their results.)
While the nationally-franchised test-prep companies are indeed quite unreliable, it's still not safe to assume that all smaller companies are trustworthy. Many smaller tutoring companies will boast that all of their tutors scored in the 99th percentile of a standardized test, or some similar claim, but I never understood the purpose of this policy (although I suspect it is simply used as an attempt to impress potential clients). The truth is that a great test score has very little to do with one's ability to actually teach others how to take that test. Parents: think about the students who had the best scores in your high school class on the SAT. In many cases, this person had little or no social skills, a Napoleon-Dynamite type character. Would you really want this person tutoring your child?? Only a handful of tutors nationwide can combine 99th percentile scores with 99th percentile tutoring/consulting skills (as a student of mathematics I will tell you that's approximately one in ten thousand), and that's why these rare tutors can command such high hourly rates and are so hard to find.
This is the type of tutor I aspire to be, and I hope that all of our tutors aspire to be…but in a pinch I'll take personality and communication skills over extreme book smarts, especially for students below 90th percentile. (Note: students above 90th percentile should invest in a skilled tutor with very high scores (97-99th percentile) and many years' experience or the student will probably be bored and unsatisfied).
Obviously, tutors should always have excellent academic qualifications, because it is imperative that they understand the material inside and out. But I'd much rather have a patient, personable and enthusiastic tutor who scored in the 95th percentile than a socially inept introvert who scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT! Sometimes, the best tutors are those who struggled in a subject, only to overcome those struggles, because these types of tutors genuinely understand the obstacles to learning that many students face.
A classic example of this paradox is math tutoring. There are plenty of people out there who are naturally talented at math…but often, the more talented the tutor, the less likely he/she is able to explain mathematical concepts to others. In the same way that great athletes rarely make great coaches, incredibly gifted mathematics students often make poor tutors because they possess an innate understanding of math that they can't quite explain to others. When a student doesn't understand the tutor's explanation, the tutor will often become frustrated and resort to platitudes such as “keep practicing and you'll figure it out.” Meanwhile, those of us who studied for 3 hours a night to barely squeak out an A- in AP Calculus can better understand the struggles that math students face..so we can teach you exactly how to overcome those struggles too. This is why the vast majority of McElroy Tutoring's business comes from word-of-mouth: great scores are a plus, but there is no substitute for the recommendation of a trusted friend who saw great results with one of our tutors.
So, without further ado, I've outlined eight key characteristics that you should look for in any tutor you hire (in addition to the obvious requirement of intelligence). These are the same characteristics that I look for in all McElroy Tutoring tutors.
Obviously, as in any business, there is no substitute for experience. Parents and students have finally started to realize that the best tutors don't work for large tutoring companies such as Ivy West, Kaplan or Princeton Review. The reason is simple: these companies pay their tutors very little, so the best tutors don't stick around for very long or gain much teaching experience because they know they can make a better living on their own. Most of the truly talented tutors who work for these companies soon quit after realizing that they can work for themselves, charge half as much, and make twice as much money! So that means that you should look for independent tutors, right? Yes…but make sure to do your research. Watch out for the tutor who claims “10 years of experience,” because this could mean that he tutored his cousin one time 10 years ago, and hasn't had a student since! Obviously that's an extreme example, but this “credibility gap” is why it is often hard to find a good tutor through Google and other online sources, and the big-name tutoring companies are able to make such a killing from parents: it's hard to know where to look and what time of tutor to look for. When interviewing potential tutors over the phone or in person, one should ask how many students the tutors have worked with, how many hours per week they tutor, and whether they can provide references. These stats are much better indicators of a tutor's true tutoring experience, because many tutors have full-time jobs and only work with students for an hour or two per week. Full-time tutors like myself are harder to find, but they are usually worth the extra cost because of their superior level of experience. The best tutors often work for smaller companies (such as my company, McElroy Tutoring) because they are paid well and have the freedom to shape their own curriculums. And it's easier for parents because we can independently verify each tutor's experience and results. If a tutor doesn't work out, no problem—we'll send you a new one until we find a good match. And as always, you will never have to pay for more than one lesson at a time.
Parents and students should seek a tutor who is happy to show up to work every day, and who loves his/her job. This is why our tutor compensation packages are among the best in the country—we believe that a happy, well-paid tutor is the best kind of tutor there is. I love my job, and I want everyone who works for McElroy Tutoring to love his/her job as well.
A skilled tutor knows that every student has unique needs, and that the lessons and explanations that work for one student may not work for another. Tutors should be able to communicate concepts to students in a variety of ways, using a range of analogies, metaphors and similes that relate to the student's own talents and experiences. For example, I have a great deal of experience as an athlete and musician, so I use my knowledge in these two areas to help relate my lessons to students. A great essay can be compared to a jazz standard, for example, or the SAT-prep process can be compared to training for a marathon.
Patience, patience, patience. It's a quality that tutors absolutely must possess, or they will not last very long in this business. Too many tutors believe that their performance is judged by the volume of material that they cover in each session. To the contrary, some of the most effective tutoring sessions are those where the tutor does not move on until the student has completely absorbed what the tutor is trying to convey. Many high school students just want to get the lesson over with, so they rush through each problem like it is a race. Experienced tutors know that they cannot allow this to happen. They assure their students that the session will not end any sooner if they rush, and this encourages the student to slow down, to relax, and most importantly, to listen and learn.
Great tutors have flexible schedules and flexible minds. They are able to craft lesson plans on the fly or make an adjustment if the student forgot his or her PSAT booklet or didn't get a chance to do the homework. They know that pre-set lessons and “one size fits all” methods dittos aren't really much help, and that the use of these “crutches” is simply the sign of a lazy tutor (or an inexperienced one). Beware of any tutor who reads lessons from a textbook or a notebook—if they understand the material inside and out, they shouldn't have to consult the “manual” every 10 seconds.
By the same token, if a tutor does not quite understand a question, he/she should not be embarrassed to admit it. Many tutors are afraid to admit any weakness or lack of knowledge, for fear of being fired or seen as incompetent. But the truth is that tutors who are able to admit their shortcomings are better respected by their clients. Students like it when you don't understand a problem every once in a while—it shows that you are human too! Elite tutors embrace the opportunity to learn something new, and they are skilled at “thinking out loud” so that they can work through these difficult questions together with the student. If they cannot figure out the answer to a question during the tutoring session, they write it down, take it home, and figure it out on their own time so they can explain the concept to the student during the next tutoring session.
Skilled tutors have an innate ability to read their students' attitudes and states of mind. An example of this is when a tutor explains a concept to a student, then asks (as they should) if the student has understood their explanation. Often, the student will say “yes,” but does not really understand. (Students sometimes say “yes” when they mean “no”.) Why does this happen? Well, for a number of reasons; sometimes students are embarrassed to admit lack of knowledge, or sometimes they are bored and just want to move along. But regardless of the reason, great tutors can usually tell from experience and from the student's facial expressions that the student doesn't really get it. So they should either repeat the point in a different way or ask them to explain what was said back to the tutor to make sure they understood. Other times, a student will arrive at the lesson feeling exhausted from sports, homework, lack of sleep, or all three! Pushing tired students too hard will be counterproductive, so in these types of situations tutors should assign a “low-stress” activity or work on reviewing familiar concepts. On other days, students arrive at a session with a high energy level, so the tutors must meet this enthusiasm with their own, and give the student as much information as possible. Tutors should know when to give students a “break” by stopping for a moment to ask them about their lives or see how their classes are going. Knowing when to take short breaks and when to vary the material is one of the keys to a productive tutoring session. Of course, this type of “sixth sense” for reading students cannot be taught, and is only learned from years of tutoring experience.
Finally, tutors should have a sincere desire to help students reach their fullest potential. Tutors must remember that the business of tutoring is not about them—it is about the student. Prospective tutors: yes, it's true that you can make a very good living as a tutor. But if you're only planning on becoming a tutor for the money, go become a real estate broker instead. To become a great tutor you must care about your students' success as much as your own!
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