Confessions of a Mediocre Tutor

Private tutoring is all the rage in London. You might have read stories in the Evening Standard about how parents are willing to pay amazing sums of money to make sure their children are primed for the overblown poodle show that is our current exam system. The articles come with glossy images of people in their mid-twenties with crisp shirts or blouses. Sitting next to a simpering teenager, they give off assured looks about their ability to pass on knowledge of such topics as geometry, the role of Polonius in Hamlet and forming le passé composé. These are the brightest graduates from the brightest universities who will make sure that a parent’s brightest will be sent on their way to brightness.

Or, if you’re unlucky when applying to an agency for a little extra help, you might end up with someone like me. Now, I was not an awful tutor, the pedagogical equivalent of the eponymous anti-hero of Bad Santa; a filthy, leering reprobate with whisky on my breath. Although I should admit that I did once conduct a lesson after three too many margaritas. It was GSCE Biology for crying out loud. It’s essentially advanced gardening.

However, whilst not being terrible, I wasn’t really that good. Why? Because I didn’t care about the work and being honest, for a large amount of time after leaving university I didn’t give much of a hoot about myself. But that doesn’t really matter when it comes to being a private tutor. If you’re reasonably clever and don’t molest children, you can make a pretty decent wage.

I could rock up bored, hungover or both and still teach your dearest about the basics of oxidative phosphorylation. I made no lesson plans, I didn’t set follow-up homework and if a tutee wanted to play video games once he had finished his quadratic equations, that was fine by me.

I did have some success stories, like getting someone into Cambridge University. Or inspiring someone to go into medicine. Or changing the way that someone thought about maths forever – which is not an easy thing to achieve. But most of the time I was a solidly average tutor; punctual, engaging but only able to improve your child’s grades so far.

As a private tutor, you’re essentially a wandering supply teacher, a nomadic supplier of knowledge for a top, top rate. But you can be dismissed as easily as you’re hired. I’ve had many a break-up; over the phone and by text. But it’s the face to face ones which are the hardest to take. There were several occasions where I was about to leave a tutee’s house and asked them, ‘Same time, next week?’ They lowered their heads and mumbled quietly, ‘I really like having you as a tutor but my parents don’t think that we should see each other any more.’

I should have been aware that a tutor-pupil relationship is a similar to the dynamic of many other types of relationship. A person can pick up on apathy quite quickly and if they feel that there is no real connection, they can easily find, and pay, someone who will put that extra effort in.

I haven’t tutored in a couple of years. Mainly because I’ve found work that, whilst less rewarding in terms of pounds per hour, is much more fulfilling for me. Tutoring took me to some far out places such as Strawberry Hill, Streatham and Parsons Green to name but three. I met some wonderful parents and some knock-out kids, teenagers and students but at the end of it all, I’m happy to leave it to the people who actually care.

Image by Tulane Public Relations courtesy of Flickr

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