When I first started doing private tuition, I was an enthusiastic teenager (I will not age myself by telling you the year) and believed there was no student that I couldn’t help to get the academic results they wanted. I believed that private tuition always worked, without exception, without qualification. That theory held for a number of years, which only helped to compound my belief. Until the day it didn’t work anymore.
I had an 11 plus student – a wonderful young girl in love with everything and anything to do with unicorns! She literally bounced into our lessons and we had so much fun that we often rolled out of the lessons in laughter (the requisite hard work completed of course). But there was something there, something I just couldn’t push through.
I tried to tell her parents about it and they listened, they seemed to do everything I asked them to do. I recommended different books, and they bought them. I suggested splitting our lessons over two days to reduce the workload, they received this with enthusiasm. But still, the problems remained. There seemed to be little progress and everyone seemed to be making the right noises, most of all my bouncing student, bouncing high enough to remain carefree of the anxieties and worries that were beginning to surround her.
I had an 11 plus student – a wonderful young girl in love with everything and anything to do with unicorns!
I’d been teaching her for about two months when her mother approached me and asked for an update. With the clearest and lightest of hearts, I expressed a little bit of doubt. I was still confident that the private tuition was having an effect, but we were in the summer before her grammar school exams and it just seemed like a little bit of a stretch for the bouncing girl, even with all her unicorns helping her to fly through the multiple exam papers, rapid tests and drills that I was setting her each week. As I said, they and she were doing everything they were being asked to do.
My doubt was not met well, I’d expected this, but the tears were truly unexpected. I hadn’t meant to cause pain, in fact I’d wanted to prepare her parents in some way, but it had clearly failed. I told the mother the truth, that her child was brilliant, performing far beyond what was expected but, as frustrating as it was, she just wasn’t making enough progress. She couldn’t understand it, she didn’t know why. But this was not the first time she’d heard this.
Unknown to me, it was the child’s school that had recommended private tuition. Unknown to me, I was the fourth tutor that year. Unknown to me, my bouncing student had been diagnosed with a number of challenges that were affecting her academic performance. None of this had been told to me, and she had learnt to hide them so well.
I could see the desperation in her mother’s face. It is difficult to be told that your child has challenges that they will struggle with throughout their life. Over the years I had come to understand the frustrations that can be attached to such diagnoses – for some people it is just too much and they don’t want to acknowledge it. The truth was the parents didn’t want to believe the school, they were using private tutors to try to disprove the school’s findings and show that there was really nothing wrong with their daughter.
I told the mother the truth, that her child was brilliant, performing far beyond what was expected but, as frustrating as it was, she just wasn’t making enough progress.
There was nothing wrong with their daughter, I told them this. But she did learn differently and adjustments needed to be made for that. Once I had the information, I could design an effective private tuition strategy. I was able to put in place the correct tools – different fonts and font sizes, increased use of multimedia resources, less of a focus on retention and more on the systemisation of information – and the progress began to roll in.
We had pushed through.
I didn’t think she could bounce higher, but she did!
I remember my student saying to me that it was like she’d had on fuzzy glasses and they had finally been taken off.
Her parents ultimately decided to target less academically rigorous secondary schools, but it wasn’t a defeat. They had realised that the task was bigger that one exam; this was an opportunity to give their daughter the tools that she would need to tackle the academic challenges she would face in the future.
Private tuition is not a magic wand; it is not there to prove that school doesn’t work.
Even though they decided not to continue the 11 plus preparations, they kept me on as her private tutor into secondary school and all the way to GCSE. They could see that the support I was able to give, the insight I was able to provide, had value far beyond our one hour weekly time slot. They got to know their child better, understand how she processes the world. Our regular conversations empowered them to advocate for her at school from an informed position, allowing the school to take a more proactive approach to the planning of the girl’s education.
She did brilliantly and excelled by all standards. When she got older and I would remind her about the unicorns, she’d deny it. Never, she’d exclaimed, never had she been into unicorns! How quickly they forget.
Private tuition is not a magic wand; it is not there to prove that school doesn’t work. The benefits of private tuition are twofold: firstly, it is about cultivating a sustainable learning environment which can react rapidly and in a targeted fashion to the individual needs of a child. Secondly, it is about cultivating robust feedback loops through which children build confidence by seeing sustained progress in particular areas of challenge.
For private tuition to be successful, make sure to find the right tutor, one that believes in unicorns and can nurture in your child not just a particular grade but a love of learning, a respect for education and a determination to steep themselves in good academic practices.