5 outside box tips

1. Have a sense of humor about learning.

I like to use humor in my tutoring, to keep students engaged and interested in the material. I've found that it's easy to zone out during a lesson, and the classes I've retained the most information from myself have been ones where the teacher employed humor. In a writing class, a teacher explained the importance of context to spelling with the quip “You need to remember which witch is which, or you'll suddenly have a lady with a black hat appear in your paper.” My high-school calculus teacher helped us remember the SOH-CAH-TOA trig function sequence by telling us a long joke about a native american who stubbed his toe and was advised by the village elder to “Soak-a-toe-a.” And later on, in a materials science class in college, our professor explained the molecular physics properties of a certain material with a joke about coal trying to rob aluminum by saying “This is a stick-up. Give me all your oxygen,” and the aluminum responding with “Yeah, you and who else?”

Not only are students more likely to retain information because they're paying attention for the humor, but it also helps to keep the atmosphere in a session light. For me, learning is something to be enjoyed and to get excited about, and all too often people start to stress and become far more worried about their grades than about learning the material. If I can lighten the mood with a quip or a bad pun, if I can get that smile to cross the student's face, then I've just associated learning and our lessons with a fun chat with a friend, and they're more likely to come to future lessons with a motivation to learn.

2. Explain it back to me

One of my top strategies for working one-on-one with students is to have them explain a concept back to me. This works particularly well with math; if they know it well enough to explain it to someone else, then it's not as much of an issue to remember it themselves. It also helps remind them of the upper-layer “concept” behind the process; saying “I need to do the Lowest Common Denominator thing” isn't nearly as informative as “I need the denominators to be the same so I can add them, so I need to find a number that will divide by both of these denominators.”

I also use this strategy with SAT prep students; if they can explain to me how they would solve the problem, they've done the bulk of the work already. I frequently spend sessions taking an SAT student through a section of problems, not asking for the answer, but asking for “Explain to me how you would go about solving this one.”

3. Learn from your students and show that their opinions have value

I use this one a lot with English Literature students. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a wrong answer in Literature studies. If we're discussing themes or symbols, I always encourage my students to chime in with anything they've been thinking about while reading, even and especially if I haven't brought it up myself. I had a student last year, reading A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, introduce the idea of a symbol I legitimately hadn't even considered. She pointed out that in the third act, the Christmas tree – a definitionally useless ornamentation – was replaced by a lamp, a functional object. She connected this change to Nora's changing mindset about becoming an adult and taking on the responsibilities of a human being. Nora was a useless ornamentation in the first part of the play, just like the Christmas tree, but now she's seen the necessity of having a purpose. I was blown away by this quite articulate exploration, and I promptly encouraged her to delve deeper. By showing that I am willing to learn from my students, I let them know that their opinions have value and they should not feel self-conscious about sharing them.

4. Field Trips!

This one takes a bit of planning and doesn't work with everyone, but if possible, I love to subvert the expected routine and take my student on a field trip of sorts. If it's a nice day and I feel the student getting restless – why not work outside? If we meet up on Sunday and didn't realize the library was closed – why not head to a nearby coffee shop and work there? If she's studying Shakespeare and the local theater company happens to be doing a Shakespeare play, why not arrange an outing to see it? (or at the very least, let her know it's happening and strongly encourage her to go)

5. See your students as people

I gave one of my students a little present two weeks ago. No special reason; I just felt like she'd been in a dreary mood the past few weeks and needed a little pick-me-up. Mid-November is always a tough time for learning; it just seems like Thanksgiving break will never ever come. Her eyes lit up, and she was motivated and happy for the rest of the week. One of my middle-school students had a birthday, and her dad canceled her lesson for that day so they could take her to the mall to get her ears pierced. The following lesson I brought her a birthday present – a pair of pierced-ear earrings. She stuck them in her backpack and flounced off with a broad smile on her face.

Sometimes, all a student needs is a little reminder that I know they're a person with their own issues or excitements. I try to recognize that in my students, and keep an eye out for when they might just be having a rough week. Sometimes the student just needs an excuse to shake off the stress and get back to what they love. I can always tell with one of my students when she's in a funk and doesn't want to work, and usually I'll indulge her with a few minutes of chatting about her favorite books.

6. Break down the authority dynamic

I just thought of another one, so consider this your bonus tip. I made a conscious choice when I started tutoring to come to lessons dressed simply in jeans and T-shirts. I always make sure I look presentable, but I don't get dressed up to “business casual” or something similar when I tutor. This is deliberate, and is an attempt on my part to communicate a few things subconsciously.

First, I don't want my students to see me as an authority figure in the same way that they see their parents or teachers. I would rather they see me as approachable, as a friend they can turn to with questions. I tell my students to think of me as someone who is here to help them, someone they can ask questions and run ideas past without having to worry about bad grades or punishments. I prefer to present myself on the same level as the student, here to help them figure something out, to share in their frustrations or confusions and see if I can shed some light on the problems they're having. Dressing on the same level as them helps to communicate that.

A lot of times, especially with late middle-school or high-school students, the student-parent dynamic is already strained. I want to stay out of that dynamic, from the student's point of view, as much as I possibly can. Often times, if a parent comes in with the student and chats with me about their performance before a lesson, I'll listen and chat normally with the parent, while surreptitiously paying attention to how the student is reacting to their parents' comments. (Oddly enough, parents will often talk to me as if their child isn't present, or at the very least as if she can't speak up for herself.) Then, once the parent has left and I'm alone with the student, I'll turn to them and say, “So what do you think about that?” It's natural for a parent to view their student as a child, even if they're a senior in high school. I want the student to know that I see them as a responsible individual and am eager to hear what they have to say. My goal is for them to improve, so I want to hear what they're not telling their parents. I want to be a friend who can help them with this, not yet-another-grown-up telling them what to do and what they're doing wrong.

Second, I want to emphasize for my students that it doesn't take a super-special person to be able to understand these topics, nor does it take special preparation to be able to execute them. You don't have to get dressed up in a suit and heels in order to understand calculus; you just have to bring your brain and your desire to learn. If I can do it, so can you.


Maie L.

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