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Those Who Can't Do, Tutor

In my experience, teachers often recoil at the saying, "Those who can't do, teach." Indeed, the underlying tone implies that teachers are nothing more than those people who lack the ability required for a certain field of expertise. However, I like to ignore the intended insult and interpret the expression as a compliment and as an excellent description of an effective tutor. Every time I have struggled in an academic subject, the experience has given me insight into all the wrong twists and turns you can take in the process of trying to unravel a maze of skills and concepts. As a tutor, this invaluable insight now lets me meet a student in the familiar depths of his confusion and travel with him out to the light of understanding. To those for whom a subject comes naturally, this territory of incomprehension exists only in theory. Sometimes, explaining the correct approach in detail does not penetrate a tutoree's confusion. By understanding "not understanding," a tutor can create a bridge between a student's interpretation of the material and the appropriate interpretation. This is why I consider my Cs in High School algebra an asset as a tutor.

I began to see the positive side of "If you can't do, teach" in college. My roommate and I both had majors or minors in French. Although we both received good grades, French came much more naturally to her. She often picked up colloquialisms, grammar exceptions, and twists of syntax by simply absorbing the language. I, on the other hand, had to actively process what I was learning and continuously sort through the seemingly vast, cumbersome mess of rules to find the most simple explanation possible. I envied her abilities and the ease with which she passed the tests, but, when we were both eventually hired by the University as French tutors, I was able to better connect with the students who came in for help. Often exasperated, my roommate could not understand where these floundering students were coming from while I was all too familiar with their lack of understanding. Any tutor knows that if you have experienced what it feels like to be confused you not only better sympathize with your students, you come armed with more effective tutoring tools.

Nowadays, I can "do" quite well.... I can solve a quadratic equation and conjugate a French verb with the best of them. However, my past difficulties mean that I can help others learn. In fact, tutors should consider tutoring students in subjects they once struggled with themselves instead of sticking to the "specialties" that earned them straight As. When I see my tutorees painfully working their way to a place of understanding, I smile and think that they might make awesome tutors themselves one day.


Kathryn, I wholeheartedly agree with you about this. I am earning an education as a math teacher but math has not always been my top subject. I am able to reach the students that I am tutoring and help them understand certain math concepts because I once struggled with the same concepts and mathematical errors. Thank you for your insight, Melissa
Excellent article! Those who struggle with subjects have an advantage over those to whom things come naturally. It is so true that empathy and the ability to not get exasperated are important traits in tutors.
Thank you Kathryn! The best teacher I ever had was my high school algebra teacher who said he had failed algebra twice in college. He could explain it from every direction. The worst teacher I ever had was my geometry teacher who was supposedly so intelligent that he could not "get down on our level" to explain the subject. The finest example of someone who can't do but can teach is my cousin who has cerebral palsy. He was an assistant coach for a college in Texas. Confined to a wheelchair and unable to hold his own cards, he taught me to play tennis and shuffle cards. Through painstaking observation, he was able to tell me every precise movement to make.
I thought I was the only person on earth tutoring my worst subject: math. I used to hate math, until the first time I tutored an algebra student. That was the first time I had fun doing math, and it's been that way ever since. It's also when I finally began to understand math! Thank you, Kathryn, for helping me understand how I ended up here! And Jo T: Thank you for the story about your cousin. That is amazing.