How to Talk with Young People

Here is quite possibly the most crucial rule you will ever learn for effective private tutoring. Are you ready? Pay close attention…

Be your student’s friend.

The more effective you are at forming a close relationship with your students, the faster and more naturally the information in your brain will flow in to theirs. Conversely, if you and your students have a poor relationship, chances are that roadblocks will be put in the way of all your learning objectives.

Be their friend. If you really understand this one lesson then the fee you paid for this book will be worth it many times over. Did you ever have a subject at school that you really enjoyed? I bet there was a cool teacher who you really respected and liked behind its success. On the other hand, did you have a subject you hated? I equally bet there was some power-hungry knob head behind that particular program of misery. Your goal as a good private tutor is to be the cool one that your students just can’t wait to spend time with; achieve this and even mediocre subject knowledge will achieve dramatic transformations. Furthermore, if your students are hopping around in excitement every time you come over to do maths, their parents (the purse holders) are pretty likely to want to continue paying you. Be their friend.

So how does this practically relate to your lessons? What follows in this chapter are a few strategies and tactics to help you achieve the holy grail of private tutoring.

The Guilt of Messing Around

In my early days as a tutor I felt this encroaching tide of guilt creep in for every second that me and my students weren’t doing hard-core studying (answering questions, reading books, discussing concepts etc.) This became a problem because whenever a natural and easygoing conversation arose, I always tried to end it as quickly as possible, thus shattering precious rapport. As I grew in skill (and emotional security for my profession) I learned not only to tolerate these ‘breaks in learning’, but actually to foster them. The more we talked about computer games, our social lives, cool films etc. the more we liked and trusted each other, and then the faster we could learn. When you start to look at chatting this way you begin to see it not as some unfortunate distraction from learning, but actually as an integral part of it. Learn to drop the school-learned guilt of ‘not working’ and factor in regular interruptions for friendly chit-chat. It’s fun! The added bonus to this is that it creates regular breaks from high intensity brain gymnastics which can increase overall output.

Private Tutoring is NOT School

Unfortunately, schools in the UK are pretty unpleasant places to be. Not only are your days filled with what is essentially low-grade clerical work, but in an effort to maintain discipline and massage egos an authoritarian system of rules, bullying and mandated respect shadows and corrupts the learning experience. Contrast these facts to the naturally carefree and expressive nature of childhood, and you can quickly see why so many children just hate going to school. I was one of them; statistically you were probably one too. Just like the lab rat who instinctively learns fear from venturing too far down the electrically charged maze path, many of our young people have learned fear and severe distaste for anything resembling dreaded school.

As a private tutor this presents a problem, for the closest approximation to private tutoring most young people have is, ‘crap… One hour of my free time every week has just been assimilated in to school!’ Many times have my first meetings with a student been moments of polite despair as my students lay sad eyes on a teacher invading the sanctity of their home. Since school often has a tragically bad reputation in your student’s mind, one of your first missions as a tutor is to deliberately distance yourself from it. If you can show your students that your tutoring sessions are something completely separate to school, then ‘tutoring’ can become its own mental category with the (hopefully) fantastic associations you create with it.

How you distance yourself is largely a matter of personal taste and style, and the following pointers in this chapter are designed to help with this. However, as a general rule try to act in a way separate to the prescribed and formal school style. If in any way you sound like a teacher, do something to change it, lest the associative misery of school creeps in to your lessons.

Speak in Your Normal Voice

It’s remarkable at how much most people change when they speak to children. Whether it’s baby speak to an infant or some sort of patronising Parent-Child style lecturing to teenagers, altering speech to children is almost ubiquitous. Why? There are all sorts of after-the-fact reasons which many people give when asked this question, but my experience has shown that none of them really stand up to much scrutiny. I think we really do it for two reasons 1. because it makes us feel better (usually more important) and 2. because everyone else is doing it and we copy them. As an interesting side note here, who taught supermarket workers to make announcements over the shop floor in that special supermarket announcement voice? No one did! They just copied the last person. At best talking like this to children will make you sound just like everyone else, and reinforce a cosy Parent-Child type relationship. At worst, it reminds someone who desperately wants to been seen as adult that they are not, and will, as a result, throw up huge defensive barriers. Hint: just about everyone over the age of 7 wants to be seen as an adult.

This presents, to the well equipped tutor, a great opportunity. Since almost everyone speaks to children in some sort of altered ‘children voice’, you have a great way to shine by talking to them as you would your friends. What is more, you yourself will actually fall in to a much more easy-going and friendly vibe if you talk in the way you do when you’re with your friends (easy-going and friendly). For example, would you ever say to your friend as you work “Right Scott, now you’re going to pass me the hammer as I break these bricks” No! You’d say “hey mate, can you pass me the hammer?” Children usually revel in the opportunity to speak Adult-Adult, and as such form a close bond of equality with you much more quickly. The only caveat to this rule is that you’ll have to censor the extended lexicon (big words) from speech, but presumably you already do this with your simply spoken friends and foreigners. Try it, this technique is a charm.

Find a Metaphor They Can Relate to

The art of skilful teaching is really about finding the right metaphor of a concept that relates to your student’s life experience. Put another way – explain stuff in terms they understand. You could be the most cerebral master of your subject in the who country, but unless you can put it to your students in a way they can relate to, you will be a poor teacher.

Definite Do-Nots

We’ll finish the talking to student section with a list of definite do-nots. Do these at your peril…

  • Have your students refer to you as ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’.

  • Mark work in a red pen.

  • Talk to your students like children.

  • Get angry or passive-aggressive with your students.

  • Judge your students in any way.

  • Let rudeness, indifference or passive-aggressiveness go unaddressed

And Finally… A Couple of Helpful Tips

Tip – Whenever you need your students to do something (an exercise, answer a question, focus, whatever), make sure you ask them to do it and don’t give an instruction. Get used to saying things like, “hey mate, would it be OK to do questions a to c?” This tip gains massive rapport and builds the foundations for a strong relationship of equality.

Tip – In general, try to think of your relationship with your students as a relationship between equals.

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