Tutors are supposedly the paragons of confidence and assurance, right? Furthermore, we're not only supposed to embody those qualities but we're supposed to imbue our students with them.

Expectations are all fine and well but the truth is very different, isn't it?

Just like any first meeting - job interviews, making friends, first dates, the challenge lies in being well-received and matching or exceeding our first impression as time spent together goes on. In that sense, the deck may be a bit stacked against us.

If you tutor in yoga or any other fitness discipline, in arts and crafts or any other leisure activity, the people who seek you out already have a positive mindset. They want to learn and you have the knowledge they crave. Contrast that attitude with a student who has fallen so far behind in school that supplemental lessons are needed.

Why did that student fall behind? How does s/he feel about lagging behind the rest of the class? Does s/he even like school and have a desire to learn? What about confidence levels and where is s/he at on the self-esteem scale? It's clear to see how a difference in attitude can define how you will be received which, in turn, will dictate how your initial meeting will go.

Equally obvious is the fact that extracurricular tutors - yoga, cooking et al., have less of a struggle in forming bonds with their learners even though they may face some of the same challenges. For that reason, our focus is mainly directed toward academic tutors but many of these tips apply to any type of tutor.

Whether you are an experienced tutor or about to undertake your very first lesson, you want to make a positive first impression so you can get your new student started on their journey of discovery. That dovetails with your secondary goal of scheduling follow-on lessons.

Superprof now gives you pointers and things to think about ahead of your initial tutoring session.

Before Your First Encounter

Before we can get into particulars, let us emphasise that we're not painting every tutor with the same brush.

Some tutors may still be secondary school students, exceptional in their academic performance and willing to help learners younger than them. Others may need to earn a bit of cash to see them through their university studies. For them, tutoring is a small but necessary part of their higher education; not anything they will build their future around.

University students, school teachers and freelancers all tutor
Your children's reading tutor may be a university student who works part time as a private tutor Photo credit: mosaic36 on Visualhunt.com

A larger proportion of tutors make their living as school teachers who provide academic coaching and homework help evenings and weekends. For tutors with this background, credibility is seldom an issue but getting around the teacher stigma sometimes proves pretty challenging.

Students' parents may be overjoyed at having retained a genuine educator but their child may feel less enthusiastic at having yet another teacher in their lives.

Finally, some tutors have built their career on being independent of any school or institution. They are owners and operators of the tutoring business they established; their income is derived solely from tutoring. In this category, we include tutors employed through an agency because they too have made tutoring their profession.

Whether your earnings as a tutor are supplemental income or your only paycheck, these tips are universal.

Getting the Basics Together

One reason that compulsory education leaves today's students so nonchalant about their classes is that, despite new educational philosophies and dramatic advances in technology, school hasn't changed much throughout the centuries. It is still a teacher-led proposition that relies heavily on textbooks and standardised exams.

Not that schools are to blame for their lack. They operate under strict budgetary guidelines and educational requirements set forth by the Department for Education. If there's no money to transform every classroom into a high-tech study environment, we could hardly blame the schools, right?

Still, there's a reason why the phrase 'old school' is considered offensive. That's a label you should avoid at all costs, but how?

First, arm yourself with a variety of teaching tools. Scour the web for videos, web pages and applications designed to make the subject(s) you teach more enticing, engaging and entrancing. For instance, if you teach primary school maths, look for worksheets and games that every child would delight in.

Once you've amassed a collection of media related to the subject(s) and level(s) you teach, study up on some of the latest educational theories:

  • cooperative learning: building positive interdependence
  • collaborative learning: best when used in small groups
  • peer learning: suitable for small group tutoring
  • student-centred learning: students lead the discovery while teachers support and guide the process
  • transformative learning is best suited to older learners
  • critical pedagogy: working together to build knowledge

Learn more about the 12 teaching strategies for more effective tutoring...

You might not be able to use any of these approaches in your one on one tutoring sessions but aspects of these initiatives, especially the social, contextual and activities engagement ones could revolutionise your pedagogy. Besides, it never hurts to contemplate new ideas. After all, isn't that a part of your ethos that you intend to pass on to your students?

Beyond readying your arsenal for even the most recalcitrant student, you should have a reasonably well-equipped office setup: planner, scheduler, billing software and/or an online account to receive lesson fees. You should also have already registered your business with HMRC and secured a DBS check.

If you intend to give lessons at your house, make sure you have a dedicated space set up but if you feel your students would prefer taking lessons at home, make your kit portable. If you give lessons online - in this COVID era, the most advisable method of lesson delivery, get familiar with video chat applications, interactive whiteboards and educational software.

Once all of that is squared away, let the tuition begin!

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

The initial client contact is quite thrilling but you should set aside your glee while you take in your new student's information.

Find out as much as you can about them and their trouble areas before your first lesson together. Confirm the subject and topics they need help with, the level and, if the client requests test prep, ask which exam board they're preparing for.

Ask them to bring (or have present) all relevant course materials such as textbooks, workbooks and extra study materials so that you can establish together exactly how much course content you need to cover.

Remember to agree on a firm date, time and location for your sessions. If you and your student have settled on courses via the web, let them know which video chat application you will connect though and be sure to share your contact details.

Don't be shy about discussing your fees.

You may love teaching so much that you'd do it for free but you still have to earn a living. That initial phone call is not necessarily the time to point out any discounts you may have built into your fee schedule for ongoing lessons but you should definitely make sure your new client knows how much to pay you, as well as when and how.

On the eve of your first lesson with a new student, it wouldn't hurt to call or text them to confirm that the lesson is still on.

In case you need them, here are some tips for helping a reluctant student.

Be sure to let people know up front what your service includes
The first time you meet, be sure to outline what your service does and does not include Photo on VisualHunt.com

Once You Meet

Whether the scheduled lesson takes place at yours, theirs, in a coffee shop or online, there are three critical steps to ensure your first meeting goes off without a hitch.

Put Your Student at Ease

Start off by introducing yourself and then go on an expedition by asking open-ended questions designed to draw them out. You want them to tell you about themselves, their families and things that they like and enjoy outside of school.

At this point, offer no advice and don't bring up school, education or anything related to any troubles they might have in class.

Finding out about their hobbies and what they like outside of school is a potential goldmine for you. If they are interested in football, for example, you may be able to weave this into maths tutorials and if they enjoy watching films, you might quote memorable lines during future meetings.

If they are gamers, you have a treasure trove of relational material for just about any academic subject from history to art and from mathematics to information technology.

Finally, tell them a bit about your background and explain why you love your subject. Be professional and friendly, and remind them that you are there to help them. Reinforce the idea that, as far as you're concerned, no question they may ask is stupid or silly.

Establish Where Troubles Lie

Does your student excel in humanities but is daunted by mathematics or the sciences? Are they quick at solving mathematical problems but not so great at expressing themselves?

When they tell you what their academic challenges are, listen carefully and ask ‘why?’ at every turn. This will help you get to the root cause of their problems.

As you listen, take notes so that you can build a personal profile. Creating profiles will serve to remind you of each student's needs and circumstances; student profiles are invaluable for tracking learners' progress.

If possible, determine which educational tools and methods may help you help them. For example, if s/he has difficulties memorising large chunks of information, plan to introduce them to mind maps.

These maps create a tool that can be used to synthesise and visualise large bodies of information. They rely on keywords, drawings and photographs to improve your student’s ability to recall key concepts but, more importantly, they show connections and relationships between ideas that make the overall concepts easier to grasp.

If the lack of focus is an issue, note that you shouldn't plough on with the lesson. Such a teaching strategy is too similar to classroom teaching; you need to distinguish your approach from the typical classroom experience.

Consider Spaced Learning, a teaching style that involves alternating between 10-minute study sessions with 10-minute physical activities such as a short run or playing a game.

Spaced Learning and the Pause method of teaching are getting extremely positive reviews from teachers, parents and students alike. Pausing means hitting the books for 15-20 minutes and then giving your student a few minutes to organise and refocus their minds.

Discover more ways of structuring your lessons in our companion article...

Prepare a Study Plan

Once you have established the problem areas, you can draft a detailed plan of what you want to cover, and how much time you need to cover each topic / sub-topic. Provide a copy to the student so they, too, know the pace at which they need to learn key concepts. This helps manage expectations and remind them that Rome isn’t built in a day.

The First Session

Now that you have everything set up and the groundwork is laid for a fruitful study relationship, how do you proceed?

Getting Through to Your Student

Are you dealing with a visual/auditory learner or does s/he prefer more of a kinesthetic approach?

Students process information in different ways. Some learners are reflective; they need time to mentally digest new information while others are active – they like to learn by doing things. For instance, they might have more success knowing to drive by actually getting in a car and starting the motor rather than spend time leafing through instruction manuals. Reflective learners prefer memorising the manual before triggering the car's ignition circuit.

Understanding how your student learns is a useful step to establishing the best way to tutor them.

However, unless they know about learning styles and can identify theirs, you have to work with them to figure it out for them. You can find resources online, from quizzes to questionnaires that will help you determine what type of learner you face and plan your materials accordingly.

The hot topic among tutors today: the best ways to tutor University students. Won't you share your thoughts?

You may tutor in a public place, at home or online
Private tutoring is often done at home but it can also happen in a public place Photo credit: scottrocher on Visual hunt

Create the Right Environment

Even before the pandemic altered life as we knew it, online tutoring was becoming the fastest-growing market for supplemental education. Now that the infernal virus has made mingling with strangers a life-threatening proposition, even schools are moving their classes online.

How can you create a suitable study environment in cyberspace?

The virtual world called Second Life shows us how we can create an environment as close to natural as possible. So adept is this platform at cyber-reality that some schools sponsor a corner of the Second Life world for their students to interact in.

Perhaps creating a Second Life identity for yourself and insisting your tutees join you there is going a bit too far, especially since you can create effective teaching solutions without the trappings of that virtual world.

Having a stable internet connection, appearing on camera in front of a neutral (non-distracting) background and being proficient with digital study tools all project competence. Everything else, from how you modulate your voice to your pedagogy will reinforce the fact that you are a professional who knows what s/he is doing.

Pro tip: attach googly eyes next to your computer's camera so that your eyes will look there rather than at your screen, which makes you appear downcast.

What if, bucking current trends and pandemic safety guidelines, your student insists on being in the same room as you?

Arrange for a quiet place for your lesson, somewhere with no distractions. If they are old enough to have their own electronic devices, make sure those are turned off.

You need to be able to sit alongside the student; sitting across from them might appear confrontational. Remember to bring all of your teaching materials and other resources – laptop or tablet, art supplies or maths toolkit. Also bring extra paper and writing tools, just in case your student forgets to bring some of their own.

Make Things Interesting and Fun

Nobody wants to have a dull and boring time.

There is always room (and time) to inject a bit of lightheartedness into your sessions. You might, for example, include a few riddles:

  • What can go around the world yet stays in one corner? (geography)
    • alternatively: what can go all the way to (the country you're studying) yet stays in its corner?
  • What do tigers have that no other animal has? (biology)
  • Two fathers and two sons ate three eggs; one apiece. How can that be? (maths)
  • Which two letters contain nothing? (English)
  • What gets wetter the more it dries? (physics)

The overlooked aspect of riddling is that it encourages critical thinking, a vital skill that is barely taught in school. Opening your sessions with a riddle and sprinkling them throughout could lighten things up when things get intense; they are also a wonderful way to signal that it's time to get back to work after a study break.

Another way to draw your students in: share fascinating, little-known facts.

If you are teaching a humanities-based subject like history, enlighten them with interesting information that they may never have known about historical figures. Sharing facts and amusing anecdotes may help make key historical figures and events real. 

Join the discussion: what is the importance of teaching values in today's society?

Wrapping the Lesson Up

So productive has the session been that neither you nor your student can believe your hour is almost up! Before you slam the books closed, snap your satchel shut and walk out... 

Assign Homework

It never is too early to encourage students to prepare for the next session or to demonstrate that you have designed an arc of progress for them.

From the very first class, assign your student work that covers both previously learned material and introduces the next topic. Whenever you can, try to make the homework as practical and engaging as you can. Try not to rely completely on text book-and-pen exercises; instead, why not try interviews, film reviews and internet searches?

You might hear a few groans - some of them might be genuine but rest assured that, underneath the muttering is a learner who is delighted that they matter enough (and have potential enough) for you to want to return.

Schedule Your Next Session

As the lesson went well and the student is happy, you should have no problem booking  a series of sessions. Future sessions will be easier for your student to remember if you keep the day, time and location the same. Make sure that your clients are satisfied with those arrangements before making them permanent, though.

This is the best time to introduce any discounts to your pricing; maybe every 10th lesson at half-price or an overall reduction in the cost of each lesson. It’s not uncommon to bill the student in advance of study time so, if they want to pay for a block of lessons up front, giving a discount for advance payment would ensure your clients retain a favourable impression of you.

Making a good impression and reinforcing that image during your sessions is the number one way to grow your business. Your clients tell other parents about you, who tell others and still others...

Word of mouth advertising is the most effective and it all depends on how well your first encounter goes.

I hope that you have found this blog post useful. If so, please feel free to add your comments and tips on how to make the first lesson with a student go like clockwork via the comments box below.

Now read other blog posts in our Series For Tutors...

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Jess