By Lewis Howell
⏱ Wednesday 9th August 2017

I have been an English tutor for about a year and a half now, I have worked in nearly twenty schools and with dozens of pupils, all of varying ability, confidence and temperament.  The joys and difficulties of working with all of them though, were always similar.  For a variety of reasons, English is not always the easiest of subjects to tutor.

It's not that children generally display any more natural aptitude in Maths, or other subjects, than they do in English, just that it takes a lot more mental fortitude on both your behalf and your pupils to keep ploughing on when difficulty arises.  The reason being that in many subjects there is often a clear moment that arrives when the child finally 'gets' how to do what they've been struggling with.  There is a veritable 'click' moment.  With English, the points you often find yourself trying to help the child improve upon are often frustratingly nuanced and subtle, making it difficult to measure clear progress and improvement.  This can be immensely frustrating for you as a tutor, as you may feel you aren't achieving enough, but it can be even more upsetting for a child who didn't especially enjoy the subject to begin with and is now putting in all this extra effort for seemingly no benefit.

As a person often prone to bouts of envy I can't tell you the amount of times I have listened furiously to a Maths tutor talking about a 'eureka' moment, when something 'clicked' in their pupils head and suddenly they were able to do all these sums and methods at which they had previously faltered.  This feeling of begrudgement is never helped by the fact yet another 16 year old can now perform sums that I can't.  In meek response all I ever seem to offer is talk of steady progress with my own pupils.  With literacy, and English as a wider subject, such 'eureka' moments never truly happen.  There is no button inside the child's head that suddenly clicks, as they instantaneously become able to write with flair and imagination or to comprehensively analyse the presentational features of a source.  Progress is often piecemeal and hard to measure.  It's a marathon you find yourself running while wearing shoes filled with lead, across a swamp of treacle, carrying three restless and resistant- treacle-allergic- pupils on your back.  Carry them, you must though, all the while calm, patient and enthusiastic regardless of your own feelings on pudding related physical exertions or exhaustive metaphors.

I digress though.  The point is as an English tutor you need to constantly be scrutinising the work of your tutee for hard-won progress and highlighting and praising the improvements you see with all the enthusiasm and eagerness of a deranged puppy.  You also need to have the determination and self-belief to overcome the barriers you will inevitably face when tutoring English.  Many of your pupils will come from a background where there is not an enormous importance placed upon reading or expression through the written word.  They may be part of social circles that actively discourage anything approaching an appreciation for Shakespeare, newspapers or poetry.  In such instances it is no wonder pupils frequently struggle to achieve the 'comprehensive and sustained written analysis' examination boards demand.

However, as a tutor you have many advantages that a teacher does not.  You are able provided with the chance to approach the subject in a way the pupil's teacher was unable to.  You can have the pupil engage with the topic in a much more personal way, maximising both your relationship with the pupil, as well as the personal focus and support you can offer them.  Crucial here is your understanding of the pupil, your passion for the subject and your enthusiasm to make a real positive impact on the child's education.

If your pupils don't like Of Mice and Men because they don't like the reticent and surly George and find the child-like Lenny a chore to follow, fair enough that's their opinion, but you can still make them engage with the text.  What about the wider context of the times, the Great Depression and the abhorrent racism of the era?  How do they find reading about that 85 years later, has much changed, has anything?  Is there anything about the bond between Lenny and George that speaks to them?  Do they ever feel lost and helpless in a system beyond their understanding, vulnerable to an inhuman yet seemingly cruel economy?  What I enjoy most about tutoring English is the emotional intelligence, incisiveness and strong empathy my pupils always seem to display when it came to analysing a text.

What the pupils more often struggle with are the parts of English that many of us take for granted, such as expressing their empathy and incisiveness in a written piece.  Whether it's writing an extended piece for an essay, using a variety of sentence structures or even something as seemingly basic as spelling and grammar, the pupils you work with often find themselves flummoxed at the foundation blocks of English.  As a tutor this complicates matter greatly.  Typically these will be areas which you feel come naturally and intuitively, so it is something of a challenge to plan a tuition session to teach it and usually sessions based around ingraining these crucial but basic skills can feel un-engaging and stifling.  These are also areas around in which progress can be painstakingly slow.  When it comes to improving a child's fundamental grasp of English there is no over-night solution but rather a remedy resembling the painful marathon analogy outlined previously.

This is where a passion for the subject and its importance is just not enough; this is where patience, that most vexing of virtues, comes into play.  To be an English tutor, a love for the subject is crucial but not sufficient.  In front of your pupils you must indeed show an unending and unerring enthusiasm for the subject, ideally to the stage where they start to worry about your mental health.  As a tutor though, you will also need to be in possession of an abundance of patience.  This patience is pivotal to your efforts to make a serious difference to a child's grasp of the English language and their ability to use it for desired effect.  For such an effort is a considerable one.  An effort that takes time and devotion on your part, as week on week you seek to build on the hard-fought progress made and the relationship with the pupil you have developed.

Despite my verbiage the point is simple, if eggs are important for making an omelette, then patience is vital for becoming a good English tutor.