I started tutoring twelve-year-olds when I was fifteen. I took it very, very seriously. I spent a lot of time thinking about my technique, methodology, and effectiveness. I wrote in my journal about whether or not I thought my students were learning everything I wanted them to learn. I was nervous. I was afraid I might fail them. Around my seventeenth birthday, I had an epiphany. It felt big, at the time, like all of my seventeen year old epiphanies did.

I told myself, “If I know even a little bit more about something than someone else, I have something to offer that person.”

I didn’t have to be brilliant, or masterful, or even totally thorough. I just had to know something, and be able to convey it to someone else. And I had to be nice while I was conveying it. Otherwise everyone had a lot less fun.

My  students loved me. I was an awesome tutor. I mean, that’s what they said. Once I was talking with a parent in the hall, and two girls were coming around the corner. One of them said to the other, “Do you have Kate? She’s awesome.” I felt like I was the coolest person in the world.

And then I subbed for an actual class. You know, with more than one kid in it. I made a joke about going to the mall– maybe it was a clever analogy (’cause I’m so clever)– and a girl said to her friend, “Looks like she hasn’t been to the mall in a while.”

I couldn’t believe it. A little kid thought I was lame. She thought she dressed better than me. Which was actually true. But still.

The class was loud. I had to separate two of the boys, who were butting desks like bulls. I felt helpless and outnumbered and like I might start yelling really soon.

My students thought I was annoying. I was a bad teacher. Clearly.

(When I taught a 3rd grade class for a semester, I got intimidated every time I looked at the desks lined up. So many kids! source)

Of course, there are libraries full of classroom pedagogy. There are degrees that people get that focus exclusively on the art. There are theories and age-old debates and schools that pioneer new approaches. Everyone seems to have an opinion on classroom instruction.

I was at an Ed-chat meeting at Lisa Nielsen‘s home a few months ago. She invites educators and people like me (who have a lot of opinions and just about zero official expertise on the subject) over every so often to debate and eat and do a somewhat awkwardly spontaneous podcast (if you ever find the one I’m in, please don’t watch it. I sound idiotic for at least the first ten minutes).

At some point, all of the teachers were commiserating on how difficult and frustrating their jobs can be, and how many missed opportunities they feel they have. This kid had a lot of potential, but got lost in the group. These kids were interested in a project, but it got shut down when they had to study for a major annual standardized test instead.

One teacher had a different story. She kept shaking her head and saying, “No, no. I’ve seen so much improvement. I’ve seen so much growth.” And, she added, she works with the “problem kids.” Kids from impoverished households who are acting out in class. Kids who have been given up on already.

Several of the other teachers became confused. Was she just bragging? No one has a magical secret silver bullet, really. What was this lady’s deal?

And then she mentioned that she taught one-on-one.

Everyone breathed a collective sigh of understanding. Well, OF COURSE they’re improving! With all that individual attention! HOW COULD THEY NOT? (And why didn’t you mention this before? Sheesh.)

The conversation continued, the mystery was solved, and no one seemed incredibly interested in her input anymore.

Individual instruction. Works like a charm. Practically every time. Works so well there’s almost nothing to say about it.

Kinda interesting.

7 comments to One-on-one

  • My wife was just mentioning today how much more she is learning now that she is apprenticing one on one (she’s learning how to create pottery) with someone and not taking anymore “useless” classes. It is amazing how much you learn either one on one, or in very small groups.

  • Kate~ I can’t imagine you coming off as idiotic. I find it almost irritating that a persons experiences were unvalued simply because she taught one-on-one. Isn’t that the reason they should be listening to her?

  • One-on-one works THAT well?!?! Sort of like *gasp* homeschooling??? 😉 (Loved this post, btw)

  • I love your blog and almost everything you say, but I’m going to have to disagree on this one. In contrast to your statement: “Individual instruction. Works like a charm. Practically every time. Works so well there’s almost nothing to say about it.” I DO think that one-to-one tutoring will almost always fail when the tutor lacks pedagogical skill. Some people are naturally gifted teachers (i.e. the ‘teachers are born, not made’ sentiment) and may find success. However, I tend to think that most tutors, especially of young children, would fail if they had a total lack of awareness of pedagogy and developmentally appropriate practice.

    • Marina

      Hi Sarah–I think you have a point that there certainly is such a thing as bad individual instruction. However, I think “naturally gifted” teachers are more common than you might think. Have you seen some of the research on getting kids who are slightly more advanced to teach kids who are slightly less advanced? For instance, 2nd graders helping in kindergarten classrooms, or the faster readers tutoring the slower readers in the same grade. Along the same lines, have you watched one 8 year old teach another 8 year old how to jump rope, or a 5 year old show his toddler brother how to climb on the counter? These kids haven’t studied pedagogy, but they’re certainly aware of how it’s supposed to work.

      • Hi Marina, Thanks for your insight. As a mother, I completely understand what you’re talking about. This kind of teaching is instinctive for children. That said, an eight year old has a lot more understanding about the way another eight year old thinks in the same way that we, as adults, can understand one another better than an eight year old could understand us. Does that make any sense?
        Anyway, my point is in reference to adults teaching children and I should have specified that.

  • Claire Allison

    I agree with the gist of what Sarah is saying. I’ve had one-on-one go horribly wrong with people who don’t understand adult or teen learning styles.

    I apprenticed last year as a carpenter, and worked with two men, one-on-one, who had very little experience teaching and it was very frustrating on all ends. For a carpenter, I’m not a conventional learner (I’ve noticed many people predisposed towards trades work well with verbal instructions and then actions, whereas I need visual instructions with verbal assistance and then reinforcement through action) and the two of them, who I worked with at separate shops, had a very frustrating time trying to figure out how to communicate their ideas to me. While I was in school it was never a problem working one-on-one with the head carpenter, because he had that hard-earned training that came from 30 years of instructing young people and he instinctively knew to drag out the paper and draw things out while explaining them to me. He also knew I needed to verbally reaffirm his instructions before I could act them out- whereas my bosses in the work environment didn’t seem to understand why I was repeating everything they said back to me. In fact when I did repeat their instructions they seemed to think I was confused and would attempt to explain it differently- rather than recognizing that the verbal affirmation is just my process.

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