How to be an awesome language tutor

I’ve been teaching English for nearly ten years now and I’ve had Chinese tutors off and on throughout that time, so I have some ideas from both perspectives about how to be a good tutor. If you have any more suggestions, please share them in the comments!

1. As early as possible, have a good chat with your student about their goals for your sessions, what materials they have or want, who’s responsible for purchasing the materials, and what pace they want to work through any books or workbooks you decide to use. If you can swing it, this first consultation session should be free (and doesn’t need to last a whole hour.)

2. Lay down some ground rules about how you’re going to manage the relationship. How much notice do you need before class is cancelled? Will you still charge the student if the class is cancelled without sufficient notice? Will you stop working with them if class is cancelled too often? When do you want to get paid–once a month? In advance? At the end of each session? Tutoring has never been my bread and butter, so I always had a fairly casual relationship with my students. But if you need to be able to count on getting paid regularly, you have to set the terms of engagement, clearly and firmly, from the beginning.

3. Be professional: be on time, be neatly dressed, don’t smell like you just walked out of the bar or the gym. I always have mints and minty chewing gum on me. It’s hot in Taiwan, so I like to show up a couple of minutes early so I can freshen up in the bathroom before we get down to business.

Additionally, as a tutor or tutee, I don’t like it when the other person shows up sick with a cold: eyes watering, nose running, coughing, etc. I don’t want to sit next to a person on a bus who is behaving like Typhoid Mary–why would I want to sit next to someone like that for two hours at a dining room table? If you can’t not be gross, I think it’s better to skip class.

4. Don’t eat a meal during a lesson: I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’ve had teachers who have shown up with their lunches and sat their chewing, slurping, and talking with their mouth full for the whole class. You use your mouth to teach, so if it’s constantly full of food, you aren’t teaching at full capacity. Water is always good to have, and necessary to stay comfortable and hydrated when you’re doing a lot of explaining. Some of my students offer me fruit or other small snacks–use your discretion and aim to be polite and professional!

5. Prepare extra materials: Many students who are motivated enough to study a language with a tutor are also capable of reading their textbook on their own. The tutor is not there to read through the chapters like a brainless recording. Your lessons should build on what the student is reading in their books and give them an opportunity to practice speaking their foreign language.  There are innumerable resources online to help teachers of any language come up with fun and creative ways to practice real language skills.

6. And overprepare: It’s incredibly unprofessional to breeze through what you thought would take two hours, and then look at your student with 30 minutes left in the lesson and expect them to come up with something to talk about. I’ve been on both sides of that pickle and it’s no fun. Always have a couple of learner-appropriate backup activities ready to go as seamless extensions of your lesson. With time, you’ll collect a library’s worth of resources for conversation starters and language activities, but only if you prepare for your lessons from the beginning.

7. Bring in realia and technological resources to share: Realia is just a technical word for “real stuff.” Bringing in age-appropriate stuff in the language you are teaching. Menus, real estate ads, board games, comics, magazines, podcasts, videos, etc. will engage your learners. They’re categorically more fun than textbooks and a good way to show you care about your students. And when they can understand something that was written for native speakers, it’s a huge boost of confidence. Nothing motivates students to learn like confidence in their abilities.

P.S.- If you overdeliver, you can “overcharge.” In Taiwan at least, charging a little more than the going rate will weed out the casual students who aren’t going to do the work they need to do to learn. And if you are professional and prepared for every lesson, you can be compensated for it. Motivated students will pay extra for motivated teachers.


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