I don’t believe I have mentioned this on here before, but I’ve been a secondary school tutor for the past six years and have seen around a hundred students make the transition into tertiary education. I am a VCE English tutor, which means I exclusively take final and penultimate year students for high-level English classes outside their school hours. I work at a tutoring institute near my home and this year will be my final year of work before I graduate from university and will have a full-time job. So I’d like to take some time to reflect upon my experiences as a teacher and describe what it feels like.
It’s not easy. There’s a lot of work and preparation outside of paid hours and sometimes it just doesn’t feel worth it. Currently, to save time, I take all of my classes on a Sunday afternoon from 12pm to 5pm. Each class runs for 1.5 hours and I take three of them throughout the day, with fifteen-minute breaks in between to set-up for the next class. I could choose to run more classes and I certainly have in the past, but I’ve become accustomed to only taking three classes a year and I like to set some boundaries between my work, study, and social life. I like to keep my classes small, capping it at 6 students unless they are all from the same school and have the same curricula. That’s because, in our state, each student studies 4 texts throughout the year and writes three essays in the end of year exam. The texts could be a novel, film, play etc, but the students are expected to study them thoroughly and be prepared to write analytical essays on any given prompt. This is not an issue if you are a teacher taking a large class of students from one school, but for a tutor who takes students from schools all around the area, I have to familiarise myself with up to fifty texts a year to accommodate all of them. Every year I get new students from schools I’ve never taken, or their school changes the texts they are studying so that either way, there’s never been a year where I haven’t had to read at least ten new texts. And even if I’ve taught the text before, I usually attempt to reread or revise it because let’s be honest, my brain cannot retain all that information for longer than it’s needed.
So whilst I get paid for five hours of work every week and it seems like very decent money for the time I spend actively teaching, I usually spend just as long preparing for it at home. Saturdays are usually devoted towards reading and collating notes, so that there’s very few weekends where I can organise social gatherings without considering its impact on my work. If you ever catch me reading something, it will always be a text one of my students is studying. There’s also a point in the year around June/July where everyone is concurrently studying two texts, which means aside from the fact I am usually stressed about my own exams, I have to juggle at least twenty different books and movies for students who half the time don’t even seem to care.
And it’s hard facing them when you know they’d rather be anywhere else than in that tiny room with a single whiteboard, listening to you endlessly drone on about a subject they hate to its core and are only doing it because it’s a compulsory requirement for all Victorian students. It’s not fun when you can see them visibly falling asleep even though there’s only a total of four other people in a 3m x 3m room. When they turn up week after week not having done any work and probably haven’t improved their writing skills for the past four years. Sometimes you just want to shake them straight and make them realise it’s only twelve months of their life that they need to endure such work and the rewards will likely outweigh the costs. But I don’t. I’ve become somewhat disillusioned throughout the years and have resigned to the fact that some people may never see the value in learning and no matter what you do you can’t change their mind. So I’ve given up and can only say, if they squander their own potential and future as a result, it remains no one’s fault but their own. Karma’s a bitch.
Am I an absolute asshole for saying that? Maybe. But I’ve felt like talking to a brick wall too many times to think otherwise. I only see these kids once a week, for a total of ninety minutes. I don’t get paid, or have a close enough relationship to try and change their entire mentality about schooling. I expect that when you are in your final year of high school, you understand the stakes and if nothing changes following some nudges and well-intended advice, I’m not going to repeat myself again. I also don’t mollycoddle or treat my students as primary school kids who need games to get motivated about learning. I set tasks and focus on examinable content because we simple don’t have the time to be playing around. And don’t tell me that they just need a friend to guide them through the year and show them how important studying is. I’ll tell you for a fact it doesn’t work. I like to keep my classes on the informal side, I am lenient and understanding that tutoring is extra work that can be quite burdensome. But if you are going to be here, then try and write at least one practise essay the entire year?
Perhaps you think I should tell them to quit, that they’re wasting their time and their parents’ money sending them here. But I know they’ll be forced to endure tutoring regardless of what centre they go to, and I’ve put the work in to learn their syllabus so I think I deserve to get paid. Besides, it is not my place to be kicking students out of class. I just wish some of them didn’t have a personal vendetta against learning. Mind you, there’s only been a few that have actually irked me, the majority exist on a spectrum that as a current student, I can really empathise with. No one enjoys tutoring, you’d have be a psychopath to do that. But there’s an understanding that it can be extremely rewarding, so why not take it seriously? I’ve been through the same process and I never liked it, but I appreciated its use and worked hard because my parents paid good money to send me there. And I hope my students understand it’s not even for my benefit, because them not caring makes my life all the easier. I can spend less time preparing for their lessons because I know they wouldn’t appreciate it to begin with, and if you don’t send me any practise essays to mark it’s actually saving me time. So really, thank you!
Anyways, let’s stop talking about them. I want to share another group that makes me feel helpless and yet guilty walking through those doors each week. The students who have clearly been neglected throughout their entire schooling, or have had their mistakes ignored and perpetuated for so long that by the time they come to me, there’s absolutely nothing I can do within a twelve month period to save them. Believe me, I have come across some students where I am not sure how they got into year twelve. Where providing feedback would simply mean I write a completely new essay on their behalf, because I cannot understand what a single sentence means in their incoherent piece. It hurts me to read such essays, and it’s been more than once where I’ve felt like screaming and throwing something across the room in frustration. And it’s incredibly sad when these students are the ones who actually put in some effort and present you with work, who look earnestly at you with bright eyes, hopeful that somehow you can help them achieve a decent mark at the end of the year. How do I tell them it’s too much to ask for? That even I am despondent at how to help them? I wonder what their teachers are telling them at school and how they got through twelve years of education without getting the help they needed. And whilst I am certain the students likely contributed to their own predicaments, it makes me mad to think it could have been prevented by a teacher many years ago who caught on early enough and corrected their mistakes.
Once again, you might think it’s my responsibility to fix them, that as a tutor I should be addressing their weaknesses. But often there is too much to do and too little time. Ninety minutes a week is not enough to teach both analytical content of complex texts and also provide a crash course on a decade’s worth of basic grammar that has been neglected. I do try, and have spent many hours explaining and helping some completely rewrite their essays, but I’ll be honest it can feel like an impossible burden that my shoulders are too weak to carry. I can only do my best and hope that in some way I have made an impact and helped them improve.
So that’s some of the things I have had to face in the past six years. But I have to stress, the majority of students I’ve had are lovely people. In amongst the angst and frustration, I’ve had some wonderful students who I’ve had great relationships with and truly admire their work ethic. Ones that you could tell every week they worked hard to improve and will have bright futures ahead of them regardless of my input in their life. They’re the ones who make each lesson worth it, who are smart enough to make me question my own intelligence and push me to be better teacher. Whilst I cannot say I’ve remained at this job for so long purely due to passion and my love for teaching, it has been a memorable experience and chapter in my life that I have learnt a lot from and will cherish for many years to come.