When your students feel like a lost cause

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.

25 thoughts on “When your students feel like a lost cause

  1. You are not alone. My parents both worked in the education system, and I have heard my own fair share of stories from them. It’s sad when you see the kids who really don’t care and are wasting time, money and themselves as well for not putting in the effort. Learning is integral to succeeding in life and making a difference in the world. It really is important, not just to improve yourself, but in the way that improving yourself means improving the world as a whole. You never know what you could do or who you could help with your learning! I admire your efforts for tutoring!! Teaching in general IS a very hard job and the teachers/ tutors themselves don’t always get the credit they deserve. But as you mentioned before all the struggle is worth it for the good students who DO do the work and show an active interest in their education 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is sad when you know they could be doing so much better, and are ignoring their own potential. I’m lucky to be only doing this job once a week, teachers who do it day after day have it the hardest! Thank you for your kind words 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “No one enjoys tutoring, you’d have be a psychopath to do that.” You crack me up. I doubt many people truly believe it’s your responsible to fix them. I’m sure you get used as a scapegoat and I’m sorry for that. Tutoring students is an awesome thing to do, so thank you for your years are hard work! Great piece.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You help more than you know. And they do hear much of what you say. Some will retain it. They may not be ready to use it yet, or ever, but the fact that they have seen someone working so hard on their behalf will be a memory that will impact their lives. You aren’t responsible for results. They are. You are doing great work, regardless of their reactions.

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  4. Well Helen, I echo your sentiments at times. I am an English teacher in Shanghai and there are times I would feel more productive just talking to my own self. I teach English at an training center and it is quite frustrating sometimes. I do enjoy teaching and it is also a lot of work, time and energy, especially if you do somewhat care about the kid’s performance. It is the nature of this profession, you will not always be able to reach each kid. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  5. I appreciate your writing about how hard teaching is. Without the detriments of indifference or evident lack of basic development, it is simply laborious. And it doesn’t always feel worth it. I appreciate the difficulty in teaching those who should have experienced some academic intervention long before they met you. Too often students are simply moved along to the next grade in the hope, I guess, that maybe they’ll be helped later (a hope without reason) or that at least they won’t be the early teachers’ problem anymore (in which I guess there’s hope that they’ll get away with this). I’ve taught developmental writing with older learners. Some were old enough (older than me at the time) to understand something about what they needed to accomplish for their lives. That was encouraging for me as well as them. Dealing with indifference I think is the hardest. With no impetus to grow, growth will not happen. We’re not plants, after all; for big things in life, we have to choose. Then there are those students who are a treat. Who get why we’re all there and are respectful. Maybe stellar performers, maybe not. They are receptive and they try. Makes teaching worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose just like any other career, you will work with some people who make it challenging, and others who will make it rewarding. What’s different with teaching is the people you work with are also the people you are trying to help and feel responsible for. So even if they are indifferent, you feel guilty for not being able to motivate them. I agree, sometimes people are simply pushed along year after year and then it becomes too late to address their mistakes. Thank you for sharing your experiences 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard when you have some students who you feel like you can’t help at all, and others who are so strong you think they may not even need you. However, I’ve had some lovely students who have told me I’ve helped them a lot and it really makes everything worth it. I suppose I do make more of an impact than I think sometimes…

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m disappointed in you.
    A piece on teaching English and you missed an opportunity like that?
    You know I would have entitled it: When Your Students Feel Like A Lost Clause
    (life’s too short not to make puns)
    But suture self.
    Mr Ormsby
    P.S. I get paid a lot more to teach and my students all end up on Crime Watch so don’t feel bad.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Everyone has their own pace when it comes to learning. You don’t sound like the kind of person who gives up on others. That’s good because to do so as a teacher means you give up on yourself. Life is about the journey not the destination. Some people take years to get that. Never give up. Never.

    Good luck with your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s such a great post! We lived in Japan for a while and leading up to that tried to learn at least a little bit of Japanese. I used mainly textbooks but somehow missed out on the writing and speaking part which probably is the reason why I’m still far from conversational level. I agree that Duolingo is a fun supplementary tool for studying a bit every day and it teaches you crucial phrases like ‘my dog sells hats’ – which we loved so much that we turned it into a little animation 😀


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