Tuscany Teaching Update: Making Animal Noises and A-Level Economics

I thought I’d update you on how my lessons have been going, and explain how tutoring differs from normal teaching.

I genuinely enjoy tutoring and find it hugely rewarding, but there’s a lot more to it than just teaching. It requires a LOT of different skills.Your teaching has to be adaptable, for a start. No lesson plan is infallible, and effective lessons frequently have to be developed on the spot, depending on the unexpected requests of both parents and students. Sometimes an extra child will appear, a friend or neighbour who happens to be visiting, and it becomes a group lesson – different lesson format, teaching style and content are required. They may not be the same level, or even the same age.

That has happened here; the fourteen year old (we’ll call her Lisa) has two lessons each day, and a neighbour’s son appears every afternoon to join in with the second of these. They enjoy working together, but have completely different skills. The boy (‘Matt’) barely seems to understand a word I say, but (after Lisa’s translation of my instructions) his writing surprised me by proving to be imaginative and literary. Lisa’s comprehension and vocabulary are actually pretty good, but her writing is logical and practical, and lacks Matt’s creative flair. I stick to comprehension in the mornings therefore, so that Lisa and I can discuss poems and newspaper articles, and creative writing tasks in the afternoon so that she and Matt can share vocabulary and work on written composition together.

Sometimes your student will be bored by a topic, or have already completed a practise exam paper at school for example, so again you have to adapt. Sometimes a task proves too difficult, or too easy – it has to be changed on the spot. You also have to manage the expectations of the family, and get on with them – you need to be likeable as well as well-presented and respectable (well, I try). You have to monitor progress, to ensure success is guaranteed but the student still enjoys the lessons, and learns useful skills as well as how to pass an exam. I also have to sell the agency, promoting the different services we offer, which does not dovetail as easily with being a tutor as you may think. It’s a bit like being two different people.

I have to be nice and silly with younger students (animal noises and impressions are standard fair), adopt an academic vernacular for my older students to mirror whilst still being ‘cool’ enough (ha) for them to want to listen to me, and then resume a professional, business-like manner for their parents. I’m finding this even more difficult in Tuscany, as every member of the family additionally has a different level of English. When I talk to them together I have to take this into account, and when I teach the children one after another I have to remember to alter my vocabulary, phrasing and speed accordingly. Luckily my hopelessness with two year old Fred was subtly noted, so when I offered to tutor seventeen year old Rupert instead… the family agreed! I lack the words to express quite how happy this made me. Let’s just say that actual skipping occurred afterwards.

I also like surprising my students into enjoying themselves at the same time as learning. “Today’s lesson will be in the garden” is one of my favourite lines; I love watching confusion turn to incredulity, before delight beams out of their faces. Some of my students’ greatest progress has been outdoors. That makes me sound like Miss Jean Brodie, I know, but it works. Matt and Lisa couldn’t believe their luck when I marched them out to the pool for their second lesson together, so we could write a story about being attacked by an insect by a swimming pool. For the majority of my students though, learning to enjoy a subject they are underachieving in, and even to enjoy learning itself, is not enough. They have exams to pass, and specific skills to master.

Short stories, for example, require a very specific format. Maintain a simple plot by limiting time passing and travel/ movement, and instead focus on description by ensuring you describe every object, person and place. If you want to set a story on a railway platform, then you cannot leave the platform. “But…!” (they all cry out the first time, confused and horrified) No buts. Setting such limitations forces students to think, and they learn to write well. Mine are not the only methods that work, but I know how to get the best out of students if they follow my rules, and my success rate speaks for itself. Saying that, I can’t teach all students. I am not suited to those who lack intelligence, or who do not strive to prove themselves. Not because they cannot be taught, but because I simply do not understand them. Tom, however, is very good at coaxing those who lack drive or academic aptitude into achieving wonderful things… a skill which I am incredibly jealous of!

Lessons with Lisa are going well. Her English needs a lot of work, but she’s smart and wants to improve. Her eight year old sister (‘Emily’) hardly speaks any English at all and is resistant to learning it, so our lessons have been a challenge. She’s slowly coming round though, as she’s realised that she actually has to speak English to communicate with me. Her favourite phrases are ‘come and play’, ‘come and swim’ and ‘look at me!’ I have not taught her these – I’ve been trying to teach her prepositions – but she’s learnt them somehow and uses them a LOT. Rupert’s lessons are taking a fair amount of preparation, as he will be taking A Level Economics from September, so has asked to focus on this. We’re only discussing and analysing newspaper articles, but I’ve discovered that I have an utter dearth of knowledge in this particular field. It’s fascinating though, once you get past the associated boredom.

I never really grasped before that the government and the Bank of England actually control and help the economy. Mark Carney’s decision to restrict interest rates until unemployment rates fall, for example… well, yeah – that makes sense! I’d always assumed that banks were simply run like businesses, always aiming to get as much money out of people as possible. Likewise the government – the more tax people pay the more money the government has to spend on what it thinks it should spend money on, right? Well, it seems there’s a bit more to it than that. All of you who actually understand Economics are rolling your eyes at me right now, I know, but I really never thought about it before! I totally get GDP now as well. Check me. Another obvious one? Well Rupert didn’t know anything about it, and he’s about to take an A Level in this crazy subject!

I’ll always be drawn to the Arts and Humanities, because the right-hand side of my mind works better than the left; a well-oiled machine rather than a rusty (but not broken!) mangle. I can’t help but be intrigued by the Sciences though, in a voyeuristic fashion. As a teacher, you’re always learning new things.

Does anybody else teach in a school, or tutor privately? What are your favourite methods for enthusing your students?

My afternoon lesson. Who says you can’t teach dogs to talk?

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4 thoughts on “Tuscany Teaching Update: Making Animal Noises and A-Level Economics

  1. As I work with students who struggle to access our narrow/national curriculum it’s interesting for me to read about teaching kids who want/are able to achieve easily – a totally different approach is called for, a completely different set of rules. I tend to throw the rule book out the window and go with whatever works for a particular student. I supported one boy, ADHD, who learned best if he was walking around, so we’d leave the classroom after the first ten minutes of teacher explanation and walk around the playing field to chat about what he’d just heard. This way, he consolidated what he was supposed to be learning, and it kept classroom disruption to a minimum. He managed good pass marks at GCSE.

  2. Pingback: Teaching English on a Private Plane, and Civilised Pirates | Cocktails and Country Tales

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