To start

If you’re contemplating becoming a tutor, either to supplement your existing teaching hours or to replace your school, college or university career, tutoring online might be something you’re considering but have a certain amount of apprehension about. It’ll be a new challenge, and that isn’t always easy.

Newness, however, can bring rewards, and I’m not talking only about monetary ones. After all, you will still be teaching and influencing people, steering their energies, nudging them, occasionally nagging and attempting, in your own way, to help build a more positive future.

If you are considering becoming a tutor – and I’m going to presume you are already a teacher and involved in some form of education – allow me to share some thoughts about adding tutoring to your portfolio of skills and experience. Tutoring may be in-person or online through a flexible and supportive platform such as PMT.

A little history

I’ve been working in Further Education for over twenty years, predominantly in A Levels. My professional career started when I taught as an Additional Learning Support lecturer at a college in London, and most of my sessions were one-to-one. I was lucky enough to be able to meet with students in a quiet Learning Centre where I could sit side by side or across the table from my learners. There was no thought of working online in those days (even though we were the best part of a decade into wide internet use). In-person was the only game in town.

Teacher working with a small group of students.

Part of my timetable involved classroom teaching, but I relished the opportunity to engage learners in a more informal setting. I had a good balance over the five years in this dual role. Indeed, balance might be a keyword for anyone thinking of combining in-person teaching (or tutoring) with working virtually.

My current situation

Fast forward about fifteen years, and I took a secondment as an English tutor at the college where I’d been working for well over a decade. Previously, I’d taught all three A Levels in English (Lit, Lang, Lang & Lit) across various exam boards, as well as Creative Writing and Film Studies. In addition, I’d also delivered Functional Skills English (Levels 1 and 2) and, for a handful of years, taught GCSE English for students needing to go from a D to a C.

In April 2023, I took up a fixed-term contract at a different FE college as a small group tutor. I can teach up to five students in a session lasting 55 minutes (to allow five minutes before the next session). However, my slots mostly have one or two learners.

I often work in a classroom, but my approach is not to run the session as a traditional lesson, even though I use the whiteboard for YouTube clips and quizzes such as Kahoot and Quizalize. I take a relaxed approach and can sit alongside the students when needed. What I always do, nonetheless, is ask questions to ascertain comprehension and to promote thinking and critical inquiry.

Tuition session with male tutor and female student.

On Wednesdays, I’m in a support centre and sit at a large oval table. Here, I find it’s harder to work with more than a couple of students easily as eye contact is important to me. Also, I can’t screen clips or quizzes for my learners, so I rely a little more on handouts.

Something I hope to create is an atmosphere where the student can feel free to ask for help more willingly than in a classroom setting, where even post-16 students don’t like to reveal any vulnerabilities in front of their friends (i.e. showing they are in any way struggling).

Behaviour can change too in these sessions. I have one student who is influenced by his mates in his twice-a-week Functional Skills English classes, clearly playing up to the crowd. With me, as only one other student is present (not one of his friends), he is cooperative and productive.

Working online

An advantage of being able to tutor online is that geographical restrictions in the same time zone are no barrier.

What might be a challenge, though, is assessing the student’s comprehension, especially if they are reluctant to talk. It’s not as straightforward when reading body language, or even facial expressions, when you are looking at a live camera feed of your learner. In a classroom, you also have someone’s voice, intonation and volume to help you gauge their understanding, their answers, and their progress. Online, judging these is achievable but you have to work a little harder.

View of laptop during online tutoring session.

When tutoring online, providing written responses to the work set is crucial for assessing progress and development. This is not compromised by the online setting. However, if you want to assign, for example, a written response to an exam question, you will need to determine the most effective way to mark the work using the platform’s tools.

Working with documents online requires becoming comfortable with the provided tabs or the shared whiteboard. Although scrolling up and down a document isn’t perhaps the most felicitous way of working together, having the learner write on your shared document provides an accessible and convenient way of seeing their responses.

Final thoughts

Tutoring online can open up new opportunities for teaching and extend your professional practice. I believe it can allow you to build a lovely rapport with learners, not least because you are tutoring from home, and your tutee will probably be as well, allowing for a more relaxed and informal approach. You can (as many did in lockdown) teach wearing your slippers!

Here are a few tips:

  • Think about what kind of documents you can upload and tackle, and how you can both contribute to worksheets on the shared whiteboard.
  • Continue to use questioning in the way you normally do, but also be prepared to closely monitor your tutee’s responses, voice, and body reaction.
  • Encourage your students to make suggestions about what they want to work on and revisit their aims regularly. Tutoring works best when tailored to the needs of the student.
  • Use your professional judgement to ensure your learner is engaged, challenged, and making progress towards their educational goals.

I believe online tutoring can provide profitable, stimulating and enjoyable pedagogical opportunities. Best of luck in your tutoring journey!

Paul B. Cohen

Paul B. Cohen lives in Greater Manchester and has over twenty years of experience teaching in Further Education. He is also a produced playwright and published fiction writer and has won several awards for his short stories. His website is Paul is a tutor at PMT Education. .