The business of tuition – ‘to know if it is [your] vocation’

The business of tuition – ‘to know if it is [your] vocation’

Lines by W H Auden were included in the comedy script writer, John Lloyd’s ‘With Great Pleasure’ selection on Radio 4 (27 December 2013). 

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

The sentiment struck me as a good starting-point for a piece that might be useful to a reader debating whether their vocation might lie more in tutoring than in traditional teaching.    

I have been conscious for some time that tutoring was, or had become, my vocation – and very satisfying it is to have this feeling. However, a little disclaimer is wanted here with respect to Auden’s poem. For, apart from the affirmation at the end of the beauty or happiness of having a vocational zeal, I don’t think the poem speaks especially closely for me – I would certainly be amazed if any parent or student thought they could detect in me a raptness or self-forgetfulness by watching my eyes

In the sections below I want to consider some of the issues of tutoring as a vocation as they affect me (I must emphasize haven’t conducted a survey of my APTC counterparts so cannot speak for anyone else).  

So, if you (and/or  your partner are schoolteachers, what might lead you to trade in classroom teaching in order to take up tutoring as a full-time occupation? What preconsiderations, qualities and circumstances are  required (in my personal view) to run a successful tuition centre and to be happy doing so? I will take each in turn.

The preconsiderations
I will not go over the obvious necessary things – like educational qualifications, interest and experience – I take these for granted. Other subtler things need to be considered. Specifically, what do you desire in life to take the place of the higher earnings you might hope for by pursuing a career in teaching?

The money question is huge  – so let us deal with this one upfront. It is certainly possible for a successful tuition business to provide a decent living for the dedicated individual or couple if they are prepared to work hard and be patient – but profits will never compare with the earnings of senior teachers or deputy heads.

At the outset, money will be flowing the other way: investment and subsidy will be required: like any other small businessperson setting out, initially you have to ‘buy’ your own job – and you will do this only if you are confident that in the long run the job will pay back. Some of this repayment will be financial, of course – otherwise the business is too small (you will need to average at least 30 students per week over the year – 60 if there are two of you)  – but some will come in other forms and should be valued as such: independence, job satisfaction, job security,  happier relationships, a niche in the community, lower anxiety,  mental and physical health.

Let us suppose you are prepared to put up the money for a centre in an urban locality  (you would about need £30 000 either to buy a going concern or to start from scratch), what qualities, what sort of mind-set will serve you, if tutoring is to be your vocation?

The qualities   
I take as a given the soft skills, being able to get along with all sorts of people: parents, students, helpers. What may not be quite so apparent is that you may need to be (or be prepared to become) a polymath and a jack-of-all-trades.

The jack-of-all-trades part is necessary for the smooth-running of the business: to administer, deal, fix, communicate, abide by the law. It is not necessary to have prior knowledge, just a readiness to learn and, if possible, systematic habits. Personally I am not wonderful at this – I do not get my sense of vocation from playing the part of a clerk completing a bill – there is just a lot of bitty stuff that constantly has to be done, but which shouldn’t take up too much time if one is well-organised.

The polymath aspect is much more to my taste. Before opening my tuition centre in Canterbury I was a Secondary English teacher, initially with lots of Year 7 and 8. Later I got some Year 10 and 11 – Romeo and Juliet and Of Miceand Men. I could see myself stuck with these or their equivalent, term after term, year after year.

Tutoring required me to extend my offering both vertically and laterally. Vertically, because, at some time in the week I might find myself teaching the basics of reading or writing to a Year 3 child: at another time, possibly a late evening, discussing an essay on The GreatGatsby  with an A Level candidate.  

Laterally, because of the demands that arrive for tuition in other subjects besides English: Maths and Science primarily, but also perhaps History or Religious Studies or Business Studies. Up to GCSE level I take the view that, so long as I know what the task or topic of immediate concern is in advance, I can read up and be ready for the lesson (I draw a line at Modern Languages).

If the prospect of this excites you, then you will probably love the variety of  tutoring – not that unfamiliar topics or unusual requests crop up every week – but they will arise to challenge you periodically. And it is nice to be able to say honestly, ‘Yes, I can provide that.’ 

The bottom line, as far as being a polymath is concerned, is that you should be confident and comfortable with teaching at least both Primary and Secondary  English and Maths – with as wide a level capability as possible.

The circumstances  
Perhaps it will be no surprise, in view of what I have written so far about the rewards and demands, that tuition is a time-consuming vocation. Are you willing to devote time, time and more time – often so-called ‘unsocial’ hours – to the cause? If evenings are precious to you for leisure activities, if Saturdays and Sundays are fenced off for weekend, if school holidays are ear-marked for relaxation, if you have a young family to cater for and entertain, then running a tuition business may not always  fit in easily and happily with your lifestyle. 

In the days and hours demanded, I sometimes compare tutoring to farming. Writing this as I am between Christmas and New Year – no students this week! – the comparison may seem exaggerated, but at other seasons, it is decidedly not.

I will regularly work week after week without any complete day off (Saturdays and Sundays being half-days) – and it is quite normal for my weekday to begin at 9 and go on until 9. It won’t be a solid twelve hours – and most of the work will be low-key, varied and congenial – so the feeling at the end of such a day is typically a pleasant exhaustion that a night’s sleep will cure, not an accumulating nervous strain gradually undermining health and happiness.

So there it is. That last paragraph comprises perhaps a summary of the small businessperson’s deal.

It is a very different style of life from the salaried employee’s in most cases – and it is one for which having some sense of vocation, whether manifest or hidden, is enormously helpful.