Tutoring To Really Benefit The Child

By Rabbi Yeshaya Weber

Many parents hire tutors for their children to help them in their studies. They spend quite a bit of money in addition to tuition so their children should reach their potential. More than increasing the child’s knowledge, the tutor needs to influence the child’s development and know the problem the child is dealing with. Most tutors, and most parents who hire them, don’t know exactly what the child needs, causing them to err in their treatment of the problem. The following article addresses the proper role of the tutor in a child’s education.


The problem that needs solving


When a tutor approaches a child who needs to advance in his studies, and, instead of learning with the child to make up the work taught in class, a good tutor will begin by testing his language skills to see if he reads properly. The child wonders: What’s this all about? I want to learn and understand the Gemara so I can do well on the test!


The parents also don’t understand. They also think he needs to progress in learning Gemara! “You tutor and tutor,” they say, “but what about tachlis? What about the sugya the child needs to know?” They demand immediate results.


How should we deal with this lack of understanding on the part of the parents and child as well as the classroom teacher?


Why do parents hire tutors?


Let’s analyze the situation. What are the reasons parents pay for a tutor?


To quiet their conscience, to feel they did their part in fulfilling their role as concerned parents - they send their child to a tutor to help him progress in his studies.


Some parents really want their child to know the Gemara well and to be a talmid chacham. They want the child’s schoolteacher to realize that their child is capable and knows how to learn.


A few parents want their children to know the basis for their studies; i.e., they want their child to gain a more comprehensive understanding.


Some tutors feel they have to please the parent who hires them. Otherwise, the situation is similar to someone hiring a worker to paint his house and the worker tells him, “First fix up your house, and then I’ll paint.” But the man tells him, “I don’t want to do all the renovations now; I don’t think it’s necessary. All I want from you is a paint job, which is why I called you; I don’t want advice.”


Some tutors feel they must do what, on the surface, they were hired to do. They don’t think they have to probe deeper. They think their job is to teach the material and make sure the pupil knows the Gemara taught in class. But if they would realize that there’s a tremendous difference between the job of a painter and the job of a tutor, their approach would be completely different.


But a child is a child, not a wall! The tutor needs to test the child, assess him, and help him develop whatever basic skills are weak in the child. The tutor should tell the parents: “First I have to get to know who your child is, and only then can I assess his needs. Once that is done I can tell you my conclusions, and together we can decide what course of action to take. It’s possible that what I will decide is best will not match your expectations of me, since my approach is that you need to find the underlying weakness hindering the child’s progress in class and work with that, and not just plug holes.”


When parents hear this, their views change. They see that this tutor is a professional with a unique approach. His goal is not just to get the job done, but to really benefit the child.


When the tutor and parents don’t communicate, problems, misunderstandings and other unpleasant issues are liable to crop up. It’s important that the first thing should be to find common ground, so that the tutor will be able to clarify what he does and so the parents will understand.


The classroom teacher should also know what the tutor is doing. He should be told not to expect wonderful grades after a week’s work with the tutor. At first, the classroom teacher may see no apparent results; the child will not yet be able to repeat the Gemara orally. But if the teacher pays attention, he will definitely notice small changes. He’ll begin to think that this is not the same child he once knew, or that he’s more advanced, even though the child still doesn’t know the Gemara. This is a sign that the tutoring is having a positive effect.


The tutor can’t be pressured, for only in a non-pressured environment can he work with unclouded judgment. The classroom teacher has to understand this.


What is a tutor’s foremost goal?


A tutor’s foremost goal is to gain the child’s trust. He needs to talk to the child as he did with the parents and teacher, in an open and clear manner. There’s no need to hide. The child has to be told what is difficult for him, though of course this should be done tactfully and in the most positive way possible.


How is this done? There are many ways. Here’s one example: The child reads once with mistakes. He is asked to read again, and he does better. The tutor says, “Good! I’m glad you paid attention to your mistakes and corrected them. Now you understand much better what the Gemara is saying.”


The child receives the following messages:


If he corrected himself when he read the second time, that means his reading isn’t perfect. That means he has work to do on reading.


If he reads properly he’ll have an easier time understanding the Gemara.


The tutor can be more direct with an older child. However, there are students who take time before they are ready to accept the fact that they have a problem. The message has to be conveyed to them too, albeit slowly and diplomatically. And when they realize it, they will be more interested in helping themselves deal with the problem. When this is achieved, when the student understands he has a problem and wants to overcome it, and he knows the tutor wants to help him - this is an ideal learning situation.


The child is receptive now, when before he was closed. Why is a child closed? There are many reasons: He wants to escape his problem; he doesn’t want anybody to know about it; he doesn’t want his teacher to know about it and discuss it with him (perhaps he thinks that by ignoring it, the problem will go away). So he builds a wall around himself and closes himself up behind it.


When the tutor succeeds by slowly and delicately breaking the wall down, encouraging the child and showing him that although there is a problem, it can be overcome - the child opens up and is ready to cooperate. He’ll do whatever the tutor tells him.


The child realizes that he has nothing to hide from the tutor, since the tutor knows his problem, and all he wants is to help him. As a result, he will do whatever the tutor wants him to do. When the tutor tells him to use crayons, he’ll use crayons. If the tutor says to photocopy a page of Gemara and make a puzzle out of it - he’ll copy it and cut out the puzzle. (This is done with 12-year-olds in regular classrooms when the teacher wants to show them the flow of the sugya.) If the child understands that this will help overcome his problem, he will do these activities willingly.


Furthermore, when the child feels that the tutor understands him, and his activities address the problem precisely, he opens up. If the tutor avoids the problem, the child just closes up more.


For example: A child has difficulty understanding concepts. The teacher tells him to take his notebook and put it under his seifer. The child doesn’t do it. The teacher asks whether he understood. The child says no. The teacher asks, “What did you not understand, the word under?” - and he demonstrates what he wants done.


At first the child is a bit surprised, for the teacher caught on to his weakness. But then he puts his trust in him because he knows he was understood. If the teacher conveys that he does not understand him, the child closes up.


Someone who worked in special education once noticed something interesting. You would think that children who are sent out of regular classrooms to special education classes would oppose it, but they don’t. After a day or two you can see they enjoy it. They love the new place, and it’s good for them. They do whatever they are asked to do, even when 12-year-olds are asked to do tasks that 8-year-olds do. They do it enthusiastically and enjoy their successes.


Why isn’t the child ashamed? Because he feels understood, and when he feels understood he is willing to cooperate. This should be a tutor’s guiding principle: to give the child the sense that he is understood and that the tutor is with him, willing to work on the problem.


Another point briefly mentioned earlier is that the tutor plans his lessons and activities in a way that enables the child to learn the skills that he needs. The tutor determines the child’s underlying needs and focuses on those.


There’s a big difference when the tutor uses the latter approach, for the child feels the tutor is his partner, and allows the tutor to direct him.


A mother once consulted a rav about her twelve-year-old son, who was studying with a tutor who was well known as an expert, recognized for his outstanding success with children.


“I don’t see any improvement,” complained the mother. “I keep paying, but I see no results. It seems like a waste of money to me.”


The rav tested the child and found him to be intelligent, but with a language problem. He said to the mother, “The tutor you hired is good. He helped him progress in havana (understanding), but he didn’t work on language with him. The child finds it hard to express himself, and he can’t show his classroom teacher how much his havana improved since he began the tutoring. Even the tutor doesn’t know how much he has succeeded with the child’s havana.”


The rav’s suggestion: Continue with the tutor, but direct him.


The mother complained that the tutor would not accept direction.


The rav turned to the child and asked if he wanted to go to the tutor. The child replied no. When asked why not, the child said, “He pressures me.”


The deeper meaning of “he pressures me” is that the tutor doesn’t understand the child. He doesn’t realize the child has difficulty with language and he expects the child to express himself in a way the child cannot.


The tutor is good, even exceptional. He’s devoted and pleasant. But his assumption is that since he receives money for his work, his job is to do what he was hired for, so that he can meet his employer’s expectations. He has to give the child havana, ask him questions and teach him to identify the right answers so that he can answer in class and do well on his tests. He doesn’t realize the other difficulties the child has. He doesn’t empathize with the child; doesn’t realize that the child cannot properly express what he knows. He just continues demanding that the child recite the text. The child, whose difficulties are not understood, feels pressured.


The tutor can wisely say to the parents and classroom teacher: “You want the child to know the Gemara being taught in the classroom. Fine. I will teach him and he’ll know it, but this is not where I will be placing my emphasis. My main job with this child is to build him up in those areas in which he is weak, to give him whatever tools he needs so that he won’t need me anymore.


The correct approach is that a tutor diagnoses the underlying problem in the child that prevents him from being at the class level, and builds up those basic skills so that the child can overcome his difficulties. This approach focuses on the long-term, and it is ultimately the most effective approach.



His goal is not just to get the job done, but to really benefit the child.




The tutor can be more direct with an older child. However, there are students who take time before they are ready to accept the fact that they have a problem.




When the tutor succeeds by slowly and delicately breaking the wall down, encouraging the child and showing him that although there is a problem, it can be overcome – the child opens up and is ready to cooperate.




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