‘An unskilled tutor could do more harm than good’: The pro’s and pitfalls of tutoring

Dr Charl du Plessis is the Co-founder of Flip-a-Switch Tutoring, an online tutoring platform that offers tutoring across all CAPS, IEB and Cambridge subjects. Here, he shares the pro’s and pitfalls of tutoring.


We blinked, and the previous school term and a short holiday were all gone in a flash.

With mid-year exams soon upon us, parents of struggling and strong pupils alike turn to tutors by the droves to improve their children’s grades by mid-year.

A recent survey at private boys’ schools in two provinces showed that 80% of the learners in the top set were using a tutor in one or more subjects.

Among the juniors (Grade 8s and 9s) that we tutor nationally, parents have reported regular improvements of between 10-40% in test and exam results since joining our programme.

Tutoring works for several good reasons, yet it remains highly dependent upon appointing a suitable tutor. Your child’s academic progress is too significant to make a mistake, regardless of whether they are at the top of the tail of their class.

So, let me share a few valuable tips and alert you to pitfalls to avoid so that you, the parent, can find a tutoring solution that can deliver concrete results.

Read: Mathematics with Nqayiya makes top 10 at the Junior Chamber International SA awards 2021

Your child’s experience

Foremost, you and the tutor require an understanding of what your child may be experiencing.

These include:

1. A lack of confidence and consistency

‘A loss of confidence is the recurring theme from parents approaching us at Flip-a-Switch Tutoring (FAST). Even when a pupil battles with only one subject, this lack of confidence often affects their general motivation for all schoolwork and can spill over into exam-day performance. The South African curriculum is well within most kids’ intellectual ability.

However, very few schools pro-actively teach learners how to study. Furthermore, schools inadvertently draw learners away from the books with jam-packed sports and other extracurricular activities.

It may all be part of the fun of being young and full of energy, but one of the cornerstones of academic success – consistent work – regularly pays the price.

We call it ‘benign neglect’. Most often, homework is done in a hurry or at the last minute by an exhausted child, entirely missing its purpose of consolidating learning.

2. Anxiety and loss of control

Teenage anxiety and depression are at an all-time high after lockdown and are intensified by the ubiquitous presence of social media.

The problem is real. When it comes to academics, if your child’s grades fall short of their expectations, it creates further anxiety and a sense of things spiraling out of control.

The usual response is avoidance and withdrawal, which is unfortunately just at that critical stage when active ownership of their learning is essential for academic progress.

Must read: Multi-award-winning teacher tells us how he makes maths fun for his students

3. The tension between parents and child

My partner in life and education is a sociologist with a PhD from Yale, but if they awarded honorary degrees for parenting, that would have been better suited. Our shelves hold every book written on the topic, read while raising our kids.

She often reminds (the more impatient) me that it is only natural for teenagers, including our 16- and 18-year-olds, to push back against their parents.

When academic commitment is already a bone of contention in the household, relying on exhausted and irate parents for help with challenging homework questions only fuels the fire.

Our FAST tutors remain available 24/7 between tutoring sessions to assist as so-called ‘homework buddies’.

We realise that having someone who can step in at all hours with homework takes a considerable lot of pressure off parents and helps to defuse tension in the home.

4. Tutoring Fallacies

We often encounter certain fallacies that parents abide by, and that may send them in the wrong direction when ready to engage tutors:

Myth 1: My friend has a child who can help

Knowing something does not mean one knows how to teach others. Your friend’s child at varsity would just as much accept an au pair or bar-tending job if the pay were better. If they took the other position, training would be a requirement, so who will train your friend’s child to be an effective tutor?

This lack of experience is evident in the ‘dating-app’ style tutoring businesses offering matching services. Their slick-looking advertisements all over the web allow anyone to list themselves as tutors with or without training or experience.

Instead, look for professional services where tutors are carefully selected, interviewed, trained, and supported with the correct teaching tools and curricular materials. An unskilled tutor could do more harm than good if they are not sensitive to your child’s experience.

Also read: Here’s how to increase your child’s chances of getting into a great high school

Myth 2: My child needs private lessons

Given your child’s loss of confidence, the last thing they need is to sit across from yet another adult while feeling exposed and ‘on the spot.’

Small tutoring groups (research suggests between 2 to 8 learners) create safety in numbers and alert your child to questions they may not have thought of asking.

A well-trained tutor will ensure that each member of such a group can ask pressing questions and actively participate. The exception to this rule would be solid and confident learners who need an extra nudge to get to targeted results (eg, Grade 6s working towards high school admissions or Grade 11s and 12s with specific university applications in mind).

Often, these learners have a clear list of topics they want to be covered by one of our tutors.

Myth 3: My child needs in-person tutoring

Your child lives in a digital universe. Sometimes this is part of the academic problem because these devices were designed to draw them in.

Yet, this is a space where they have ‘agency’ – a sense of control – and many have skills far beyond their parents. It is no secret that many schools were caught ill-prepared at first lockdown, despite valiant efforts by teachers to learn how to teach large classes online quickly.

Luckily, online educational technology (over $38 billion or R610,861,172.00 invested globally last year alone) and our children’s familiarity with this environment have grown in leaps and bounds since then—online tutoring in the future.

Live, online tutoring saves parents another extracurricular drive and offers your child a safe, familiar space from which to work while at home. They are not sitting in an intimidating physical space with a ‘Sir’ or a ‘Ma’am’.

A well-trained tutor can share materials instantly (and with access to the Internet for anything else that arises during class discussion) and will monitor each child’s face close-up for fatigue, distraction or confusion. And the learners see one another, too – creating a sense of camaraderie.

Why replicate the inhibitive teaching conditions at school if a professional online method directly addresses what your child is experiencing delivers fantastic outcomes?

Must see: Nokuphila Primary School offers innovative aid and support to pupils struggling with Maths

10 Useful Tips

Here, then are essential questions I suggest each parent asks when searching for a suitable tutoring service:

1. Are you able to consult with someone knowledgeable and experienced at the tutoring service about your child’s academic and associated emotional needs?

2. Can you have the confidence that the tutor will be carefully matched to your child’s academic needs and the extraneous circumstances affecting your child?

3. What are other parents saying? Does a company and its tutors have positive reviews and frequent recommendations?

4. Are you ensured that the tutor who will work with your child has been screened and carefully selected for academic excellence, teaching capabilities, and a service ethic? Can tutors simply list themselves on a platform without any proper screening?

5. Is your child’s safety ever a raised consideration in the process, or can predators abuse the platform?

6. Does your child’s tutor have the support and training within their own company to ensure your child works on the suitable materials and in a manner conducive to improvement?

7. Does your child have any support from the tutor between weekly tutoring sessions? And how quickly is that support available, if at all?

8. Does the tutoring service teach my child how to study and become an all-around better student?

9. Can you cancel a tutor immediately and without penalties if it is not a good fit between the tutor and your child?

10. Do you, as a parent, have a direct line to communicate with the tutor about your child’s needs?

Finally, we suggest you avoid any system that asks you to pay upfront; purchase pre-paid vouchers, or subscribe to your bank’s fixed monthly payment instructions.

Just ask the private boys’ school mother who paid a tutor in advance, only to be notified that the tutor had left for Thailand a couple of weeks before exams, how well that worked out!

In carpentry, they say, ‘measure twice, cut once. I sincerely hope that the insights above help you and your child find the caring support needed for solid academic progress.

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