The Weekly Sam: How to Qualify as a Tutor

(The article below is an excerpt from Sam’s book How to Tutor.  A link to an PDF version: )

The art of tutoring is as old as education itself. In the early days,
before the Industrial Revolution, before there was such a thing as
mass education, children were taught the basic educational skills
by tutors, or in very small schoolhouses. The wealthy hired tutors
not only to instruct their children in the necessary skills of
reading and writing, but also to provide a proper moral up bringing. The hiring of a tutor was considered a very important
business. John Locke, the English philosopher and educator,
writing in the 17th century, described the difficult problem of finding a good tutor who, he insisted, should have “sobriety, temperance, tenderness, diligence, and discretion,” qualities he considered as “hardly to be found united in persons that are to be had
for ordinary salaries nor easily to be found anywhere.” He explained further:

The great difficulty will be where to find a proper person. For
those of small age, parts, and virtue are unfit for this employment; and those that have greater will hardly be got to undertake such a charge. You must therefore look out early and enquire everywhere, for the world has people of all sorts …. If
you find it difficult to meet with such a tutor as we desire, you
are not to wonder. I only can say, spare no care nor cost to get
such an one. All things are to be had that way, and I dare assure
you that if you can get a good one, you will never repent the
charge but will always have the satisfaction to think it the
money of all other the best laid out.

Of course, the kind of tutors John Locke wrote about (the tutors
who served the aristocracy of preindustrial times) are not the
kind needed today. The tutoring we need is of a much more
limited kind, resembling the situation of a person who gives piano
lessons. Yet, even tutors on this limited scale must have certain
qualities which make them successful in their tutoring. If you intend to tutor children you should be fond of children, have enormous patience, be affectionate, and understand the young mind:
its eagerness, its curiosity, its tendency to wander from the difficult problems at hand, and its resistance to required effort. So, it
does take considerable skill to teach a child. The three most important ingredients of good tutoring, however, are patience, an
understanding of the young mind, and a knowledge of the subject
you are teaching.

Children also have very strong egos. Their desire to succeed is
very great, and success in learning is important to their self-esteem. Therefore, they must be taught in very gradual steps, so
that success is assured by the simplicity of what is taught. Never
show impatience if the child does not catch on. There may be
something in the way you are presenting the subject, or some distraction on the part of the child, or some slowness in the child’s
ability to understand what you are driving at. Perhaps the child
has not fully digested the previous lesson. It may even be
necessary to go one step backward before you can take the next
two steps forward.

The child’s self-esteem is as fragile as his constitution. You
would not expect him to carry a heavier weight than his physical
strength permitted. Likewise, you must not expect him to understand something too complex for his young mind to grasp. And
you must not expect him to learn easily or well if the methods you
use are illogical, confusing, or poorly thought-out. We teach the
complex by breaking it down into smaller, simpler parts. That is
the method we have used in the program of instruction in this
book. We start with the simplest and most elementary parts,
make sure the child learns them, and proceed from there. In each
section of the book you will find more precise instruction for the
subject to be taught.

Who is qualified to be a tutor? Anyone willing and able to do the
job can tutor. If you are a parent with a high school education, you
are eminently qualified to teach the basic program in this book to
your own child-provided you have the time and patience to do so.
If you are a high school or college student you may also qualify if
you can follow the instructions in this book, relate well to
children, and understand their learning problems. Retired
teachers, of course, make excellent tutors, adapting their years of
schoolroom experience to the tutoring situation. And finally,
there is that large category of married women with college educations who, for one reason or another, do not pursue full-time
careers, but have the time, the energy, and the desire to offer
tutoring services at home for a few hours a day. For such women,
tutoring can indeed be an excellent way of supplementing the
family income as well as performing a valuable, needed service
for the community.

If you charge five dollars an hour and tutor
four children a day, that will provide you with one hundred
dollars for a five-day week. That one hundred dollars can be used
to pay a lot of bills. Of course, you must declare that income on
your income tax return, but you can also deduct all the expenses
involved in earning that money. Such expenses would include advertising, materials, books, pencils, paper, blackboards, phone
calls, postage, and other expenses incurred in earning that money,
including, incidentally, the cost of this book. If you set aside a
small room in your house for tutoring, you can deduct all the costs
of maintaining that room, namely electricity, heat, and a portion
of your total rent.

It is not necessary to have had formal teaching experience to
become a good tutor. If you have enjoyed reading to children and
answering their questions, then you should enjoy tutoring. With
the proper instructional materials, anyone who enjoys children
can become a good tutor.
How do you find children who need tutoring? In a small community, word of mouth is the best way. A small sign in front of
your house, a short, classified advertisement in the local paper, or
a notice on the bulletin board of a laundromat or supermarket are
some of the ways to make your services known to the community.

Also, if you have done school teaching in the past, your friends in
the school system (teachers, advisors, administrators) might be of
some help in locating children who need tutoring. You might even
type up a promotional letter explaining that you specialize in
tutoring preschoolers. Have it multilithed and mail it out to
families and schools in the area. You might make your services
known to women’s clubs, or parent-teacher associations in the
area. And, of course, there are the “yellow pages.”
How much to charge depends on how great the demand is for
your time and the parents’ ability to pay. An hourly fee of
between three and ten dollars can be charged. You might start at
the lowest practical fee until your tutoring skills are perfected
and your reputation established. By then you should have more
requests for your services than you can handle. You might then be
justified in charging a higher fee. If you find that you can success fully tutor more than one child at a time, you might still charge
the same fee but increase your income by tutoring more than one
child in one hour.

 The Art of Tutoring

The art of tutoring, like any other art, is learned in the doing. To
be really good at it requires some special personality traits, skills,
and sensitivity. The one-to-one relationship brings you into direct,
personal contact with the pupil. There is always some tension,
some anxiety in a relationship of that proximity. The way you
relieve that tension and anxiety is to make the child feel that he or
she is liked. You might start out by saying something nice about
the child’s appearance. You should also let the child know that he
is in for an interesting time, that both of you are going to enjoy
the hour you spend together. If you are tutoring in your home,
choose a well-lighted, bright part of the house for the instruction
area. Treat the child with courtesy, helping him (or her) off with
his (or her) coat. Show that you are glad to see him. All of this is
to make the child receptive to your instruction and to put him at
Since you both will be sitting together, have two chairs and a
table on which you can spread out the instructional materials.
You should also have an upright blackboard. You might
sometimes find it easier to explain things by the use of such a
blackboard in conjunction with side-by-side instruction. Be flexible. The instructional materials in this book can be used with as
much flexibility as the situation requires. See what works and see
what doesn’t. Each child is different, and you will find that an approach that works with one child may not work with another. The
most important point to remember is that each child is an individual and that you will have to work with him in order to find
the approach that suits him best. Each child brings to the tutoring
experience a different amount of knowledge, a different attitude
toward learning, and a different attitude toward the tutor. The
expert tutor knows how to adapt himself to the personality of the

In the tutoring situation the child is relieved of the problem of
competing with others in the classroom. But at the same time, he
wants to make a good impression with the tutor. Anyone who
comes for instruction, whether it be a child or an adult, is sensitive to the fact that he is inferior to the instructor in the area of
knowledge in which he is to be instructed. The child who does not
know how to read may not think of himself as an illiterate, but he
does know that he lacks a skill which every child slightly older
than him already has. He is sensitive about his intelligence and his
ability to learn. He badly wants to succeed and can be easily disappointed if he falters. Therefore, it is important to pace your instruction according to the child’s ability to learn. It is also important to give him a pat on the back when he learns well. In feeling
out the child’s abilities and general understanding, be patient,
affectionate, and maintain a sense of humor. Never scold, never
show anger, never show impatience.

Plan each lesson in advance. Know the material you are going
to cover. Get to the instruction once the child has settled down. Do
not waste time. Get the child absorbed in the learning process so
that he does not have a chance to be distracted. After you explain
something to him, have him do it, write it, or read it. This gives
him a chance to absorb what he has been taught and to use his
hands and fingers or express his thoughts verbally. If, during the
lesson the child seems overly restless and inattentive, try to find
out the cause. Are you going too fast or too slow? Is your approach
too dry? Perhaps a short break for a drink of water might be

In order to maintain the appropriate pace of instruction, you
will have to be sensitive to the child’s rate of learning. It is better
to give him a little more of what you think he can learn than less.
By giving him more, you don’t give him a chance to be bored. In
addition, by giving the child a little more to learn than his present
capacity, he becomes accustomed to the process of exerting mental effort. This is important, for although we should try to make
learning as interesting, exciting, and as pleasant as possible, there
is no escaping the fact that learning requires mental effort-mental work-and the sooner the child becomes accustomed to the
process of mental work, the sooner he will understand, appreciate and enjoy the whole process of intellectual mastery. Therefore, maintain a pace that requires the child to exert some mental

However, do not require efforts which are clearly beyond
his capacity. Reading, writing, and arithmetic require the child to
master a good deal of symbolic abstraction. Such mastery does
not occur effortlessly. But once the mind is put to work, it begins
to expand its capacity to handle even greater abstractions.
The mind works in a very remarkable way. It has the power to
integrate a great deal of new knowledge with what it already
knows, and the result is a greatly expanded understanding. The
mind seems to have a limitless ability to absorb knowledge over a
long period of time, and this ability expands with use-just as a
muscle will grow larger if it is required to lift heavier loads.

Muscle building by weightlifting is probably a perfect example
of a similar process which goes on in the brain, namely, the expansion of capacity through greater exertion and use. If a weightlifter lifts the same light weight a thousand times, it will not expand his muscle. He can only achieve this by lifting a much
heavier weight to the limits of his capacity. To go beyond his present limit requires an exertion that is painful but necessary if his
capacity is to grow to meet greater demands.
The brain’s capacity expands in the same way. It requires mental exertion of a comparable intensity to reach a higher level of
ability. No one likes mental exertion any more than he likes
physical exertion, and this is true of adults as well as children.
But such exertion, unfortunately, is necessary if the child is to
achieve any degree of mastery of the subject matter at hand.

Thus, the child should be led slowly, patiently and gradually to
understand how he must exert mental effort to acquire the skills
and knowledge necessary for him to advance scholastically. Of
course, like the muscles of the body, the brain becomes tired and
requires periods of rest and recuperation-especially after great
exertion. The tutor should be able to sense when the child’s mind
is tired and that he can learn no more during that period.
The tutor can be greatly instrumental in teaching the child the
most efficient ways of using his mind by guiding its use step by
step. The instruction in this book has been designed to give the
child a sense of order in what is being learned. The approach has
been to reduce the complex to its simplest parts, so that the child
can be led to grasp simple concepts before moving on to the more

Once the child sees the logic behind the symbolic
systems he must work with, he has taken a giant step toward intellectual development. Most of the “work” in mental exertion
consists of understanding concepts. The rest consists of either
pure rote memory, or repeated use of concepts until they become
automatic responses.

Teaching a child the basic skills of reading, writing, and calculation is like teaching him how to swim or play the piano. The skills
to be learned require lots of practice. There is not much difference between mastering a physical skill and mastering a mental
skill. Both require effort and practice. Both use up energy. Both
have to be taught in an organized, logical way. Both can be made
exciting or dull, depending on the approach of the teacher. But the
process of mastering a physical or mental skill is an exciting one
for the student, for he looks forward to mastery with great anticipation. Swimming and playing the piano will afford him many
years of enjoyment and pleasure. Reading, writing, and calculation will afford him years of enjoyment and rewarding activity,
increasing his capacity to earn money and providing the kind of
life for himself that he will want. Thus, in teaching any basic skill
to a youngster, one must see it in terms of long-range, life-long
use. One must see it as contributing to the child’s future adult
happiness. To be concerned simply with the child’s present enjoyment of what he is doing is to shortchange him in the future. His
ability to master a skill will contribute greatly to his own self­-esteem, his own sense of self-worth, and his ability to make his
way in the world with confidence. That is why it is worth taking
the time to make sure that the child masters the basic skills.

A good tutor can easily earn the everlasting gratitude of a
youngster who is having trouble learning in a crowded classroom
where his special needs and problems are ignored. But it takes
time to identify the pupil’s learning difficulty. You do this first by
finding out what the pupil actually knows. Some children are
afraid to admit that they don’t know what they think they should.
They don’t want to appear stupid. The fear of being thought
stupid or of actually being stupid is very real, and is in itself a
learning handicap. The child must get rid of this fear, and the
tutor can help him remove this fear by showing him that he can

Children who cannot learn via the deficient instruction in
school classrooms tend to blame themselves for not learning. They
are in no position to question the instructional methods being
used by their teachers. Thus, if they fail to learn they think it is
because of their own deficiency, not the instructor’s. The schools
tend to reinforce this view by insisting that there is something
wrong with the child, not the instructional methods. Books have
been written listing all the things wrong with children who cannot
learn to read via the prevalent methods being used in the classrooms of America. There are, fortunately, a few books listing the
things wrong with the methods, not the children. In The New
Illiterates    I analyzed the teaching methods which have been used
to teach millions of children how to read, and I showed how deficient these methods were. I also showed how tenaciously so
many educators have clung to these methods (despite tremendous
criticism) and how detrimental they were to the children exposed
to them.

It is, of course, possible to undo the damage done by faulty
teaching methods, but it can be an extremely difficult task. Any
bad habits learned in the first and second grades are very hard to
displace with good ones. In some cases it is impossible. Some
children simply cannot unlearn these bad habits. That is why it is
so important to start the child off on a sound footing with sound
instruction. The fear of failing is the greatest handicap to learning, and a
child gets this fear only when he begins to see that he cannot cope
with the material being given him in the classroom. As a tutor,
you need never arouse the fear of failing for the simple reason
that you are free to use any method which will enable the child to
learn the concepts and skills he is being taught

If the child is normal and has an adequate vocabulary, he can learn all of the basics
with no problem at all. If the child comes to you because he is having difficulties in the classroom, try to get to the heart of the
problem. To do so you must find out the following: the methods to
which the child has been exposed in the classroom, how much he
has learned, what he knows and what he doesn’t know, and if
the child is physically normal as far as eyesight and hearing are

is important to have this preliminary information about the
child if you are to tutor him successfully. You can find out what
methods he has been exposed to by visiting the school he attends
or has attended, by talking to the teachers he has had, and by
examining the textbooks used. In the Appendix to The New
Illiterates, I listed and evaluated the most widely used reading instruction programs in this country. Check that list to see if the
child has been taught by one of the methods evaluated. If he has
been exposed to one of the deficient methods, you will have to
devise a way to overcome the bad habits learned.

The instructional materials in this book start from the beginning. They start with the assumption that the child has not as
yet been instructed in these subjects. But they can also be used
with children who have already been taught something. That is
why it is important to find out how much the child knows. You
can pace your instruction accordingly.

Before taking on the child,
you should question the parent sufficiently, so that you have an
idea of how to proceed. Here is a suggested list of questions which
will elicit the information you should have:

What is the child’s age?
What schools has he attended?
What grade is he in?
What textbooks is he using in school?
Has he had any instruction at home in the subjects to be
What instructional methods has the child been exposed to in
school and at home?
What are his present skills?
Does the child have any specific learning problem which the
tutor should be aware of?
Does the child have normal hearing and eyesight?

With that basic information, you will be in a much better position to tutor the pupil successfully.
Why Tutoring Can Succeed Where Classroom Teaching Does Not
Perhaps the most important advantage tutoring has over the
classroom situation is that the tutor can much better guide the
attention of his pupil than can the classroom teacher. He can
direct the pupil’s attention to the particular idea or knowledge to
be mastered. In a large classroom a child’s attention can easily

There are a hundred potential distractions around him.
Focusing attention requires the effort of self-control, an effort
which many children fail to make. The tutor helps the child focus
his attention by being right there beside him. He does this mainly
through dialogue, by talking directly to the pupil and eliciting
responses. In this way the tutor can assess immediately whether
the child is grasping the concepts being taught. Conversely, it
might take weeks in the classroom before the teacher could discover whether the pupil has learned what he was supposed to

If the pupil is particularly clever in hiding his ignorance, or
if the teacher is indifferent to a child’s understanding of the subject, the child’s ignorance may never be discovered. Some children
manage to get through high school completely ignorant of concepts they should have learned in the early grades-concepts
which teachers in later grades assume the child knows. Children
are often too embarrassed to admit that they lack fundamental
knowledge in some subject areas. They pretend to know when
they really don’t.
These hazards are eliminated in tutoring. The tutor keeps a
close tab on what the child knows and he does not proceed further until the child firmly grasps the ideas and knowledge he must
have in order to go on. Why is the classroom situation so non-conducive to learning? Distractions, fear of appearing ridiculous
in the competitive situation, lack of teacher attention, and the
teacher’s tendency to want to control and manipulate a whole
class rather than understand the individual student are among
the principal reasons. The teacher must teach as if all students
learn alike when it is obvious they do not. In a classroom where
children are deadly afraid of appearing stupid, they tend to give
the answers they think the teacher wants to hear. They do not
think in terms of what is objectively correct, but what will please
the teacher.

In tutoring, the teacher must not be interested in merely
eliciting so-called right answers, but in seeing that the pupil understands the concepts being taught. The interaction between
tutor and pupil is so close and so dynamic, that the tutor can sense
when a child has grasped a concept and when he hasn’t. If the
child doesn’t fully understand what he is being taught, the tutor
does not mark the child wrong, or score him a failure. He simply
continues to work with the child until the child does grasp the concept to be learned. The classroom teacher, however, because of the
distance between him and the pupil, has no way of knowing
whether the child has learned anything. He can only find out by
way of a test given a day, a week, or a month later-if at all. The
child sees the test as an arbitrary judgment of his intelligence. If
he fails, he feels stupid and incompetent.

In tutoring, this entire process of measuring intelligence is
avoided. The child simply does not proceed to anything more complex until the tutor is satisfied that the child has mastered the
material taught up to any given point. This is why tutoring can be
so effective. The tutor works directly with the mind of his pupil
and can sense when the pupil is learning and when he is not.
When the pupil is not learning, the tutor can immediately find out
why, make whatever adjustments are necessary, or explain things
in different, more comprehensible terms until the pupil learns.
The moment of learning comes when the pupil integrates in his
own mind the concepts or knowledge the tutor imparts. The tutor
can see if the pupil understands what he is learning by a process
very much like instant replay. Sometimes understanding does not
come all at once, but in bits and pieces. Eventually the bits and
pieces fall into place and become a comprehensible whole. This is
the learning process, and the tutor becomes intimately aware of
how it works by seeing it operate in the child right next to him.

In this process the child’s motivation is directed not merely
toward pleasing the teacher, but to pleasing himself and proving
to himself that he can master a skill, understand a concept, and
also absorb knowledge. The pupil, of course, wants the tutor’s approval, but the tutor must be clever enough to make the child feel
that important sense of satisfaction which comes from mastery of
the subject rather than from the tutor’s praise alone. Satisfaction
with self is far more important in building self-esteem and self-confidence than teacher approval. The former comes with a pleasing knowledge that one knows how to use one’s mind; the latter,
merely from an acknowledgement of good behavior.

John Holt contends that children fail in the classroom “because
they are afraid, bored, and confused.” He explains:
“They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless
hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a

They are bored because the things they are given and told to
do in school are so trivial, so dull, and make such limited and
narrow demands on the wide spectrum of their intelligence,
capabilities, and talents.
They are confused because most of the torrent of words that
pours over them in school makes little or no sense. It often flatly
contradicts other things they have been told, and hardly ever has
any relation to what they really know-to the rough model of
reality that they carry around in their minds.

The tutor can eliminate all three causes of failure. First, he can
eliminate the fear of failure by simply proceeding according to the
child’s own learning pace; by making sure that the child understands the concepts imparted to him, by sensing when the child is
having difficulty, and by sometimes taking one step backwards in
order to take the next two steps forward. The tutor’s sensitivity to
a child’s learning behavior permits him not only to catch the child
when he is not learning but, through an intimate, constant
dialogue between tutor and pupil, permits the child to catch
himself as he be:::ins to understand how the learning process takes
place. All learning is inner dialogue, and the tutor-pupil dialogue
is an externalization of this process. That, alone, makes tutoring a
superior learning experience because the learning process is learned,
as well as the subject matter.

The tutor can also eliminate boredom by making the process of
intellectual mastery as exciting and exhilarating as it actually is.
Nothing is more satisfying to the human being than intellectual
mastery, for the simple reason that the mind is man’s special tool
for survival, his most distinguishing feature when compared to
the other species. His mind is what has made him superior to
other species. Therefore, when the mind masters a skill it
provides deep psychic satisfaction to its owner-a metaphysical
and existential satisfaction related to his special place in the universal scheme of things. When a child masters an elementary intellectual skill, he derives a real feeling of efficacy, competence,
and independence-all of which increase his self-esteem and self-confidence. In a tutoring situation, the pupil is too busy mastering
a skill to get bored.

The tutor can also eliminate the confusion that besets children
in today’s classroom. If his instructional methods are consistent,
rational, and sound, there will be no confusion. The instruction in
this book has been prepared to eliminate the kind of contradictory, senseless instruction which is so much a part of
modern elementary pedagogy. We have written this book specifically to make it possible for the child to circumvent the confusion to which he will be exposed in the classroom. Since tutoring,
at this time in our educational history, can only supplement the
classroom, we realize that children will be exposed to our contemporary pedagogical confusion no matter what they learn from a

However, the tutor can so fortify the child with good learning
habits. with an understanding of basic concepts, with a mastery of
elementary skills, that no amount of classroom confusion will hamper
the child’s continued progress.

Thus, we see in tutoring an essential alternative to the classroom situation, an alternative more and more parents will turn to
as more and more qualified tutors offer their services to a public
which desperately needs them.