Tutors often wonder, “Do I need teaching experience to be a good tutor?” The answer, unequivocally, is no, and most of our tutors come from other walks of life. Nonetheless, prior teaching experience can provide insight into the uniqueness of working with adult learners.
English language learning tutor Eric Baysinger taught Russian, Spanish, and German for over 25 years to students in elementary, middle, and high school. He applies some key aspects of his background for teaching adults. “I’d learned to meet students where they were in their level of skill or understanding and then build on that. A very important skill in teaching anyone is being able to break down grand concepts into digestible bits,” Eric explains. “Plus I knew the importance of learning to converse.”
Still, teaching adults offers new experiences for seasoned classroom teachers like Eric. For example, he notes that “There is no particular ‘end game’ as there was in my professional career. My current students will not spend just ten months with me and then move on to the next level of instruction, most likely with a different teacher. That’s a major adjustment.”
Classes are also much more “free-form” and focus on the students’ needs and interests. “Whatever my students want to discuss, whether it’s grammar, culture, politics, bureaucracy, or traffic! I answer their questions to the best of my ability, listen in as they talk to each other, and try to point out deficiencies in their English,” Eric explains. “We focus quite a bit on pronunciation and problem areas that I detect in them individually.”
"I cherish my experiences tutoring for Literacy Pittsburgh."
Working with adults has meant that he can become friends with his students, something that obviously wasn’t possible in a K-12 setting. “I was just ten years older than my seniors and had to develop a very business-like demeanor,” he adds.
Like many tutors, Eric has had to explain the quirks of his native language that he never really thought about before. “For example, one Ukrainian student asked me the difference between ‘I did something’ and ‘I have done something.’ I really had to sit and think for several minutes before going on with that lesson!”
Working with adults is not without its challenges. “They improve much more slowly than kids do,” Eric says. On the other hand, he appreciates that he is helping his students with very concrete and immediate goals, such as buying a car, getting a license, or seeing an article through to publication.
Finally, Eric says “It’s nice to work with adults. They are as enthusiastic as my former elementary school kids were, but they don’t cry in class as often!”
When asked what else he would like friends of Literacy Pittsburgh to know, Eric says, “Just this: I cherish my experiences tutoring for Literacy Pittsburgh.”
Thank you, Eric, for all you ‘have done’ and continue to do! Read on for more rich insights from Eric, along with a funny story!
How do you measure success in your tutoring?
Success as an ESL tutor is rather an elusive concept. I do cheer loudly when a student is first able to make an English sound correctly, but I know they’ll have to relearn that sound again and again anyway. One student I had, an older woman from Ukraine, really struggled to be understood among strangers and had little confidence in her abilities, although I thought she said most words quite well. She had a very major success, however, when her sister, who had no English whatsoever, came to visit and the two of them took a trip to the Dominican Republic. There, my student was her sister’s only means of getting around and communicating and she was rightfully proud of her abilities. One waiter even asked her to teach him English!
Otherwise, I guess I consider it a success, although not mine per se, when a student achieves a personal goal: buying a car, getting a license, seeing an article through to publication, et cetera. Unlike in high school, there are no grades to give out and students don’t often progress to a higher-level class. I think tutors have to look at the very long-term outcome in order to see how they have helped.
What do you see as the greatest challenge your adult students face in their learning?
I’d say the greatest challenge in working with adult learners is that they improve much more slowly than kids do. In addition, advanced learners have already mastered so much that it’s a hard job to get them to do better with the problems they still have. I’ve told them many times that they’re like Olympic athletes trying to shave milliseconds off their times. That naturally takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline and practice. Difficulties in pronunciation are very hard to overcome because their aural/oral flexibility is much lower than a child’s.
Tell us about a memorable moment with a student.
Okay. Here’s a story. I had a Chinese woman as a student who once asked me what the Sugar Bowl was. I launched into a long discussion of the NFL versus college football. The first culminates in the Super Bowl, of course, whereas the second culminates in various championships, such as the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Cotton Bowl. (I don’t actually follow sports, so this was a difficult question for me.)
She listened attentively, but only seemed more and more confused. Finally, she withdrew a children’s book from her bag and opened it to a drawing of people inside a candy shop, on the front window of which was stenciled, backwards, The Sugar Bowl.
“Oh!” I laughed, “That’s just the name of the candy store in that book.”
What advice do you have for a new tutor or a prospective volunteer?
- Wherever you’re starting out in your experience of teaching, you can help tremendously.
- Meet the student’s needs, not the needs of your lesson plan.
- When a student asks a question, that is the ideal time to provide him or her the answer. Don’t wait until the next class.
- Don’t be afraid if you don’t know ANY particular answer off the top of your head. Use your cell phone or laptop to investigate along with your student. Admit what you yourself don’t understand. There is zero shame in that and your students won’t lose faith in you for it.
- Be happy to turn on a dime when someone asks about something you hadn’t anticipated.
- If you’ve never learned a second language or lived in a non-English speaking country, make those goals of yours. You don’t have to master that second language; just experience what that kind of learning is like. You don’t actually have to go to China for a year either; spend a weekend in Quebec. Just know what it means to be in a foreign country for a little while.
- Critique gently. Praise loudly! (I recommend applause and smiles and high fives.)
- Rest up after class. Teaching is more strenuous than you imagined.
- Ask other teachers for help or advice. There is no more generous pool of people in the world.
- Enjoy! It’s gonna be fun!
Literacy Pittsburgh (formerly Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council) helps create better lives through learning. Recognized as a national leader in adult and family literacy, Literacy Pittsburgh is the largest provider of adult basic education in Allegheny and Beaver Counties. Last year, Literacy Pittsburgh helped some 5,000 individuals acquire the skills needed to reach their fullest potential in life and participate productively in their communities. Literacy Pittsburgh provides free, personalized instruction in workforce readiness, high school diploma test preparation, digital literacy, English language learning, math, reading, and family literacy through one-to-one and small class instruction. Founded in 1982, it serves local adults through numerous neighborhood locations and its Downtown Pittsburgh Learning Center.