Private tuition has an unsteady relationship with the education system. It is a known fact. They hold hands but don't look or talk to each other enough. But regardless of this, they coexist. And both are here to stay. Private tuition is often effective for the students who are dedicated to self-improvement, achieving their aims and attaining their academic or career objectives. Personal, individual tuition is undeniably powerful. It works. For example, this Friday I was immensely proud to hear from two of my A-Level students who had each succeeded in their own way: an A* result for one, who unfortunately was not the biggest fan of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath tale, and a B grade, brought up from a D, for a wonderfully dedicated dramatist, whose performance as Twelfth Night’s Feste, I am certain, was astounding. Their private tutoring journeys looked very different (bi-weekly at 7pm for one and weekly at 7am for the other) and served them for different, personal, reasons. My own journey into private tutoring remains one of the most surprising, natural and happy mistakes of my life.
I had never intended to become self-employed. But since 2018, I have helped students from diverse backgrounds, with differing ages, abilities, interests and academic aspirations. And I love it. I have tutored in person (love it), online (love it), for schools (love it), and conducted online classes (love it) since then. What started as a personal experiment of whether I had the confidence to guide others’ learning and, as I said then, ‘to be able to speak about English with students’ (also helping me self-fund my own studies with the University of Bristol), has mutated into a beloved passion. I live and breathe English and take immeasurable joy from the tuition process.
But why online classes? Before you presume that this is merely another COVID-driven story (because, partially, it is) please know that classes were not my decision. They’re brilliant, but not my move. In the winter of 2021 I received an e-mail from my platform-of-choice, Tutorful. Would I be interested in building and running online classes? Did I want to take a more holistic approach to tutoring? Yes. I did. I saw this opportunity as a good way of supporting our struggling education system in difficult, uncertain times, as benefiting tutors like myself by reducing some of the (many) stresses that come with 1-to-1 tutoring, and as a potentially commercially lucrative step for the UK's biggest tutoring company. Some of Tutorful’s best and brightest were told that, on a trial basis, classes would be brought to the site.
Get going! Build classes! Adapt. Imagine. Offer classes that you want to run to help more individuals nationwide than a one-woman-band could reach on an individual private basis. Reasonable working hours only run from 7:00am to 8:30am and from 3:45pm to 9:00pm, at the end of the day. It was a win-win-win. Classes could slash public-school class numbers down to below half, giving students far more opportunity to ask questions, quietly reflect upon and process new information, expand their knowledge and passion, and build their confidence from home. Classes also reduce the very real risk for tutors that they may not reliably earn a living whilst helping as many students (as is sensible) as they can.
The big question, from a limited company perspective, was whether this move would be worth it. Would it be lucrative? Was there a long-term demand for group learning, led by experienced tutors, online?
There is. Some classes did better than others. I reviewed, asked students for feedback, amended the experience in-session and kept on going. Between January 2022 and last Friday, I delivered group classes thirty-nine times, covering six different literature topics (all visible on my website), ranging from Shakespeare plays to unseen poetry and functioning as weekly, Half-term and Easter daily and even one-off ‘night before the exam’ classes. The average sign ups were 3.5 students per class. This equates to 136 signups in less than nine months. Now, these are not massive numbers. But classes helped me reach more students in nine months than I had tutored privately in over four years. Since 2018, I had tutored two online students in 2018-19, twenty-eight in 2019-20 and 2020-21, seventeen more in 2021-22, and have 4 more (so far) for this academic year 2022-23. Those 136 signups are not 136 students, which is actually a good thing. Numerous students became repeat bookers, having seen the value in group online classes for themselves. Classes are evidently worth more than a punt. They are a service that proves worthy of – and continues to draw – students’ attention. Pupils, as well as paying parents, saw the true value in the shared online learning experience.
I have met groups of students – who will never meet each other again – emboldened by their blank video screens, discussing the importance of assonance in Owen's ‘Exposure’ or politely letting others take a turn to voice their opinions about why Duncan's body was left offstage. It's an important process, with personal and professional merits: students who engage can see that. It's also more affordable for a large proportion of our student populace and invites students from different backgrounds to engage with others’ opinions and perspectives in a respectful, open manner. Humans learn from humans, which is what classes offer students who are willing to learn. The learning opportunities for students and tutors are endless.
This is why an email I received on Friday morning upended my world. This is what happened: cut-throat business-sense stopped me in my tracks. I didn't know where the rug was but it was not under my feet when I read an email that began, so optimistically, and was dubbed a ‘Tutorful Classes Important Update’. I wanted reviews for classes. I wanted to email students in advance to say hello, to let them know what to expect and how to prepare. I needed to be able to contact them if they were running late. I wanted to offer classes on daily or weekly bases. I was looking forward to finding out what the update was! But what I read did not inspire optimism: ‘As the new school year fast approaches, we've had to shift our focus … no longer be able to offer our Classes product at this time.’
With no prior warning, and with only two weeks before the beginning of September, I was no longer a Classes tutor. Within five hours, on the last working day of the week, I'd had a new student sign up for a class that Tutorful had informed me would not be going ahead. I had received an email encouraging me to let Tutorful know whether I wanted to cancel the scheduled classes that had already had signups for Monday morning. I was then emotionally battered by three successive notification text messages informing me that, supposedly, three separate students had cancelled their spots on the classes due to start the week after that. I had never seen students change their mind like this before so I called up the Tutorful support line… to an automated message informing callers that the support team were in a meeting and would be available on Monday. These students had not cancelled. They had been informed that the classes were no longer available (which reflects badly upon me as the individual running the class). That afternoon all classes that didn't have any signups were removed from the site, and any classes due to start after this Tuesday were taken down, regardless of whether students had signed up. Whilst I did receive a reply to my devastated emails that afternoon from the Classes lead (who had been always a wonderful support since classes commenced in January) I remained inconsolable. Shock. Confusion. Horror. All the drama. And not unreasonably: my well laid plans for September classes hadn't even seen the axe coming.
The distress I was in on Friday was intense. Almost unimaginable. Everything I had built, grown, reviewed, amended, and envisaged for almost a year had been cancelled until further notice, through no fault of my own and with absolutely no warning. I felt like I’d been led blindfolded towards a cliff’s precipice, had the covering ripped from my eyes and been ordered to ‘Jump! But not yet. We’ll tell you when.’ I was too close to September for comfort. Or even a plan. I was numb. But I was also smarting.
A further gigantic thorn was that Tutorful’s email also informed us (the tutors) that they had received ‘fantastic feedback from both students and parents about the quality of the classes and the positive impact that it has had on their learning.’ Knowing that my classes work, that students both need and want them, that I have the resources prepped and ready to help, and that the feedback on tutors’ work has been ‘fantastic’, makes me need more than a pair of tweezers and a tissue.
Classes will return to Tutorful. I personally cannot wait until that happens because we need more affordable group classes available for students online now. And although I understand that, for Tutorful, ‘this wasn't a decision taken lightly’, it forced me to make another heavy decision alone.
I'm not willing to wait. I love conducting classes as much as I do one to one tuition because they help students in different ways. Despite my inevitable fear of insecurity, under confidence and aversion to ‘kicking up a fuss’, I feel it is a necessary step for me to take to continue with my classes as I had planned. I can only hope that the individuals who had already signed up for my poetry class next week see this blog post and decide to get in touch.
Yesterday I spent 12 hours updating this website I already owned (which had before, largely informed the general public only that I exist, my tutoring and educational values, and that I was a Tutorful tutor). I have signed up to Lessonspace so that I can provide exactly the same service to students as I had working with Tutorful. I needed to reorganise my calendars, update my fb page, my ads and my class descriptions. I have done all I can to prepare for September with the little time I had. The student experience will be as it had been since I started building and running my classes. the classroom is the same. The service is still absolute ‘quality’, to use Tutorful’s word. My passion the sharing knowledge and enthusiasm for English is the same.
I just need a little share and a like to get me going…
With heartfelt gratitude,
P.S. Thank you to whoever signed up to my class tomorrow morning as I was writing this. See you at 11am for my Macbeth booster class!