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That extra special role

Alan Combes explains why being a tutor is one of the most rewarding aspects of a teacher's job

New teachers tend not to think about the role of tutoring and the demands it makes on their expertise. PGCE courses encourage a focus on subject content and teaching styles to the detriment of tutoring as a skill. Yet tutor time is an aspect of teaching which will take up to three hours a week of relationship building, not to mention informal staffroom consultations and vast quantities of paperwork, such as report writing.

Your involvement as a tutor should start at interview: how often will I have to write reports on my tutor group? Am I a tutor from the the start or is there an element of shadowing? Take some time on interview day to discover the perceptions of staff and pupils about tutor periods. Of course, this should be done informally by a quick chat in the corridor or staffroom: don't make a big thing out of it or people may think you've got a hidden agenda.

The worst tutors simply catch up on their own paperwork while their tutees get stuck into missed homework andor review the previous night's events. The best tutors use the time for effective communication and relationship building. Make no mistake, pupils may moan and groan at your running a current affairs session or a "thought for the day" discussion, but ultimately they will respect your commitment to them.

In weighing up whether or not you want to take this job, the quality of tutoring should be a factor, for it will affect the overall atmosphere of a school as much as anything else does. If the standard of tutoring is poor, it will prove difficult for you to break the mould.

If you find yourself with a tutor group from day one, you need to develop a strategy. Knowing the pupils is by far the most important and difficult aspect of the role, so call in some help. Find out who had the group last and quiz them about its individual make-up. Consult reliable members of staff and build up a picture of your tutees as learners and individuals. Be aware of the "halo effect" though: you are gathering background information, not final judgments. Young people are constantly developing and you are to be an essential catalyst in that process so it's important to keep an open mind on each individual. For some, if you're not on their side, they will see teachers as "the enemy". Ultimately, the group will like to hear you say that you'll back them up to the hilt. At the same time, they need to know that you'll really go for them if they let the group down.

Establishing a group identity or corporal spirit is an essential strategy towards these ends, but how do you do it?

Oddly enough, the main strand of such a strategy involves celebrating the group's individuality. You should put the birthdays of everyone in your diary, then have a card ready for them on the day. At Christmas it's fun to put everyone's name in a hat and go down the register drawing out someone for whom they will buy a gift. This admirably highlights giving for its own sake rather than in the hope of receiving. Also, in buying for someone the group member probably doesn't know very well, questions will have to be asked, individuals recognised.

A wall chart with everyone's name, recording merits or whatever rewards the school gives, is also important. Even the results of Scrabble tournaments can be recorded.

One of the best publications I know for tutor group activities is The Gamester's Handbook by Donna Brandes. It will fill many a spare moment with constructive group dynamics. Don't start off with the more intimate and personally challenging games. Building up confidence and reassurance is basic to getting a tutor group to function with a new tutor.

Everything so far is within the bounds of school, but an important task will prove the most challenging of all. The tutor is the link between home and school and you must be ready to be the contact person. It is up to you to take the initiative because you are in loco parentis. You'll need to telephone, write, even go with members of your group to their homes in order to foster this relationship. If a good relationship can be established, everyone benefits.

Sadly, many teachers see their tutor groups as a burden, a mere administrative task. But working with your group can be one of the job's most rewarding experiences and the pupils will more than return your investment by making your working life much more bearable. There will be disappointments, but overall the tutor group will make your day, time and again.

Alan Combes was senior teacher at Pindar School, Scarborough, and as head of PSE supervised the tutor's role

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