Give me the moonlight...

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Why work in a bar or shop to make ends meet when your teaching skills pay more? Amanda Cameron on how to freelance

It's the end of your first month. You've just about learned the names of your form group and wised up to the back row antics of Year 11, set 3. You're actually beginning to feel like a trained professional. Until, that is, you see your first pay slip.

Before you think of joining half your A-level tutor group behind the bar at your local, why not consider private tutoring? You're trained for the job, you dictate the terms and it's cash in hand. As a teacher you already have that blend of professionalism and practical problem-solving needed in business.

Since I set up as an English tutor, I've discovered that parents and pupils seek extra coaching for a host of reasons, some good, some you might not agree with. It's up to you to use your professional judgment to decide who to see.

There are the GCSE students who are borderline Cs and want to be sure of securing five A to C passes. There are the straight A candidates anxious about their A stars. Lower down the school system are those who are fine in other subjects but lagging behind in yours and need the confidence that comes with extra coaching.

Then, particularly with English and maths, there are the junior school pupils who want to get through independent school entrance exams. If this rankles, make it plain to parents that you don't want to end up tutoring children out of the state system.

Finally, there are pupils whose parents believe, unrealistically, that they should be doing better than they are. To these you have to learn to say "No".

Before deciding who you will and won't tutor you will have to advertise your services. The best place is on school notice boards. This needs delicate handling as not all colleagues like the idea that you might be supplementing their teaching. I would always initially approach the headteacher.

A less contentious option is to advertise in parish magazines. Contrary to popular belief, Sunday schools are often full of children, especially if the church school is riding high in the league tables and admittance depends on regular Sunday attendance. You could also advertise in newsagents or sweetshops - any place into which pleading children drag reluctant parents.

Once you've used your IT skills to make a swanky advertisement, selling yourself as the best thing to hit teaching since white-boards, don't let yourself down the moment you open your door. Saturday morning slob garb will not make a good impression on the doorstep.

What to charge can be a dilemma. You don't want to price yourself out of the market. I found out that the going rate in my area of south-west London is pound;15 an hour by simply asking parents. This will differ across the country and even across the same city. It's amazing what a borough boundary can do - in leafy Barnes, a mile away from me, the rate is pound;18. Think twice before undercutting other tutors. It causes resentment and you never know when you may need someone's help.

Keep accounts. Boring, yes, but the taxman will getyou in the end. I make a note of every pupil I coach, the date and how much they paid me.

I prefer cash in hand which I pay into a separate bank account so I know how much I'm making. It's also easier to work out tax. For 2001 the basic tax rate is 22 per cent and national insurance 6 per cent, so you'll lose roughly 30 per cent of what you earn.

The time of the week you see pupils makes a huge difference. As you'll know from classroom teaching, younger children are exhausted by Friday. I see older pupils from Wednesday to Friday and try to keep junior school and year 7 and 8 pupils to Mondays and Tuesdays, as early in the afternoon as possible, when they are fresher. And I remind parents to give them a snack to boost concentration.

I've found that junior pupils can only concentrate for about 45 minutes. I break the time down into a 20-minute session, a five-minute fidget break, and another 20 minutes. And I always have sweets as rewards for good work and behaviour. Bribery, but when has it ever failed?

As important as "when" is "where". In trying to be flexible I've had some disastrous venues. The worst was at a kitchen table while Mum, a former teacher herself, made supper... and added "helpful" comments.

In the end I put my foot down (on her beautiful quarry-tiled floor) and now see all tutees in my own home.

I've turned my back bedroom into a dedicated study with bookshelves and posters on the wall. It's welcoming but gives the psychological impression that it is a room where serious work takes place. If space is limited you could use the kitchen or dining room table, but negotiate with other family members or housemates so that they know the room is "no go" when you're in there with a pupil. Even if you have a separate room, try to be organised and keep it tidy.

Plan the lesson as if you were teaching in school. If you are disorganised, you cannot escape a childteenager's scrutiny in a small room. They do feed back to their parents and, as you'll have gathered from the classroom, pick up far more than you imagine.

Deal with parents as you would if you taught their child at school. Be approachable but make it plain that the same professional boundaries apply. Yes, you are happy to discuss their child's progress, but they can't ring you whenever they feel like it for a general chat. You are not a consultant on a retainer fee.

The good news is that your relationship with your tutees tends be more relaxed than at school. As an icebreaker at the start of the lesson I usually give my younger students juice and my teenagers tea or coffee.

But you have to know when to stop any gossiping and get down to work.

Extra cash aside, the most rewarding aspect of private tutoring is getting to know pupils outside a classroom setting. You are able to concentrate on one student and to explore a topic in detail. You can watch as their competence and confidence in your subject develop in leaps and bounds- as does your teaching.

Amanda Cameron taught English and drama in a Cumbrian comprehensive. She now tutors part-time in Putney, London


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