Help me if you can

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Q I have discovered some of my pupils have maths tutors. This is my first year of teaching; does this mean I am a lousy teacher? I must be doing something wrong if they feel they need extra help.

Will the private tutors think I am teaching badly, will they tell their pupils this? Will this damage my relationship with my pupils?

Q We have just had a Year 10 parents evening and a few of them asked me if I did private maths tutoring as they felt their children would benefit from individual help. I felt quite chuffed as I think it implies they think I am a good teacher. My dilemma is that I don't know if I should be giving extra tuition. Is it ethical with your own pupils? I am paid by the state to teach them and it seems unfair that some can have extra help because they can afford it. I must admit, though, the extra cash would be great to pay off some of my student loan.

A Two questions on the theme of maths tutors. Out-of-hours support is a growing feature of school and no reflection on the classroom teacher.

I suggest you write to the children's parents, letting them know you are aware the children are having private tuition and offering to collaborate with the tutor. Enclose a note to the tutor, letting them know the areas the child has difficulty in and saying you would appreciate feedback about the pupil's progress. This should preserve, if not enhance, your relationship with your pupil, their tutor and the parents.

In most classes there is at least one child who receives extra help with maths. For a large number of parents, this is because they do not have the confidence, knowledge or the skills to help their children themselves when they see them struggling with homework. Where the child's behaviour is a problem, the extra classes with the tutor can help since the behaviour is sometimes related to failure.

Don't ask in class who is receiving private tuition; this can embarrass the children who put up their hands.

As regards giving private tuition, there are pupils who really benefit from this approach.

I have learned a lot from teaching pupils individually or in small groups and some approaches I use in class have been a result of this style of working. Tutoring is a great form of in-service training as the tutees are very honest about how you teach and talk about their maths worries, which increases your own understanding.

While we are working for school our help is free, but we could not possibly provide that consistent weekly support offered by tutors (imagine if all the 150 or so pupils you see in a week want help after school, say 15 minutes each, that is 37.5 hours. Ridiculous!). So who do you choose to see, who are the most needy? We help those who come to ask, but our time is limited.

Why not work with the school to set up online tutoring via email or mobile phone? This can make out-of-hours support more feasible, as long as all pupils have the relevant technology to access it.

This kind of online support will be available on the Mathagony Aunt website. The site is looking for Mathagony Auntiesuncles who would like to offer part-time help. If you would like to be considered, please let us know (for more details email

The progress of this facility will be posted at

Tips for tutors:

* Work with the school, not in isolation.

* Praise some interesting aspect of the teacher's method to raise them in the pupil's estimation, rather than comment on inappropriate teaching.

* Use your own material, don't provide exercises from their school textbooks as this makes lessons for the teacher difficult.

* Create your own assessment materials rather than using the school's as this gives the pupil an unfair advantage and the school cannot accurately gauge their progress.

* Encourage the pupil to speak to their maths teacher if they feel they have a difficult relationship, remind them that their maths teacher is human (aren't we all?) rather than make negative comments about the school or their teacher.

Working with small groups can make the tuition more accessible and is beneficial to the learner as well as the tutor. Tutors fulfil a useful role, filling gaps in pupils' knowledge particularly where they have been absent. As to whether it is ethical, that is a personal decision. Always remember just how valuable you are to your pupils both in and out of the classroom.

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and game inventor. She has been awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to spread maths to the masses. Email your questions to Mathagony Aunt at write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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