When I was a middle schooler, my math teacher had a pretty awesome program. Top-performing students could tutor classmates or kids from a lower grade. They could do it before or after school for about 45 minutes, twice a week, and the tutors would earn $3/session from the tutored.
His name was Adam. He was a grade behind me – I was in 7th grade, he was in 6th – and was doing rather poorly in math. (He was also underachieving in other courses, as I came to learn later.)
From the moment I started working with him, my approach was simple.
- Go over anything he received that was graded. Look at the mistakes, and fix them together using knowledge from the textbook and from problems he correctly did on earlier homework, quizzes, or tests.
- Don’t give away any answers.
- Don’t allow mindless guessing. (I thank my parents for this one — my mom always harped on us, “Stop guessing!” when my brother and I would throw out random answers without thinking.)
- Don’t belittle him. He’s having a hard time enough as it is. Be supportive.
- Guide him to making the right decisions. Help him develop the conceptual understanding so that his thinking processes are better down the line.
You get the idea. I mean, this was a kid who was regularly getting C’s and D’s in math. That doesn’t exactly build confidence. A patient approach was essential. So was a selectively hands-on or -off direction of his work — which, I’ll admit, took a little bit of time to gauge.
As the weeks went on, everything started to get better. The C’s and D’s were becoming B’s and C’s. I saw fewer red marks on his quizzes and tests, but the effect was more pronounced on his homework.
With some time, those B’s and C’s were becoming A’s and B’s. There were more B’s than A’s, but hey… considering where he’d been, that’s a huge improvement.
I also noticed that I didn’t need to intervene quite as much to correct a procedural error. I didn’t need to jump in and tell him he FOIL’ed wrong – after a couple of lines, or at the end of the problem, he’d see his own mistake and fix it. (That was another thing we did — look over every problem after finishing it to check for errors.)
I don’t remember exactly when this next bit happened, but for as long as I live, I’ll never forget it.
One day, the math teacher took me aside for a few minutes to discuss Adam’s progress. He was quite happy with the results, obviously, but there was something else he wanted to discuss. It turns out that another one of Adam’s teachers had talked to the math teacher — and had noticed an improvement in Adam’s grades in her class as well.
Even though we had never once touched any subject but math during those tutoring sessions, his work in those subjects had improved.
Maybe it was having somebody around who pushed him to do better, but helped along the way. Maybe it was his thinking skills that improved, and they transferred to those other subjects. Maybe it was something completely different. I don’t know for sure.
The fact of the matter is that the simple approach to tutoring that I took not only had results in what I directly oversaw, it had ancillary benefits.
And that’s why I say that anyone who is in management in any corporation needs to tutor a struggling math student (or whatever your subject of expertise). The younger the better, but I’d draw the line at middle school. Use the bullet points above as your guide.
Not only do you learn patience (and how!), you learn how to guide people who don’t have confidence in their work, and help them build that confidence. You learn how to direct people without pushing them, which allows room for them to explore and learn from their mistakes without harsh reprimands. You learn their thought processes, and can help correct ones that might be leading them astray. And, above all else, you learn the humility to defer the real credit for success to the person who put in the hard work.
What do you get out of it? An immense feeling of satisfaction for having helped the person succeed, sure. But you also get to see just how good the person really can be.
And in the workplace… that can mean a lot of success headed your way.
What do you think?