Reflections on Personal Tutoring

Profile Picture of Mathew Baylis.

Mathew Baylis is an e-learning advisor working at Goldsmiths, University of London. Mathew advises on course area development on learn.gold (Goldsmith’s Virtual Learning Environment), technology enhanced learning and pedagogy around teaching and learning. 

I don’t often reflect on my time as a teacher and personal tutor in Further Education (FE). Only with ex-colleagues have I really shared experiences because, as with many difficult experiences we could deflect with humour. Self preservation through disassociation, a therapist might say. I would also find, if I shared a story with someone who had no experience of working with teenagers in London, it was a quick reminder that what to me and my colleagues had become normal, was not. So, when I first put pen to paper to write this reflection, what came out felt untruthful, as if I were softening the reality because that was easier than reflecting honestly.

Yet, something I read recently in the London Review of Books (Not No Longer but Not Yet by Jenny Turner) reminded me of, and prompted me to return to, a recording of a talk Mark Fisher gave in September 2014 at a symposium, The Demonstration of Capitalist Realism. About half way through the recording Fisher discusses his experience of a decade spent working in a Blairite institution: an FE college. He discusses the increased control and regulation of the workload via a “battery of administrative procedures”, and how this resulted in a feeling of resignation amongst staff, especially as these growing daily administrative duties, the “ritualistic self-denigration”, are announced as being worthless, having no impact on what happens in the classroom. I see much of my own experience in Fisher’s talk and therefore, I hope to offer some useful and honest reflections.

This is image 1. It shows a scene from West London. In the foreground there are walls covered with graffiti. In the background there are tall buildings and houses. In between the walls and buildings, there is a road with some traffic.
Image 1. A scene from West London.

By the end of my eight years working in a Cameron/May institution I cannot say there has been an improvement on his insightful interpretations surrounding FE. Instead, an acceleration of these issues, many of which have a deep impact on the personal tutor role. Where I was, we were given targets for how many entries to make into the personal tutor log, how many positive referrals to enter, how many negative referrals to enter and few of these were checked as long as they were made; endless data entry with the sole purpose of feeding the machine. When you are working with young people, whose issues are many and cannot be quantified, under a system of increased pressure and difficulty and decreased training and support, the message becomes clear: easily digestible data is more important than a personal tutoring system that has student care and support at the centre of what it wants to achieve.    

It goes without saying, my experience is not that of an effective personal tutoring approach.

Some context. I started teaching 16-19 year olds in 2011, one year after the conservative leadership of David Cameron started. This is significant in some of the additional duties that were handed down to teachers and in the cuts to funding that saw professional help, such as counsellors, disappear from the college. I was a tutor to approximately 25 students. A mix of year 12 and year 13 students that studied across a variety of courses: Level 3 A Levels, Level 3 BTEC and Level 2 GCSE re-sits. At the end of each academic year the year 13 students would leave (most of them) and the group dynamic would change with the injection of the new year 12 students.

I was unprepared for what the full responsibility of a personal tutor could involve. The PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) was not adequate preparation and while it is listed as an obligation of the job, I felt like the administratively tiring and emotional draining role could have been better described.

In a 15-minute slot each day, I would see my tutor group where I would be responsible for: UCAS applications; academic referrals (good and bad) from class teachers; attendance; reflections; British values (thank you Michael Gove) and any issues that students brought with them. These included in no particular order: pregnancy, alcohol addition, births and deaths, domestic abuse, radicalisation, local and global tragedies, gangs, religion, relocation, illness. As we were located in an area of London that had been identified by the government as a danger spot for radicalisation, we had ‘training’ on how to spot students who were displaying concerning signs. Staff meetings on ignoring the press over incarcerated students. We had further ‘training’ on how to imbed British Values into all our classes and tutorial sessions, any of which could be observed. And then, due to our proximity, there was the emotional fallout of Grenfell. All of this manifested itself in conversations as a personal tutor.

It should be said, admitted to and be no real surprise that being a personal tutor is hard. I offer this context because I believe there are implications for Higher Education (HE). The majority of students I worked with gained places in HE and issues such as those I mention above do not disappear because the student has left college. Nor should the independence that comes with being a HE student negate the need to ask for help. An institution that has in place systems to support those that find life difficult, or are vulnerable is one that is making student care a priority.

It should also be said that personal tutoring is an essential part of teaching. It contributes towards the personal development and academic success of the students. Managing emotions was identified as one of the seven major outcomes of higher education by Arthur W. Chickering in 1969. This included emotions that impede learning, such as anger, anxiety, hopelessness and those that benefit learning, such as hopefulness and optimism. Support and celebration.

The role of personal tutor falls somewhere between being a teacher and a social worker and, for most teachers, including in HE, we have training to be only one of those things. Conversations with students can range from academic performance to the very personal. It is possible that the issue will lie outside the comfort zone for many and knowing how to respond appropriately and effectively is where the difficulty can lie. I followed to the best of my ability advice I was given early on, which I discuss below and in my eight years I was far from perfect, found myself at a loss a handful of times, but would like to think I was able to help more than hinder.

One piece of advice was around motivation and I picked it up from a lecturer during my PGCE. I was on a placement in South Manchester and had been speaking with a student who was considering dropping out. I delivered some platitudes that were received politely and the whole conversation felt unsatisfying. The lecturer discussed how understanding motivation can be key to understanding why a student may be suffering academically and explored both intrinsic and extrinsic factors and how they can influence motivation. I found I could adapt this into personal tutor sessions. Extrinsic factors are important and can lower or increase motivation, but it is intrinsic factors that are most likely to lead to student fulfilment, academic and personal. So, extrinsic factors could include a comfortable learning environment, a sense of community, somewhere to eat and drink, and intrinsic, the desire to succeed and the support and recognition for this desire. This can take the form of responsibility, room to grow and achieve and the work itself. I found that focusing on these different areas could help a student identify what was causing their lack of interest or motivation to continue.

The second was to do with how to respond to students. This is a problem I found myself in more than once, for example students wanting to disclose deaths, miscarriages. It is easy, with certain conversations like these to adopt a parental role, which can unintentionally give permission for the student to adopt childlike characteristics. This is unhelpful. Whatever the issue, whether the solution lies with you or an external body, remaining professional will, in the long term, help.  

I don’t believe personal tutoring should be tied to the contentious issue of attendance or a meaningless exercise in data entry. Although both play their part. I believe it is about knowing your students and becoming a friendly face, in a crowd of strangers, who is willing and available to talk.

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