What is the Difference Between a Teacher and a Tutor?

posted on 10th October 2019

Teachers and tutors are different species of educators. I’ve known some amazing teachers become terrible tutors. Likewise, I’ve known some amazing tutors who are terrible teachers.

So, what are the differences and how do you know if your child needs a teacher or a tutor?

Teachers lead, Tutors ensure no one is left behind and breakdown barriers to education

It’s a teachers Job to deliver a whole syllabus within a set period of time. The teacher has two main aims, both of which takes considerable skill. Firstly, to make the material as interesting as possible so the children will engage with it.

Secondly to try and enable as much of their classroom to grasp and understand as much of the material as possible.  So, in effect, teachers must deliver the syllabus in a way that leads a group of children, trying their best to ensure as many children as possible will follow. However, in over 15 years of working with children in education, I’ve seen that many children get lost and get left behind. Even with the most skilled teachers, the pressure of having to deliver a whole syllabus within a timeframe means that the delivery must be given in a way that captures the most children, which often means the average ability. Not all children can learn in the same way. Therefore, a barrier to education can be created.

Tutors, on the other hand, focus more on ensuring a child understands what they are learning. The demands on the syllabus pace fall into the background,  so the tutor can manipulate the learning to reach the child in a way that the child can understand. It is the skill of the tutor to remove the barriers to learning and alter the pace of the learning to the child’s understanding.  Very skilled tutors can support a child to learn to manipulate the information themselves, supporting them to gain a different way of learning that enables the child to both understand how they learn best, how to engage in mainstream teaching styles at the same time and how to translate some of the information themselves outside of the classroom.

In my experience, this distinction between teaching and tutoring is not understood. I’ve witnessed a lot of children really struggle at school, so their parents have employed a tutor. As in many cases, the child does very well with one-to-one support. Subsequently, there has been a family discussion and agreement to deregister the child from school, planning to have the tutor support the child through their syllabus and exams. However, without knowing so, the tutor has now been repositioned into the teacher position of needing to lead the child through a planned syllabus. This changes the tutor child relationship and the dynamic shifts into time planned teaching. One of the main ways to keep the tutor pace rather than exchange it for a teaching pace is to increase the number of sessions a child has with the tutor so there is a balance of teaching, and then tutoring.  But this can become very expensive.


Teachers deliver to groups, Tutors work 1:1

I think this is the main difference between teachers and tutors and one area that should really be firmly in the minds of all educators and parents alike.

Teachers are taught how to teach in small groups and to whole classrooms. I’ve asked lots of teachers over the years. They have all said they started with small groups and then taught large classrooms of children. Not one teacher has said they were taught how to work with children on a 1:1 basis.  Don’t get me wrong, not all tutors have been taught how to work on a 1:1 basis with a child. However, my argument is that all tutors (and teachers if they additionally tutor) should be taught how to work with children on a 1:1 basis as its completely different to working with a group.

In a lot of fields that specialise in working with people – specifically children, such as psychology, counselling and social work. Practitioners are taught to work with groups and or in a  1:1 way. As these professions know that working with groups involves inclusivity and the group working together, whereas working on a 1:1 basis becomes an emotional relationship.  The dynamics are different. The classroom has different group dynamics, with multiple personalities and characters. These combine, and the group has its own identity. Whereas working on a 1:1 reduces this dynamic to a single individual child and individual tutor; a dyad is made. So, attachment styles, capacity for openness and connection is now a part of the educational relationship, it’s very different to a classroom.

I remember a very well qualified and experienced teacher applied to work for me, and in their interview very honestly commented on how very intense and awkward the 1:1 relationship was compared to teaching a class. However, unbeknown to that teacher, and why they didn’t get the job, she was saying more about her own capacity to work 1:1 and her difficulty with it, rather than an actual categorisation of what the tutoring relationship is like. Many tutors and teachers do not find the 1:1 relationship hard as they are more suited and comfortable with it. Whereas others are more suited and comfortable with working with groups.


Children can hideout in the distance in a classroom and for some, are very exposed during tuition

In a classroom, children have the ability to hide into the background if they are struggling. They can do this by not asking for help or not engaging and staying as quiet as they can. It is more difficult to support children who are hiding, as the difficulty only becomes illuminated during tests and some homework. Some children who are struggling also can go the other way in the classroom. These children can act the class clown or misbehave as a way of hiding their school-related difficulties. Some children prefer getting into trouble than admitting they find their schoolwork hard, and the associated negative feelings that go along with that.

However, during tuition, children cannot hide in the background and it becomes very difficult for them to act the class clown. These children are forced to expose their school difficulties. Many children will benefit greatly by working with these difficulties in their learning. However, as we will discuss in a later section, some children will strongly struggle with this exposure, and the feelings of self-worth behind the hiding or acting out.


Teachers work with engagement, tutors work with connection

When teaching in a classroom, teachers need to engage the child, they need to help them have an interest. However, within a 1:1, the dynamics of that 1:1 relationship require the tutor to connect with the child. In the cases where the tutor does not have the professional capacity to connect with children, that is, with empathy and understanding of their educational ability, then the relationship will feel uncomfortable or intense.  The children will not be able to learn as well as they could.


Teachers have to manage behaviour, tutors have to manage emotions

As we talked about before, in the classroom, children can use their behaviour to dilute their learning to a way that is manageable to them. Either hiding or acting out in the classroom. However, during 1:1 children cannot hide or distract from their learning, so the tutor will soon meet the emotional world of the child, normally their negative self-esteem that lies under the behaviour they use in the classroom.  Tutors need to know what they are doing and be skilled to manage these emotions.

Over the years I have had several referrals in which the parent is very nervous about having tuition, as their child has had it before and ended up in tears or refused to go. Both of those scenarios tell me that the person working on a one-to-one basis with that child, couldn’t manage the child’s emotions behind the educational difficulties, so the child sunk into them.


Teaching has a time delay, tutoring has immediacy and moment to moment feedback

To sum up all our previous points. When working with a group of children, we can understand this as teaching, there is a moment to moment feedback time delay. The child is part of a group and the teaching is delivered to the group. This means an individual child rarely has direct one-to-one learning, so experiences a lot of the feedback having a time delay. The teacher also has a time delay on seeing the progress, achievements or difficulties a child may have. Normally having to wait for homework to be returned, or the results of tests.

On the other hand, tutoring on a one-to-one basis has an immediacy and constant moment to moment feedback throughout the session. If tutoring is performed properly and the tutor can manage the immediacy and mediate the feedback to guard any negative feelings, the child will benefit tremendously and learn at a rapid rate.

I have met many amazing teachers who are terrible tutors, and many amazing tutors who are terrible teachers.  Tutoring has its own set of skills, and I think when employing a tutor, we should be constantly asking what training and instruction educators have to tutor a child.


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