What is the difference between teaching and tutoring?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

What are the differences?

  • You will be working mostly one-on-one
  • They will be working at all different levels on all different things.
  • You don’t have a curriculum.
  • You are directed by the student and their parents.

Tutoring is quite a different beast to being a teacher. Many teachers think that they can just be tutors; that they have all of the skills already and so it’s an easy and obvious side-hustle or change of career. 

In a lot of ways, this is true, but it makes it very easy into thinking that teaching and tutoring are the same thing. There are a lot of differences that are important to consider if you are trained as a teacher and want to get into tutoring.

You will be working mostly one-on-one

While you certainly don’t do this all of the time as a teacher, it will be something that you are familiar with. You will also know then that working intensively with one student carries quite a different skill set than talking to the whole class. 

There’s a lot more room to slow down or speed up your instruction according to what the student needs. You will be able to get feedback and information about their understanding much more easily and frequently than if they were sitting in a class with 30 other students. Working so intensively with a single student can also be very exhausting. 

A young student is being tutored by her teacher. The teacher is smiling while supporting her handwriting.
Being a tutor can help you focus on individual students and watch them as they progress.

You need to be very patient and work alongside them. You also need to not be too overbearing and keep talking to fill the silence while they are thinking or processing information. It can be much more of a balancing act when you are tutoring one student as opposed to an entire class where any member can slip out of the spotlight for periods of time. Your student will also get exhausted with so much attention on them, so you need to be mindful of this as well.

They will be working at all different levels on all different things.

Group tutoring is another option that you can look into as a tutor. While it isn’t like tutoring students one-on-one, it also isn’t like being the teacher of a class. When you’re tutoring a group of eight or so students, they will all be at very different levels. 

In most group tutoring contexts, the students are there for different reasons. They may even all be from different classes or different schools, and so they may have been taught completely different things. It is your job as a tutor in this context to cater to every student’s needs, and they will all be very different. 

If you thought that it was difficult catering to all of the needs of your class who are the same year level and have been in the same school and same class for some period of time, you should try some group tutoring. You need to make sure that you know your stuff really well as you will be taken by surprise. You cannot predict what each student will need, and will need to change gears constantly throughout the session.

You don’t have a curriculum.

As a tutor, you need to remember that you are a tutor. You are not there to teach these students. You don’t make your own lessons and present them to your students and then assess them on it later. There is a lot of debate about whether you should even be helping students with their school tasks as their tutor. 

It will depend on your definition and what you are asked to do as a tutor, but a tutor’s role is a lot more intensively and responsively analytical. This means that you need to recognise gaps in a student’s learning and adapt your program and session to try and address them. 

A student is being tutored by their teacher. They are sitting at a desk working together on the student's homework.
Working as a tutor can give you a bit more freedom to really support each student with their individual needs.

It is a constant battle for teachers; the struggle between needing to teach particular curricula and needing to actually teach something that the students will learn. As a tutor, you have a lot more license to teach the student what they need, when they need it. The one-on-one or small group nature of tutoring also makes it a perfect environment to spend time tackling the problems that have been missed over and over again simply because teachers have such limited time.

You are directed by the student and their parents.

This is very similar to my last point, but I want to highlight a small difference. All of the things that I’ve said already about what tutoring can and should be are all fantastic, but mean absolutely nothing if you are getting paid to do something different. 

If you are a tutor, a parent or guardian is paying you specifically to work with a young person. They will have outcomes in mind, and you don’t have a school and policy behind you telling everyone what they should expect. If you are a tutor, you may need to be simply helping a student with his homework. While we can argue as much as we’d like about the value of paying a registered teacher or similarly qualified tutor to do this, it doesn’t matter if that is what the parent is paying for.

Are teaching and tutoring the same thing?

This line between teacher and tutor has been shifting and redefined for decades1 and it really does depend on who you ask. What most people can agree on though is that they are different. 

You need different qualifications and have different responsibilities and expectations if you are acting as a tutor versus if you’re working as a teacher. You may find that one works better for you than another, and it is well worth giving tutoring a shot if you are interested. At the very least, you will learn some extra skills and insight that you can take back to the classroom to improve your practice.

References:

1Maw, J. (1975). Professional Tutor or Teacher Tutor: What’s in a Name?. Journal of In-Service Education, 2(1), 11-18.

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