An Article about Teaching and Tuition

An Article about Teaching and Tuition

by Dr Donald Stevens 


(Note: the term “student” includes “pupil”)

Teaching is pragmatic: its effectiveness is judged by the result. If the students learn, the teaching is successful; if they don’t, it is not. We must face the facts: there are people who simply cannot teach; and some of them refuse to acknowledge the fact. I entered teaching in the harsh commercial world of E.F.L.; because the teaching of foreign students was to make money for the directors, success was all. Those teachers without ability were speedily dismissed; those who survived were those who could teach.

My test for a teacher is to go into a class in an emergency (the teacher who was to have taken the class is ill) and hold the class’s attention for fifty minutes, not by clowning or entertaining, but by teaching. And with no other tools than a blackboard and a piece of chalk – or not even that.

The two basic criteria for a teacher are: knowledge of the subject, and ability to impart it.


You must know your subject, not, perhaps, thoroughly, but enough. I began my teaching career with no qualifications at all. I was interviewed by a gentleman who tested my knowledge of languages in very British French, and who took my Italian on trust, as he didn’t speak it. Because another teacher hadn’t turned up, I was called in on a Monday morning, had a text-book (entirely unknown to me) thrust into my hands, and told, “Keep a lesson ahead of them”, and sent alone into a room to face twenty foreign students. I have been keeping “a lesson ahead” of my students ever since, while obtaining all my qualifications by part-time study. My great advantage was the text-book: it was interesting, although at the top of one exercise, it said: “The rules for this are difficult. Ask your teacher.” Of course, in those days there were no “teachers’ books”; we used the same book as the students.

Never bluff. You’ll be found out sooner or later, and then no student will ever trust you again. Admit that you don’t know, but promise to look up the answer. AND DO IT! If you can’t, or don’t know how to, then you should ask yourself, Ought I to be teaching this subject?

You do not need to be an expert. If all that your student needs is a good start in a subject, and you can give that, then give it. If the student needs more, then suggest that he may well need another teacher.

You should be constantly learning the subject yourself. No teacher ever knows enough; there are always corners that he has not explored.

Remember that you may come across a student who knows more than you do. Twice I have had to teach French to a class that contained a student who was French. You do not necessarily withdraw from such a situation. You may be able to help the student to classify or clairify his knowledge, to put it into suitable shape for an examination, or simply to practise on you.

Sources of Knowledge

There are three main sources of knowledge: books, web-sites, other teachers; and the last is the best. Some of the most fruitful minutes of my teaching career have been in the staff-room, gleaning the fruits of experience from older teachers. One of the greatest disasters of modern education is enforced early retirement. There are thousands of retired teachers who can no longer impart their rich and varied experience to younger or less experienced teachers.

Books are still the greatest source of information, but this source has become contaminated. As in eastern Europe under the communists, our text-books have to be “politically correct” and conform to “modern” ideas. Therefore, any work that does not reflect these ideas will not be published, however scholarly or however useful it might have been. One of the greatest blows to publishing in this country was Margaret Thatcher’s “publishers’ agreement” that ensured the domination of our publishing houses by foreign companies. For example, by this legislation, the old established firm of Collins was obliged to link itself with the American firm Harpers, and became Collins-Harper; now it is Harpers-Collins, which shows who controls it. Unfortunately, most of the these foreign firms are purely commercial: their aim is to make money, and sometimes integrity and truth have no place in their publishing policies.

This disaster has affected English and History more than other subjects. It is a good idea to spend some time in second-hand book-shops, looking for old editions of text-books. These often were written before the date set by our present copyright laws, and relevant parts may be photo-copied. Even with established “classics”, an older copy can sometimes reveal that the modern edition has been altered.

Web-sites can now offer a tremendous range of information, but one must always bear in mind that no web-site can contain information that has not been selected for it. Information obtained on the web should be confirmed from other sources (books) if at all possible.

“Spell (and Grammar) Checks” are useful, but often defective. My own, for some reason, always dislikes a passive. If you are not sure of a spelling, it is good idea to verify it from a reputable dictionary. So perverse and inaccurate are some modern dictionaries, that I prefer to use a foreign language one. I have some large Cassells dictionaries dated from 1959, which are far more realisable than modern ones, even though they lack up-to-date vocabulary.


The more one knows of the subject, the better one is able to evaluate material.

One source that is always suspect is the B.B.C., even when the material appears to be authentic. About twenty years ago, I came across a publication by the B.B.C. designed to teach Italian. It purported to be written by two Italians. It was full of mistakes – not printing mistakes, but actual mistakes in the Italian language, Italian expressions that no Italian would ever use. I daresay that many people bought that book only to find that no Italian could understand them. And perhaps they blamed themselves and not the book! History is particularly suspect on the B.B.C.

Common sense can be a safe-guard, although so very odd are some events in history, for example, that logic is confounded by reality.

Ever at the back of one’s mind must be three modern tendencies which tend to warp the truth: The almost universal acceptance of the Theory of Evolution; The assumption that Democracy is the best (or only valid) form of government; The insinuation of left-wing politics as the standard of judgement.


It is almost impossible to assess teaching ability without seeing it in action. There seem to be no physical, mental, or any other criteria for evaluating teachers. Some of the most unlikely have turned out to be excellent teachers; others, with all the advantages in the world, simply cannot teach.

Qualifications mean a little. They indicate that a certain amount to knowledge has been acquired and set out on an examination paper, but that is all. And the amount of knowledge may be minimal. The pass mark for a degree is 40%. There are also born teachers who are psychologically incapable of passing examinations. The method of assessing teachers is gravely flawed. I failed one teaching examination because the head of the college had provided me with a freshly cleaned blackboard on which it was impossible to write, and the examination required the candidate to pass in every compartment on their assessment sheets.

Nevertheless, people are impressed by qualifications (especially when they don’t know what those mystic letters after your name stand for), so even the most modest passing of the most modest examination can give confidence to the student or those responsible for him. Certainly, since obtaining my doctorate, people have listened to my opinions, who turned a deaf ear to those same opinions a year or two before. In addition, qualifications indicate that you have had the discipline of study, and have been introduced to material and ideas that otherwise you would not have encountered. Therefore, I am not altogether of the opinion of a certain Chancellor of a certain university who announced to his student body that B.A. stood for “blinking asses”.

Those who feel that their physical diabilities debar them from teaching, should remember Professor Gwatkin of the University of Cambridge. He was so short-sighted that he had to hold his notes up to his face to read them. This did not help his weak voice to be heard. Yet his lectures were always full, because he was interesting and informative. His Selections from Early Christian Writers is still a standard work for students of Theology.

And of those two adjectives, “interesting and informative”, the second is the more important. Students should want to learn, and you are there like the mother sparrow to push the food down their gaping mental throats. Therefore you must have the relevant material to give them in a form that they can assimilate: and not too much, not too little.


Only the very experienced teacher can teach without preparation. And don’t think that because you are using a text-book, all your problems are solved. In some subjects, there is a teacher’s book. I have always refused to use this: I use the student’s text. Anyway, some of the advice I have read in these teacher’s books verges on the idiotic. And what help is “This is a difficult point: make up some exercises on it”?

Go from the known to the unknown: build on what the student already knows. The student always knows something. In beginning a foreign language, the student knows his own language (badly, perhaps, but enough for a start).

Order your material so that each lesson follows on from the previous. Some language text-books are very bad at this. When trying to learn Czech, I was utterly baffled by a sentence I had to translate in an exercise – only to find that the necessary vocabulary was in the next chapter! If you find yourself having to explain something that is not in your material, you have prepared badly. Don’t despair: every teacher has done that, but make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Pitch your material to the level and ability of the student.

Decide what aspect of your subject you are going to teach. Is there any material that the student will need? (A copy of a text, a list of items, a piece of equipment.) Always have a spare pen and some paper for the forgetful student to use.

Are there any helpful rules or short-cuts? Have plenty of examples: you may not need them all, but they are available if you need them.

Have plenty of exercises for the student to practise – written or oral or practical (e.g., diagrams of trees and buildings for trigonometric calculations). Grade these, easy to difficult. The easy ones will give confidence, the difficult ones a challenge. If at all possible, everything you teach should be practised by means of exercises. Else, how can you tell if the student has understood? (Text-books are often woefully deficient here. In nearly all cases, you will have to supplement the text with many exercises.) Watch the student: is he bored? Try something more difficult. Is he floundering? An easier exercise, or another easy exercise. Is he tiring? Break off for a bit. Ask him about his hobbies, his holidays – but don’t let the lazy student use this as an excuse to avoid working.

There are some aspects of some subjects that do not lend themselves to exercises: try having the student repeat what he has learned, in his own terms. (One of my students, when asked what he thought of a certain King of Prussia, replied that he was a “wimp”. I agreed, but told him that perhaps it would be better not to use that exact term on the examination paper.)

Exercises should always be marked or evaluated. Homework should be returned in the next lesson after it has been taken in. Homework can often be a basis for a lesson.

Don’t forget to go back to previous material and make sure that the student has not forgotten it. Revision exercises are most useful. Not too much material in one lesson; not too little: the happy mean. Text-books err on the side of far too much, and often fail to test it.

Don’t expect perfection. Move on to something else. It takes time to absorb knowledge. I despaired of one class, only to find a month later, that they had all absorbed what I had taught them and could all use it fluently.

Don’t forget the end. What does the student want this knowledge for? His job? Higher education? General information?


Students are individuals. They may follow a pattern, but they are all different. One of my Persian students was almost in tears at the end of a lesson, because I hadn’t asked him a question. His face brightened when I solemnly promised him two questions in the next lesson. And I kept my promise. A Turk obtained 7 out of 10 in an exercise. “Good!” I commented. “Not good,” he replied. “10 is good.”

You may well find a student unteachable. In that case, be frank (but as tactful as possible) with the student, the parents, the sponsor. Remember that it may be you. The very few unteachable students I have had have never been the very slow or the very bright. They have been the know-alls and the lazy.

Disabilities, like dyslexia, need expert help. Or your student may simply need glasses or a hearing-aid. Observe, and consult. Bear in mind that some parents refuse to accept that there is anything wrong with their offspring (physically or mentally or morally). In that case, suggest that another teacher might be able to help more than youcan.

If there is any hint of trouble, consult the parents or the sponsor; or stop teaching that student. I find it most inhibiting to have anyone sitting in on my lesson, although this may be necessary, especially nowadays. My solution is to include the chaperone in the lesson. I once taught English to two Austrian children, an older girl and a younger boy. They sat on either side of me, and father (who knew virtually no English) at the end of the table. I used him as material, for descriptions and activities. When the children had told me their hobbies, I asked them (not father) what father’s hobbies were, and so on. I bought each little present at the end of the time: English books, and I managed to find a very simple children’s book which I presented to father, who was astonished, and very pleased to find that he could read some of it.

Parents can be menace. They should never be allowed to take over the lesson. You will have to be firm, even to threatening to withdraw your services.

Finally, appearance counts for a lot. When I was about fourteen, my piano teacher’s eldest son graduated and began teaching. I asked her if her son had any trouble with discipline in his classes. “No,” she replied. “He always wears a suit.”

An Article about Teaching and Tuition
by Dr. Donald Stevens
05th March 2004

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