Perfectionism to Professionalism: how to become the most effective tutor you can be

Looking back on my life, I think it’s fair to say that, broadly speaking, I’ve been a perfectionist. It’s a tendency that I’ve had since I was young – I even won an award in my last year of primary school for being the most diligent student in the year.

My tendency to be a perfectionist has served me well… and not just because it gave 10-year-old me a shiny trophy.

Why wouldn’t perfectionism be worthy of celebration? Aren’t we taught from a young age that we must always try our best? That hard work is the key to success?

Well, yes – and there is a great deal of value in these lessons, not only for school/work but also for life in general. I find it incredibly empowering to know that there’s a direct link between how hard I work and the result that I get. Without that, life would feel out of control; trying would simply feel like a waste of time; and we’d all succumb to the damaging view that, no matter what we do, some vague external forces will always be conspiring against us.

But perfectionism – as many know – has a darker side.

The drive to work hard is, of course, a plus, but it brings with it a lot of baggage: heightened sensitivity to others’ perceptions of ourselves (which are often misread, anyway); increased likelihood of burnout from a refusal to stop working; and, perhaps worst of all, intense self-doubt and criticism.

So what does this have to do with tutoring/teaching? Well, some of my friends are teachers, and it just seems to be the kind of career that attracts perfectionists.

When I first started tutoring full-time, I found that my perfectionist tendencies were starting to come out in full force again. Part of this was because I realised that there’s a good amount of money to be made from tutoring.

‘Does my level of experience really warrant getting paid this much?’ ‘Am I really qualified to do this?’ I asked myself these kinds of questions regularly.

I’m pleased to say that I have always been good at the relationship side of things – making students feel comfortable, safe and heard – but my awareness of the fact that I was getting paid by the hour made me become slightly obsessed with one thing: adding as much value to each session as I possibly could.

Again, much like the concept of working hard, a focus on adding value isn’t inherently problematic; in fact, it makes perfect sense. It’s how businesses survive and thrive.

It was my definition of value that was the problem. To me, it meant throwing as much subject-related knowledge and content at students as I could. I was eager for them to be able to show their parents a lot of academic work at the end, if the parents asked to see what they had done – as they often do.

But my approach is really very different now. Since learning about things like cognitive overload, for instance, and how linked attitudes are to outcomes (much of which has come from joining Qualified Tutor!), I take a much slower approach that doesn’t strictly rely on academic work.

I don’t feel that pressure to make it strictly exam-focused now: my focus is instead on tailoring sessions as much as possible to students’ individual needs and interests.

That’s the true value that a tutor can bring: an engaging approach to learning that, most importantly, both students and tutors can have fun with.

So while I may still sometimes prepare for lessons more than I need to – old habits die hard – I’ve come a very long way from my early days as a tutor.

I’ve reflected on what the true purpose of a tutor is, taken practical steps to improve my approaches, and I’ve learnt what may, in fact, be the hardest lesson of all for a perfectionist: that sometimes, less truly is more.

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