To tutor not only means to help facilitate education, but to facilitate the development of the student, academically, mentally – and sometimes even in their character. It is one thing for a mid-top range student to improve in their marks and impress those around them – but far more rewarding to see a complete 180 degree turn around of a student in the space of a year.
Lucas' mother called me in August of 2016 asking for help with her son as he entered his HSC year which begins in Term 4 in NSW. He lived 15 minutes away and I had enough space in my schedule to fit him in. She is a lovely woman who clearly just wanted her son to get the best out of his HSC year. We organised to meet at Liverpool Catholic club over coffee to discuss how we would move forward.
During the meeting Lucas was quiet – he seemed a bit disengaged and spoke about school as though it was just something in which he managed to get by without much effort. We talked about what subjects he did and worked out I would be able to help him with Modern History, Studies of Religion and English Standard. Regina was happy with how it went and we organised a lesson for the next week.
Over the next month I helped him in his final few weeks of the preliminary year (Year 11) and tried to give him some last minute help in the three subjects listed above. His main problems were over-verbose language, poor time management and lack of prioritisation and study in general – he did not care much about school at that point. In short – he was a bit of a party animal.
The next term he got his prelim results and they were less than satisfactory – managing a 60% at best and several borderline or straight fails. I told him that although those exams didn't count towards his HSC he had to use this as a wake up call as from this point onwards everything counted. 5 weeks later, after teaching him his related text for English, Sarah's Key and his prescribed text The Story of Tom Brennan – he did his Year 12 English speech – in which he got 14/15 straight off the bat. When I told his mother – she told me she was doing ‘the happy dance'.
But this was only the beginning. We then studied for his upcoming modern history WW1 based exam – we worked for about 4 hours the night before on the final question which was the most difficult – and in his results he got almost full marks in all sections except for that final question – because he ran out of time. This was a wake up call for me that not only did I have to assist in his knowledge and understanding of the subject – I needed to show him exam technique and practice time management.
Come his half yearlies – he hit his first proper mock exam of the HSC. Although we spent a lot of time working on his understanding of each text – the exam hit him hard and he received 58% which was disappointing for him considering the effort he had been putting in. One of the main issues in his exams was the lack of sense his work made because of his excessive use of over-verbose language that was completely unnecessary and actually hindering his style. I knew he was an intelligent boy – and I knew how to fix this. I banned him from thesaurus.com and we wrote a three paragraphs together the next lesson.
First, he wrote it as he normally would. Second, I told him to write it as though he was speaking to an intelligent friend. Third, we wrote it together and I told him the ideal style to use – and he realised it was almost identical to his second paragraph. It clicked with him that the essay was not about showing off, it was about showing an idea as efficiently and effectively as possible.
It was time for me to show him how to study a lot smarter rather than harder. After a few weeks – his next assignment was due for English. He got 70%. Then a religion exam on Christianity and Judaism – down again to 65% – always due to time management. Then a modern history exam. Some context – this was the personality study – the most difficult section of the exam. We spent hours deconstructing past questions and answering them. I told him constantly – the HSC is not about preparing for THE question – it is about preparing for ANY question. You have to be able to select from what you know based on the question of the day to demonstrate how well you understand each angle of a given idea.
Lo and behold, with these new pieces of advice in mind – he got a Band 5 in this exam – 84%. He was suddenly shocked by his ability and began to love the subject even more.
Come the end of trials – his results had improved substantially – but he still wasn't quite reaching the potential I knew he had. As an example, he was writing on average 2-3 pages per essay in his 2 hour English paper 2 exam – in which you write three essays – the expected length for which is about 6-8 pages for top Band answers. 2 weeks before the HSC exams began – his knowledge of each text was better than some of my own in the HSC. His manner of writing and tone was different. He no longer spoke with the West Liverpool slang and pronunciation as much he once did. He was genuinely interested and passionate about what he was doing. We refined his English Standard text studies, modern history and Studies of religion study notes, and began deconstructing practice questions.
This is where my technique became a little less orthodox. I consistently told him he had to do practice essays before the exam – each time I would arrive he would either say he got too stressed out or didn't have time. So I decided to make him do the essay on the spot – he was in shock. At first, I thought it would be unfair if I spent 40 minutes of a lesson watching him write – but I realised there was no other choice. Either this – or watch his essay length falter.
The first essay he did – he managed 1.5 pages and his deconstruction of the question was poor. He asked what it would have gotten and I told him honestly it could only have gotten a 6/15. He was horrified. I set the timer again. 2 and 3/4 pages – 8/15. I told him he needed a 12/15 in his exam to break even. He understood. One week later, his HSC exams began. In paper one, where there is one essay – he wrote 7 pages. I was in shock. Then on paper two he called me after his exam sounding calm – again – I was in shock. Paper two is known as hell on earth or death of the hand that writes by most in NSW.
He wrote 20 pages. 6 pages question 1. 8 pages question 2. 6 pages question 3. Words could not describe how impressed I was and I called his mum straight after to celebrate over the phone.
In modern history that same Friday – he wrote another 20 pages – albeit a 3 hour exam, he explained to me the way in which he reconstructed each question – with the same precision and left field thinking as he said he had done in paper one and two of english. Nothing could describe how proud I was of him. His religion exam was much the same. He adopted the technique specifically needed for the exam and applied it to each question. On Tuesday the 7th of November, he finished his HSC exams – calm, proud and humble.
I always tell my students, if nothing else – finish your exams healthy. There is no point having the HSC destroy your mental and physical health just for a number and in the hope that your exams will impress those around you. Ironically – I feel like the HSC developed Lucas into a bigger and stronger person – he now doesn't take things at face value, and questions things respectfully. He no longer exaggerates stories to impress people – he is interested in the world ahead and is excited for the next chapter in his life – he wants to study a new degree at Macquarie University called Security Studies combined with Business administration – courses he had never even heard of let alone wanted to pursue in tertiary studies and his working life.
Pride is one thing to have in someone's achievements, but when you've helped them do it – it instils in you a sense of humility. It taught me that tutoring is not about the money – or showing off a student's successes. It is about helping them outgrow you as a student – and as a person of value and passion in everything that you do.
That's why I tutor.