Teachers and Tutors

I am sometimes asked why I describe myself as both a teacher and a tutor.

The truth is that the two jobs are very different and require very different skill sets.

As a teacher your job is, in part, to be able to control and entertain a whole class. The teachers who look impressive to the visitor passing through the classroom are those who are able to do just that. If you like, it’s a job for extroverts, for people who are good at talking. Most teachers will tell you, though, that there’s much more to the job than that. Some of the time you’ll be giving children work to do, and talking to individual children about what they’re doing, although, with time constraints, you may not be able to spend as much time with them as you’d like.

As a tutor, working one to one with an individual pupil, what you should be doing, for the most part, is listening rather than talking. You’re constantly asking questions to check how much your students know, exactly what they’re thinking about, why they chose their move or answered a question in a particular way. You’re providing individual feedback geared to the needs of one person rather than generalised feedback geared to the needs of the class.

Individual tuition is very much bottom-up rather than top-down teaching. It’s about listening rather than talking. If you like, it’s an introvert skill rather than an extrovert skill. It’s about really understanding your students, as people as well as chess players. I ask my pupils what their other interests are, what their favourite subject is at school, what books they read, what games they play. By understanding the child I can choose the most appropriate similes or metaphors to use. If, for example, I’m talking about how pieces work together, if my student is a football fan I’ll compare this with members of a football team working together, while, for musicians, I’ll talk about how the instruments in an orchestra play together. I will quickly identify them, from the speed at which they play moves and answer questions, as either hunters or farmers. There are other questions I ask as well, to help me understand them, and also to help them understand themselves. I may deal with some of these questions in future articles.

One very powerful technique when working with younger children is to talk them through a game. Choose a simple opening that they’ll understand (go easy on the Sicilian Najdorf) and avoid complex tactics that they wouldn’t be able to see. Explain your moves as you go along, or ask your student why you played the move. Give specific praise for good moves, not just saying that a move is good but why it is good. If it’s not clear why a move was played, ask for a reason. You’ll constantly be asking questions such as “What other moves did you consider?” and “What do you think I’m going to do next?”. By using Socratic questioning of this nature you’ll be able to identify how your students are thinking and gently nudge their brains in the right direction.

If you’re giving them puzzles to solve, don’t just tell your students they’re wrong if they fail to find the correct answer. You won’t always tell them they’re right, either. Ask them to test their answer and see for themselves whether it’s right or wrong. If, for instance, you’re asking them to solve a checkmate in one puzzle ask them if the king can move, if the checking piece can be captured and if the check can be blocked. At a higher level, for example a mate in two, ask them to point out all their opponent’s legal moves, and to demonstrate a mate against each one.

You’ll probably have guessed, if you don’t already know, that by nature I’m a tutor rather than a teacher. Sometimes my pupils demand to know why I’m asking them questions instead of telling them things. I explain that there are two types of teacher, those who talk and those who listen. I’m a teacher who listens. But those of us who make a living partly or completely out of teaching chess will have to get used to doing both whether we like it or not.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.