Who Makes a Good Tutor? You Don’t Need a College Degree to Be Great

Neitzel & Krajewski: Caring tutors who meet children's needs and cheer their successes give more than academic support. They offer hope and connection

A photo of a busy restaurant kitchen

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Imagine a bustling kitchen, the heart of a successful restaurant. The head chef, recognized for her culinary skills, is a graduate of a prestigious culinary school. She brings years of theoretical knowledge and hands-on training to create gourmet dishes that delight the palate.

Now, consider the sous chef, who never attended formal culinary school but spent years learning his craft by cooking at his grandmother’s side, experimenting with recipes and working his way up in various kitchens. Though lacking a formal degree, he has an intimate understanding of flavors, ingredients and techniques, honed through years of practical experience. He knows his way around the kitchen, can solve problems under pressure, embraces the guidance of the head chef and is a good leader for the rest of the kitchen team.

The diverse backgrounds of both chefs provide a breadth of skills and talents that result in innovative, brilliantly executed dishes. Like a restaurant kitchen, schools are dynamic settings in which a tapestry of talents, skills and experiences are needed to effectively engage, motivate and teach students. This is particularly important when it comes to high-dosage tutoring — structured, targeted assistance delivered by a trained tutor daily or almost daily in small groups or one-to-one — because the human connection plays a powerful role. 

With this type of tutoring widely recognized as a powerful approach to accelerating learning, billions of dollars are being spent to expand and incorporate it as a regular part of the school day. “Who makes a good tutor?” becomes a really important question for schools and providers who want to serve students performing below grade level with small-group and one-to-one help.

Many companies and districts still consider a college degree central to their search for tutors, sometimes required and other times an unstated preference. But there is little evidence to suggest that a degree makes for a good tutor. This traditional thinking can not only limit the pool of tutor candidates, it can also prevent local community members from engaging with neighborhood schools and students.

If a college degree requirement is relaxed, the potential tutor pool opens to include a variety of people from the places where children live, which can enhance the tutor-student relationship. Those responsible for hiring tutors often report that people who have experience working with kids or share similar life experiences with them can make great tutors. For example, parents, retired neighbors or even new high school graduates who are fluent in a student’s home language may have an enhanced ability to communicate and connect with children and their families. Not everyone who likes kids or speaks a second language makes a quality tutor, but schools and providers may find that if they are not tethered to the degree requirement, they can prioritize other relevant skills and identify more candidates who can to be trained in critical areas like phonics and algebra. 

Balancing the qualities required for building relationships with the skills needed to effectively address student needs is an individualized, nuanced process for each district and provider. Like the sous chef, the ideal tutor for each community will know her way around the kitchen, bringing a wealth of practical knowledge, unique perspectives and passion for children to the table.

Reimagining the qualifications for tutors doesn’t imply dismissing the value of a college degree. Much like the head chef’s credentials from a prestigious culinary school, a degree signals a level of dedication, discipline and theoretical understanding. However, it’s important to recognize and appreciate that other avenues can lead to relevant skills and assets. The key is to provide caring, talented individuals with the structure and training to effectively advance learning.

Well-structured tutoring models can enable a wide range of people to succeed as tutors, even if they don’t have a background in education. Prospective tutors can acquire the necessary learning experience, materials and tools to assess student progress to bring powerful gains in achievement. 

ProvenTutoring, a free resource for schools housed at Johns Hopkins University, has identified 19 well-structured, proven models that schools can use to make a difference. Two of the programs demonstrate how people with diverse life experiences can become effective tutors with ongoing support and a highly structured tutoring program. One, AARP Foundation Experience Corps, trains volunteers over 50 in their communities to increase children’s early literacy success. Another, Literacy First at UT Austin, which has demonstrated success in early literacy for English- and Spanish-speaking students, works closely with school partners to recruit and train community members who are mission-driven and speak both languages.

Relying on the commitment and compassion of community members, and on the trust that connection brings, these models prepare the tutors to target student needs with explicit professional development that includes curricular and instructional guidance as well as coaching on how to build relationships with students, adapt lessons to individual needs and use data to inform instruction.

This idea that a nurturing relationship can drive student outcomes is well-documented. Relationships developed through mentoring appear correlated with positive outcomes in behavioral, social, emotional and academic domains. In fact, the quality of the relationship can explain some of how strongly a program affects school outcomes.

The need for trusting relationships — for compassion and consistency — during the school day is more important than ever because the pandemic upended the rhythm of school engagement for many students. While things feel back to normal, a closer look at attendance rates and student achievement paints a different picture. Caring tutors who can meet children’s needs and cheer their successes provide more than academic support. These caring adults provides hope and connection, which can help to reengage students and advance their learning.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today