Should ESL Exam Tutors Take the Test, Too?

exam tutors take the test

Should ESL Exam Tutors Take the Test, Too?

Have you ever used Google Maps on your smartphone? Or some form of satellite navigation? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the concept. You type in a destination and a starting point, and you get routes. I love knowing exactly what to do whenever I’m going to an unfamiliar place.

If my sat nav gave vague directions like, “In 100 yards, you might need to turn right… but actually, I’m not sure so… Ummm… Yeah try turning right,” I would delete the app in a heartbeat. What about you? Would you trust it? Unless you are a hardcore adventure lover and have loads of time to spend exploring your surroundings every time you need directions, I’m guessing that this vague app wouldn’t be your first choice, either. In a situation when it is critical for you to reach your destination, I’m willing to bet you would look for a well-rated, precise, accurate sat nav app.

Sat nav and tutoring for ESL exams like TOEFL iBT, IELTS, FCE, or any of the other acronyms that make palms sweaty worldwide… You’re the tutor. You’re the sat nav.

I have been asked by quite a few teachers, “Do I need to take the exam that I’m teaching?” My answer is all about that sat nav example. In all the years since I started teaching TOEFL iBT and of all the hundreds of students I’ve encountered, I remember exactly one student who was taking TOEFL iBT as a hobby. Bless his heart. I told him, “Respectfully… You need a different hobby.”

For the vast majority of students, ESL exams are not hobbies. They are necessary evils. They are a means to an end. They are “door openers”, if you will. Students approach shopping for an ESL tutor for an exam very much the way they would try out various sat nav apps. Anything that is vague gets discarded and deleted. Learners pay for tutors and courses for exams because they want the most direct route possible from their current level of English to their destination, their target exam score.

That’s exactly why teaching ESL exams should not be undertaken as a hobby for tutors or teachers, either. I’m biased. I think teaching exams should be your job, ideally your full-time job. I strongly encourage you to commit completely because it guarantees that you’ll develop unique skills that few other teachers in the ESL community have.

Highly motivated students are willing to pay for TOEFL iBT or IELTS tutoring precisely because it is critical for them to get a specific score, and they have exhausted their ability to study on their own (or they have already discarded some vague tutors, programs or courses). Alternatively, they have no interest in bumbling along. If they sense that you, as a tutor, are lacking confidence or certainty about how they should proceed with studying, it’s highly unlikely that they will trust you enough to follow your recommendations. Vice versa, the more expertise you exude, the more influence you have with learners.

To teach exams in an ethical, non-sleazy way, I give you the following advice:

Take the exam that you’re going to teach. Understand it very, very thoroughly.

You may be wondering if it is really necessary. You already know what I think. Some of the teachers who are training with me also feel it is important to be as knowledgeable and confident about TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS as possible. There are teachers who pony up the money, register for the official exam, go sit amongst students, get sweaty palms and experience the real thing. If you choose to be one of them, you’ll get chosen more as a freelance ESL tutor, and you’ll have more authority and influence with your students.

If you are not in a position to take the real exam, take a realistic official practice test. Some like to start by learning about the test itself or doing some practice activities. The thing is, though, as a teacher, you cannot jump into the real thing too soon. Gather books. Compare editions and styles of activities. Do lots of assignments yourself so that you really understand what the exam requires from a test-taker.

Back in 2014, I got an email from a woman and her ESL tutor who had something of an emergency on their hands. After taking the TOEFL iBT 3 times, finishing multiple courses with various tutors and local schools, doing self-study, and even attending a fluency-building camp in England, this woman’s score had plateaued at 86. That didn’t stop her from being brilliant. In fact, she had been provisionally accepted to an Ivy League school in America… with a very generous scholarship… if and only if she could get her TOEFL iBT score to 100. She was intensely motivated and failure was not an option. So she and her tutor basically asked me to be the GPS sat nav. It was the first time I had guided another teacher and planned his lessons, but about 5 weeks later, the woman scored 103. Hello, happiness! (That’s the short version. If you have an hour, click here to watch our full interview.)   

My point in sharing this with you is only that if I hadn’t taken the exam, if I didn’t know it inside and out, if tutoring for TOEFL iBT hadn’t become my full-time job, I never could have helped them the way I did.

If you were the learner, who would you want leading you? Whatever your answer is, that’s the exam prep tutor you should focus on becoming.

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