Finding the best mentor for your child: How Oppidan hires the A Team

Since its inception within the shadow education system, tutoring has, for the most parts, held a pejorative reputation. Parents do not readily admit to having a tutor, whilst schools and agencies do not historically get along. This is in part due to the personnel companies employ. The majority of tutoring companies comprise of university undergraduates looking for a quick buck, and recent graduates who’ve just left home; seeking purpose whilst they find a “proper job”, they turn to tutoring as short-term, low-commitment and high-reward work.

This is of course not the case with all tutors and one company in particular, Keystone Tutors, has done, and continues to do, a fantastic job at professionalising the industry. Crucially though, parents remain concerned by the quality of experience across the sector and the risk of putting faith in somebody with little or no stake in the game.

How, therefore, are we able to negate this worry? Within the context of its team of mentors, what does Oppidan look for and importantly, how do we hire a team that we know will be worthy of the trust parents put in us?

At Oppidan we’re fortunate to have a steady stream of applications to join our team, all of whom are as interesting and diverse as the next. My humble opinion supposes our mentors to be some of the most intelligent and gifted people of our generation. Quite why we’re able to attract a broad church isn’t totally clear, but we believe part of the answer lies within our approach to education; those in the liberal arts and entrepreneurially-minded young professionals are drawn by the wider scope they have to their teaching and the focus on the soft skills associated with more broad-minded concepts we promote.

They are the foundation of our team and provide an attractive team to mentor and look after children. Critically, the team isn’t going anywhere; our mentors are recruited for the long-term - their desire for developing a child’s virtues not merely a passing phase, but their foremost personal goal.  

Our hiring policy starts therefore with commitment. As any parent, coach or teacher knows, mentorship will only deliver the desired result if the relationship between mentor and mentee is sustained over a meaningful period of time. However, commitment only takes you so far. This may be a prerequisite, but a guarantee of availability doesn’t set one team apart from another team. So what else do we look for?

Personality over profession was our original mantra. We hired on the basis of empathy, of efficiency and on the ability to communicate. We thought that enthusiasm, creativity and originality in a one-on-one setting outweighed the respective qualities of a teacher in a big classroom. We believed that children would far rather engage with somebody who wasn’t in education; they’d prefer to spend time with a “role model,” “impartial elder sibling” or somebody removed from pedagogy. This is true and all well and good, and these remain characteristics we look for. After all, children respect young people who’ve recently gone through their own education, with whom they can empathise. But whilst these qualities are important, in reality this isn’t enough.

Because this is where the current tutoring industry sits – a comfortable duality between commitment and experience. We believe parents should have higher expectations.

The answer to hiring a good team rests on something far greater. It goes beyond the remit of experience, of creativity or enthusiasm. We believe a good team is more that just the sum of its parts. Whilst each mentor is in himself or herself wonderfully diverse and different, true value within a team is created through an unwavering, united philosophy they follow.

Today’s complex society necessitates that children’s educational development is holistic and guided by a cutting-edge and performance-driven methodology. This is our vision: to pair children with the best mentors to help them reach their full potential through the product: mentoring.

The benefit to this puts the customer at ease. The threat of short-termism is quashed. No longer should they worry about the “individuality of the tutor.” Because those who seek our services are assured that each mentor put forward to them has been recruited under the same methodological criteria and trained through the same high-quality programmes; they follow the same philosophy and they understand the role they are to play. No longer is a client matched to the role; they’re matched to the philosophy.

The philosophy recruits the mentors.

Unlike any other tuition service on the market, that’s what makes Oppidan different.  

How to Choose the Right Mentor

Children are wonderfully diverse and the way they learn best differs case by case.  As such, pairing each child with a mentor is a thoughtful and methodical process and one that requires diligence and sensitivity. The key is the fit: to find a mentor that works with your child as an impartial yet fully engaged part of their education. Once your child looks forward to their time spent with a mentor, the toughest barrier is broken and both independence and enjoyment can be found in their sessions together.

As client manager for Oppidan Education, I take the greatest care and responsibility in researching the best possible match for both the child and mentor. To do this, I find out important, fundamental details including similar personality traits, interests and hobbies, as well as looking at their respective schooling and whether that will be an added benefit to the child. The mentors we employ and those that work best with children have the requisite experience and the know-how with regards to specific teaching methods and curricula. More than this though, the match is personality based. I look for empathy, enthusiasm and their ability to engage a child fully in the process of learning.

A key element in choosing the right mentor for a child is to look at the way in which a child responds differently to male and female interaction. It’s often difficult for young boys to empathise with older girls and vice versa. With entrance procedures for co-ed schools, registrars look at how girls and boys interact for the first time at assessment day, and so for families applying to these schools, it is often in fact better to have a mentor of the opposite sex work with their child.

I establish how much the child needs motivating and encouraging; quite often one session with a mentor is enough to change their expectation or perspective of what is required of them.  A long chat on the phone or a meeting in person helps establish who best will work with your child, and once I have found the two most ideal mentors and subsequently discussed them with you, the choice is down to the client and it is on their lead that a plan is put in place. Very often trial sessions are a good way to figure out if the chemistry between the child and mentor is right.

A huge satisfaction in my job is watching the developments between a successful pairing take place. If the mentor is helping the child to be happy, fulfilled and achieving at their very best, we have done a good job. Whether working towards a tangible target such as passing Common Entrance, or perhaps focusing on the soft skills we associate with confidence and conviction, successful pairing can have a monumental influence on a child’s educational and personal development. Witnessing the all-round happy outcome it breeds gives me great satisfaction and motivates me further to help pioneer a different approach to one-on-one teaching.

By Tilly St Aubyn

Five Reasons to Hire a Mentor

Tutoring is certainly subject to its fair share of misconceptions. In the most narrow of definitions, the tutoring market sees academic support as target-based, prescriptive teaching with utilitarian goals and short-term rewards. This is exemplified by the parent who employs the help of a tutor to bolster their child’s chances of passing an exam or assessment. For many, the proof is in the pudding. Testimonials for tutors often read, ‘let’s wait before we give our verdict’.

To judge one-on-one support in this way is fundamentally limiting. Tutors may indirectly improve a child’s chances to succeed in exams but rarely are they wholly responsible for the attainment of better grades. Schools and teachers are already doing a brilliant job in providing the support children require. They therefore neither need, nor seek to endorse, the extra support tutoring brings. Their remarks about the industry are scathing at best.

Role of the Mentor

If academic tuition is here to stay, and the rising number of tutoring companies would suggest so, what can it offer away from the ‘promise’ of better grades? Better put, can teaching outside the classroom, in whatever form we ascribe it, work harmoniously alongside schools to provide direction and stability for a child?

Contrary to popular belief, spoon-feeding a child the material to pass an exam is not the most important benefit of a tutor. The most productive step a mentor can take is to help children invest their energy in the process of learning. What excellent mentoring does is illicit in a child the foresight to see what his or her education can bring. It should foster confidence in children and should give them the conviction to succeed on their own. In this way, they return to school with renewed enthusiasm for their subjects and a sense of perspective that will help them reap the rewards their education is offering.

I asked five of Oppidan’s mentors which skills they thought important to teach their children, away from the restrictions of the syllabus:

1. Overcoming perfectionism

‘Children should try and distance themselves from what other people think. They should trust that all they need to do and worry about is doing their best. It is vital for children to know early on that mistakes are not only “ok” but also essential for their development.’

2. Building self-worth

‘Tutors often focus on the importance of confidence, particularly in interviews for pre-tests. This is a mistake; instead, tutors should help guide children to feel comfortable within their own talents and their own successes commensurate with their ability. Self-esteem is vital, not least, in presenting in front of one’s own peers.’

3. Being adaptable

The values on which we judge employability are in a state of perpetual change and children must be given the tools to adapt to these shifting expectations.’

4. Enjoying education

‘Children should aspire towards a humble curiosity in a wide array of subjects in order to value their education for the sake of education, not because “it is in the test”.’

5. Valuing empathy and cooperation

‘In our radically changing modern context, the ability to empathise with fellow students will be a defining factor in a child’s long-term success or failure. Tutors and mentors should help students learn to work as a team and to trust the abilities of others.’

By Walter Kerr 

Mentoring: The Road Less Travelled

Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, is a valuable teaching tool for all ages. A wholly approachable poem, it sets up a metaphor for the ‘traveller’ facing a choice between two paths; the first is rather more ‘worn’. To my mind, this path perfectly reflects the current state of the private tuition market: somewhat overused, dark and murky, under-regulated and an expensive risk for parents demanding better results for their children. If we brush aside the quality-control and trust issues that have beset the private tuition market in recent years, parents and schools still rightly struggle with the moral issues surrounding the never-ending rat race for places in top British schools. The question is always the same: how do I give my child a better chance to gain entry to a top school and achieve in the long-term?

In my role as a mentor I hear many parents demand answers to problems that can’t realistically be bought. Aims are utilitarian, practical, exam-focused. Particularly at 11+, parents are hoping for dramatic and often impossible improvements in psychometric testing results when, in reality, useful work is about acquiring the confidence, comfort and technique to approach assessment days maturely, both for children and for their parents.

Of course there is a place for one-on-one tuition. Specifically targeted help can be enormously useful. But are we perhaps forgetting the things that really matter? That children are happy, fulfilled and confident within themselves, and capable of doing their best. In the end this is all we can ask of them.

Mentoring has so far proved an attractive idea to parents and to schools. I have no desire to offer what schools do so well themselves (the teaching) but what they often admit they don’t have time for. Conversations with several of the most competitive, high-profile schools have proved this, and shown that schools are willing to work in partnership with mentors. Mentoring is the extra-curricular, the culture, the confidence and the added care. Mentors are young, brilliant, inspiring and fun. They combine the job of role model, tutor, advisor and impartial elder sibling. They offer support and care for both students and parents, and not just enable, but guarantee that children are able to do their best.

Though boarding schools have perhaps become less popular with modern parents, I continue to support the all-inclusive, independent and innately mature environment that most boarding schools offer. The same approach is at the core of mentoring. It is an ethos that defines mentoring not as a luxury add-on, but as an essential part of any child’s education. Mentoring helps to build up the organisation and independence skills needed to tackle the intensity of school life, and the variety to enjoy the time beyond it.

I for one hope that parents will feel confident themselves in the job they are doing for their children. Regardless of what school they end up at, what will children remember of their formative years? Rigorous testing in an ‘over-pressured cooker’? Or a balanced and memorable mix of solid school work and all the trimmings that can and should go with it.

It’s a common misconception that Frost’s poem only challenges us to be adventurous; it is also about avoiding indecision. He begs his reader to make a decision, to take hold. As children choose their own path forward, through schools, universities and jobs, there’s frustratingly little we can do to greatly alter their trajectory. Perhaps it’s best we show decisiveness and remind ourselves and them of the excitements that lie beyond the classroom, and the things that make life special. It is through those thrills that they will be encouraged towards greatness. With a little luck, they might even stand an inch or two taller when it comes to 11+.