Building a Brilliant Tutor Team

As a Head of Year/Pastoral Leader your tutor team(s) are the backbone of the pastoral care system for your year group. You can’t see every student, every day, but they sure do. Most schools will stress that a child’s tutor is a parent’s first port of call and the person their child should take any concerns to when they initially arise and so ensuring they are as strong and motivated as possible can be key to the success of your role. A strong tutor team is confident, supportive and challenging – whether that is with their tutees, yourself or the parents they liaise with. The best tutors care deeply about their tutees and establish warm relationships built on high expectations whilst balancing the ability to be that go-to person at any given time.  So how do you go about building(or building on) a brilliant tutor team?


Support/Development

Part of your role as a middle leader is to develop those around you and to ensure that the staff who are working with you have opportunities to grow. As a Head of Year or pastoral leader the likelihood is you won’t have any official line management responsibility for your tutors and so it would be easy to abdicate responsibility for developing your tutors, but I feel that you must dedicate time to this. It’s usually the case that a tutor team will include members of staff at a wide variety of career levels – some who have been a tutor for the last thirty years and some who are stepping into their NQT year and taking their first tutor group – that doesn’t however make it any easier to identify those opportunities for development as it might with classroom teaching.

The role of a tutor is both challenging and rewarding as you see your tutees fail, flourish and eventually fly away from you and during that time the opportunities you can afford your tutors for development are varied. Some initial questions to think about around that development are below:

  • Do you have a tutor that is new to the profession and is looking for the opportunity to plan and produce a set of tutor time activities to have a wider whole-school impact? 
  • Do you have a tutor looking to work in pastoral care or take on a more active role in whole school behaviour/achievement? Could they take students onto report or devise a tutor or year group achievement program/activity? 
  • Do you have a tutor looking to expand their proficiency with data? Could they produce a tracker for key information for other tutors i.e. a weekly behaviour points/attendance/achievement/punctuality table for the year group?
  • Do you have a tutor looking to build their confidence? Could they lead a year group assembly with or without their tutor group? 
  • Do you have a tutor with an untapped skill-set? Perhaps a hobby or area of interest that they could use within your year team or a particular group of students?
  • Do you have a tutor that is struggling with managing their tutor group or getting the best from them? Could they be paired up with an experienced tutor in the team to observe some tutor times for the benefit of both tutors?

There are many ways for you to develop your tutors and your wider tutor team and the stronger they are, the stronger you are. It pays to develop those around you and it is certainly an area to reflect on.


Be accepting of challenge

As a governor I’ve always liked the term ‘critical friend’ when used to describe the relationship between Headteacher and governors and I think this is also a good relationship to try and foster within your tutor team. Being a tutor can be an emotion filled role and it is sometimes the case that those emotions can spill over into frustration – having worked in a challenging school where tutor team briefings could often become a barrage of questions on “What’s happening about this student?” or “Why is X still doing this?” you should aim to foster a culture where challenging questions can be asked of you in an appropriate way at an appropriate time.

Challenge from tutors about what is happening within the year group is good, if only to keep you on your toes, and part of building a team that trusts your decision making and strategy is being able to respond adequately to that challenge. Your tutors need to know that they can bring you a problem and that you will either do your utmost to address it or that you will be able to give them an explanation for why that problem can’t be solved in the way they desire. Feel confident in saying that you don’t have an answer to a question and need to go away and think about it, or that it isn’t the best time to ask. Tell them that you will speak to them in x amount of time whether you have an answer or not so that they know they aren’t being fobbed off. 


Well-planned tutor activities

Tutor time in schools has seen an overhaul in recent times and most schools will use the time to complete a myriad of activities whether that’s literacy and numeracy sessions, silent reading, quizzes, uniform/equipment checks, sharing of topical information or a variety of other tasks based around school priorities. There is nothing more frustrating as a tutor than being instructed to do any of these things and not receiving the support or resources needed to undertake them. If you are expecting your tutors to run a topical news quiz every Friday, for example, then provide them with the resources to do so – whether that means sourcing it yourself or, as stated earlier, finding somebody willing to do so from a developmental perspective. Not only will this make your tutors feel supported, but it will give you the ability to standardise and monitor what is occurring within tutor time – if eight different tutors are running eight different quizzes how can you know whether what is happening is having the effect you desired?

Equally if you are instructing tutors to perform checks on areas such as uniform/equipment then you should ensure that you circulate during these when you can – no tutor wants to feel isolated in this process and having your support once in a while will do wonders for their ability to enforce the rules that you, or the school, have set when you aren’t there. Don’t leave them to fight against the world on their own.

If you ask your tutors to analyse their tutees data checking attendance etc. then make sure that they know how to do this in the least amount of time through training, or better yet, provide them with the data. I hate seeing staff labouring over tasks that could be done in a matter of minutes because they’ve been asked to do something but haven’t been instructed on how to do it in the most efficient way. Again, this will help to ensure that standards are met within your team too and that tutors have no reason not to undertake the activities that you are asking of them.


Well-planned tutor meetings

Another area to ensure that you plan well is your tutor team meetings or briefings. You will likely have a slot during the week to meet with your tutors and disseminate any important messages and catch-up with how the team is doing as a group. Treat this time like you would any other meeting within the school and provide tutors with an agenda in advance of the meeting and ask for them to notify you of any other business at the end – ensuring there is adequate time to discuss this at the end. Staff time is at a premium and there is nothing worse than attending meetings that don’t hold value just because they are on the calendar. 

Consider the questions below:

  • What information do you share/discuss at tutor team briefings? Are they for you to share information or for you to receive information?
  • Are your meetings well planned with an agenda prepared in advance and disseminated in time for tutors to reflect on it?
  • Is there a clear structure in your meetings or are issues raised as people think of them? It’s frustrating to be sat in a meeting where one tutor is discussing an issue in their tutor group or with a tutee as if it was a one-to-one conversation. This is not the time for those kinds of conversations unless there is an application to the whole year group or other tutors.
  • Is there a better way to disseminate some of the information you currently share in tutor team briefings?
  • If you are allowing tutors to suggest AOB items – do you consider their merit/worth to the meeting at hand before adding them?
  • If a tutor misses your briefings/meetings – would it have any impact on them? If so do you need to re-evaluate the core content/purpose?

Share key information

You are a team. As the Head of Year for that team you have access to a significant amount of privileged and useful information – some of which you can, and should, disseminate to your tutors to ensure that they can support you and the children in their tutor groups. If you are taking on a new year group and tutor team this also works in reverse and they will have lots of information about their tutees that you should tap into. 

Whenever you receive a piece of information about a child that could impact their time at school you should make a decision about whether this would be useful for their tutor to know. There are clearly many things that need to be kept confidential and in the strictest confidence, but this is for you to judge as a professional – as stated before – your tutors are the ones who see these students every day and so are in the best position to notice changes in them. If you are sharing information that is of a sensitive or potentially upsetting nature be aware also of the impact it could have on the individual you are discussing it with – you may find you need to provide them with some support in dealing with the nature of it.

If you have the time it may be worth sitting down with your tutor team and discussing key students and their profiles, whether that is in a 10-minute slot or an hour of inset time(if you are lucky!). It pays for your tutor team to know the year group and its most prominent or vulnerable students as they can then also support each other when necessary.


Change is OK(tutors)

It’s very often the case that a tutor team put into place in Year 7, for example, won’t be the same tutor team by the time those students leave the school. I can’t think of a tutor team that has stayed the same through a 5-year cycle dating back to my own time at school. It is a fact that there is a chop-and-change of tutors in schools whether that is through staff leaving, being promoted or retiring. It can be a real kicker to think you have established a strong tutor team and then learn that half of them are leaving or moving to positions in which they will no longer hold a tutor position. All that hard work for nothing.

Except if you have put the right strategies into place and held the highest standards you should have created an environment in which a new tutor can slot into the tutor team and tutor group with little fuss. There will always be teething troubles and a settling in period, but this is where you need to start your work again. Ensure that your new tutor is inducted well into the team. Provide them with all of the information you can about their tutor group, the tutor time schedule, where to find resources, who they can ask for support and any other information you feel is relevant. Let them settle in with their tutor group but watch from afar to ensure that everything is going okay and check in to see that there aren’t any issues arising. If you are fortunate enough to know who is taking over a tutor group whilst their old tutor is still in the school you should approach this carefully but capitalise on the fact there can be some form of transition/handover.

Everybody is different and will want to handle that situation differently, as a minimum I would suggest you set up a meeting with the ex-tutor and new tutor to share key information about the tutor group and point out resources/books etc. Having been in this situation as a tutor I was advised to visit the tutor group, introduce myself and stick around during their last week with their tutor. For me, this didn’t feel right as I wanted to give their old tutor the chance to say goodbye and spend a last week with the tutor group also giving me the chance to have a fresh start in the same way as I would with a new class. This will differ on a case by case and person by person basis according to need – judge what you feel is best and what will result in the best reaction from the staff and tutees involved.


Change is OK(students)

Getting the balance of a tutor group right is a delicate and tricky activity – when students are placed into tutor groups upon joining the school it’s a bit of a guessing game as to whether the groups you are building will work with all of the individuals placed within it. For me when I think of classes I have found more difficult to teach during my career it is the case that they were all taught in tutor groups. There is a slight difference in the relationships of students and, often, those classes are together on a significant number of occasions during the week – so plenty of time to fallout and build bad habits!

As a Head of Year/Pastoral Leader you should always be looking at the balance of your tutor groups and whether the right students are in the right groups with the right people. Do you have a tutor in your team who can build fantastic relationships with ‘naughty boys’ where a student might be better placed? A tutor who has significant experience of dealing with children with SEMH issues? Tutor groups don’t always need to remain static and where the need arises you should feel confident to make changes that are beneficial for individuals, classes or tutors. I find these decisions are often left until too late – that Year 7 form that every teacher knows is tough to teach because the balance of individuals within it isn’t right should have some changes made to it as soon as that is realised. The Year 11 girl who has a fantastic relationship with one of your tutors whose attendance is dropping and may be more likely to attend if seeing a friendly face during the day. Also carefully consider where new entrants to the school are placed – who oversees this and are those decisions made around the best place for the student or as simply as the number of students in a tutor group?

If you do consider making this kind of change – always talk to the tutors it will affect first and think of the impact you will have on them. Part of that delicate balancing act is realising that what might be best for an individual could also upset the existing status quo and create more issues. I’d encourage you to think about where there are opportunities for you to balance your tutor groups. How do you go about analysing this? Is there opportunity for you to discuss with tutors whether the make-up of their tutor group is working?


Circulate during tutor times

You are busy. All Heads of Year are. I’ve stressed before the importance of finding time to circulate to lessons for your year group and I feel it’s just as important to do the same for tutor times – perhaps more so than for lessons. If you don’t know what is going on during tutor times then you can’t judge whether they are useful, purposeful(and peaceful!) time slots for your year group. There may also be situations in which your tutors could make use of your support and showing a united front on this will go a long way in helping your tutors to deal with incidents that arise in the future.

You clearly won’t be able to visit every tutor group, every day and there will be times when you can’t visit any tutor groups at all. I would suggest trying to make it into every tutor group once every two weeks – this means you aren’t stifling a tutor who wants to be the beacon for their group but also shows that you are present and supportive. It also allows you to spend a decent amount of time with a tutor group if the opportunity arises, perhaps the chance to support the tutor in checking uniform or taking part in a news quiz or literacy activity. For some tutors they may be uncomfortable with this and you should be careful not to overstay your welcome if you get the feeling you are making a tutor uncomfortable with your presence. You can always come back at a different date/time or have a discussion with the tutor to ensure they understand that you are not there to monitor them but to show their tutees that you are there to support. 


Provide rigour and structure in year group events e.g. assemblies, fire drills

Your tutors will appreciate rigour, structure and support around year group events that take place in public forums such as assemblies, fire drills or off-timetable days. Wherever possible you want to create situations where tutors are the friendly face encouraging students to do the right thing on these occasions – offering the advice to ‘tuck your shirt in’ or helping them tie a tie before walking into assembly. I always feel it is my job, or a member of the pastoral team, to then be the person who makes it clear that you listen to what your tutor has told you or you would find yourself falling into trouble. 

Part of this means creating structures that allow tutors to perform that role and limit chances for students to get it wrong. If you insist that students are silent walking into assembly for example then build in that tutor groups should line up outside the hall and will enter when silent – set the standard early and in your presence so that your tutors have to do a minimal amount of work. If the expectation is that students enter in silence but arrive after their tutor and the tutor then must settle them as they walk in and sit down you are setting them up to fail. If you have standards set for a fire drill, as another example, clearly articulate these to the year group and let tutors know exactly what you expect of them alongside this. If you don’t let tutors know that you want them to line students up, take the register in silence and then walk up and down the line promoting that silence then you can’t have complaints when they stand at the front keeping them in a straight line. Make it clear what your priorities are and then back tutors in enforcing them.


Acknowledge, praise and support

Finally, if you want to build a brilliant tutor team, remember that your tutors are all humans and they need praise when things are going well and support when they aren’t. 

  • Are there any opportunities you are currently missing to offer praise tutors?
  • Are there tutor group awards you could be giving out? Be careful around things like tutor group attendance where some tutors will simply never win due to the make up of their forms but will likely be doing great work in another area.
  • Could you do something simple like writing a card for all of your tutors to thank them for their support during the year?
  • Can you speak to their line-manager or Head of Faculty to share how well they are doing with their tutor group or a tutee?

Building(or building on) a great tutor team isn’t easy and often takes a great deal of time. The difference it can make having a strong team behind you though is absolutely worth the work. Clearly the advice given above isn’t exhaustive and there are many more elements to consider but I hope that this might give you a starting point to work from or a couple of things to build on. As always find me @connoracton on Twitter if you have any questions or want to talk about anything you’ve read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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