What the World’s Best Tutors Have in Common

Tutoring is History’s oldest form of instruction. It dates to the ancientest of the Ancients and has molded many of our species’ legendary minds, including — famously — the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great. His tutor was Aristotle, arguably the forebear of Western civilization and consciousness. In his Life of Alexander, the Roman historian Plutarch recounts the formative influence of that philosopher on his pupil as the father of his mind: “that as he had received life from the one, so Aristotle had taught him to live well.”

Holistic and specified learning is the great purview of a tutor. At Gooroo, we search for the best tutors. We look for those who are interested not only in guiding a student towards mastery of a concept but also in the wider project of self-improvement, of developing good habits of mind, of living well.

In an era of expanding options in the tutoring marketplace, it’s important to be aware that not all platforms are equal to the noble task of one-on-one teaching. What sets our Gooroo‘s best tutors apart from the crowd is a deep commitment to the following skills.

Mastery of material

We like to ask our prospective tutors this question: “What’s the last thing you geeked out about?” It’s a great way to gauge enthusiasm. Intimately understanding the material one teaches should be a given for any kind of teacher. However, the true mark of mastery is an infectious love for the subject at hand. This energy is a powerful motivator for even the most disinterested of students. It promises that at the end of a tricky lesson waits not just knowledge, but also joy.

Building trust

All good teaching begins with trust, and all trust begins with honesty. A good tutor should be confident enough to be honest about their shortcomings. For example, sharing with a student that they’re unsure of an answer or need to brush up on a concept is a powerful path towards rapport. After all, if a student sees that learning is an ongoing process pulled forward by the tension of all one doesn’t yet know, they’ll be much more likely to admit their own hang-ups and uncertainties.


Let’s be honest. In our day-to-day lives, many of us listen to respond, not really to understand. It’s a bad habit that is all-to-easy to fall into. For a good tutor, listening is an active process, though not an overly responsive one. Often, it takes students — especially adolescents — a longer time to express themselves thoroughly. One of the best close listening practices is to wait through silences for students to continue their train of feeling before responding verbally to their question or concern. Active listening is also a matter of asking the right questions: those that probe beyond a superficial threshold into the meat of the lesson. This is a skill that demands patience and a disciplined use of the ears and mouth in their given ratio.


It can be tempting for knowledgeable people to lecture at length about all that they know. But, more often than not, this method leads to empty head-nods rather than expanded minds. Learning should feel like the steady building of something beautiful with a caring architect at your side. When students feel that a tutor is on their team and that they’re learning something together on the level of collaboration, they’re empowered to take charge of their own improvement. It’s a more generous way to teach and certainly a more enjoyable way to learn.


This is probably the most essential skill for a tutor to hone, and undoubtedly one of the hardest. As in all fields, intuition is either a gift of talent or, more often, the reward of experience. A tutor’s intuition comes into the workroom in many ways: when a student says they understand something with their words, while their facial expression or body language betray uncertainty; when a tired or over-worked student needs a break or a student mired in self-doubt needs a firm and friendly push; or, as a willingness to improvise when a lesson plan isn’t breaking through to understanding. An intuitive tutor never stops a lesson, but carefully ends it, clarifying the work of the day with a settling summary and a stirring nod toward what’s coming next.

Ultimately, what sets separates the best tutors from the good ones is a passion for the craft. It involves an eagerness to learn even as they teach, and an abiding love for the honor of walking with a student, in patient stride, towards the best version of her or himself.

About the Author

Phil Poppinga

Phil Poppinga

Phil Poppinga is the Director of Operations at Gooroo, a tutoring membership that matches students to tutors perfect for them based on their unique learning needs. He's also a proud Gooroo parent! Gooroo offers Math, English, SAT, Coding, Spanish tutoring, and more.