We’ve got so many wonderful tutors on our books at Mentor Education – it’s a real pleasure to spend time with them. This week we’re sitting down with Sonal Patel to talk about her unique approach to education.
A former teacher and now full-time private ‘Tutor with a Twist’, Sonal employs a powerful and effective combination of tutoring and coaching for a holistic approach to education.
Hi Sonal! An easy question to get you started… what’s a fun fact about you?
I can whistle through my teeth!
That’s an impressive skill! Sonal, you are one of Mentor Education’s most experienced teachers. How did you first become involved with tutoring?
After my school years, I worked as a dentistry student for four years, then became a pharmacy technician for four years and moved on to be a teacher for four years – so my experience has been really varied! But it was through becoming a private tutor (working for nine months as a maths and English teacher in a tuition centre for 4-14 year olds) that I discovered and developed my true calling and passion: teaching.
Teaching, coaching, challenging, motivating and inspiring others to discover and experience their true potential lit me up unlike any work I had ever done before. I felt truly grateful – and still do feel grateful – to the children. Their curiosity and questioning minds; their innocence, fearlessness and confidence; their wit (which is often quicker and more humorous than mine!); and their determination to keep growing, evolving and improving is an incredibly inspiring energy to be around!
I stopped teaching in schools in March 2019 and became a dedicated, full-time tutor. This shift came about because I base my tutoring on several pedagogical approaches, including this principle emphasised by the famous Australian Professor of Education John Hattie: ‘The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback.’
This is why I tutor full-time now: because children in a classroom do not get that exclusive, one-to-one attention and feedback.
What is your favourite subject to teach, and why?
English, which is quite ironic since I did not ever willingly read a book all the way through until I was 22!
Language has the ability to strengthen us and make us smile on the inside and the outside; excite us to excel beyond our seemingly insurmountable limitation; and give us hope no matter how tough life gets. This is why I love words and I kid you not, the dictionary IS one of my favourite books!
Communication is key. Whether through reading, writing or speaking, English offers great opportunity for us to build healthy and happy relationships in so many creative, expressive ways: through casual conversation, drama or the purposeful sharing of a story or experience. English also enables one to understand the knowledge of any subject for what it is, with depth and detail; and simultaneously enables one to explain that knowledge in an articulate manner. Expertise in English, therefore, can be used synergistically to develop our expertise in other subject areas.
Top moment as a tutor?
When one of my students didn’t get into the 11+ school she was aiming for: because though she did not quite achieve the academic results she had hoped for, she had progressed hugely and had transformed on a personal level – from an anxious girl who lacked self-esteem and confidence to a young lady who was grateful for the results she achieved through her own honest hard work. When she opened her brown envelope on results day, she said her hand stopped shaking and she was cool, calm and collected knowing that she had tried her best and that was good enough. Confidence doesn’t come from external success. Confidence comes from the internal achievement of knowing that one has tried one’s best – whether academic or other external rewards follow or not. In any case, this student moved up to higher sets in both English and maths at school (thanks to her diligence, self motivation, and our work together), so she excelled on many levels.
Do you think every student has the chance to be successful, given the right support? Are there any skills that can’t be taught?
When I was younger, I had a very prestigious and famous piano teacher, who taught me how to play the piano. For whatever reason, I failed miserably! However, at no stage do we need to give up on ourselves; rather, sometimes we need to take a different path for genuine success, at our own pace, and in our own way.
On the other hand, sometimes the right support is the game changer. A colleague of mine had a student who got ‘zero’ in her maths times-tables test on her first attempt; however, with the right support and help, eventually she achieved full marks! From zero to hero – all due to the confidence and skills her teacher helped her develop.
Anything is possible. We have to be open-minded and brave enough to try and test our abilities, and develop the patience to stick with it whilst those capabilities grow.
But it’s not all about exam results. What other important things does private tutoring offer a budding student?
Private tutoring is a safe, secure and confidential space where a student can get the one-to-one attention they deserve. This will allow them to truly be themselves; share what’s on their mind; and be encouraged and nourished to be the best version of themselves.
What does a typical day look like in the world of Sonal?
A typical day for me is waking up between 6 and 7, doing my breathing exercises, physical exercises and 1 and a half hours of mindful, conscious meditation and some singing in the morning!
Nutrition is important to teaching and learning so I always enjoy a good breakfast: overnight oats, warmed and drizzled with a spoon of maple syrup. After that, I start preparing for my tuition lessons in the afternoon/evening. I am also working on a self development and coaching programme for women, so I allocate some time to this. I usually see three to four students a day and write reports for each of them.
I do breathing exercises a minimum of three times a day – morning, afternoon and before bed – which brings balance to my mental health. There is an ancient yoga science and modern scientific explanation to how it works (which I learned as a certified Breath Coach). I train my students on these techniques too.
In the evening, I unwind: I have a routine that begins from 8.30 pm onwards, which always ends with journalling and reading for half an hour to an hour. With pockets of time in between I like to go for a walk, write poems and also journal during the day.
And, finally: what’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
One of my mentors says: “When your desire to serve is beyond your capacity, yet you act without hesitation, that is the moment empowerment comes.”
As I have lived with significant chronic pain in my lower back for the last 15 years, these two statements inspire me to focus on what I can do and not what I can’t.
It is true for all of us that our power is far beyond our limitations or perceived obstacles: and if you are curious and courageous enough to explore and strengthen your inner identity, and enthusiastic to make a conscious contribution to the world – in a way no one but you can – you are already on the path to success (whatever your personal goals might be).