Youth Teachers and Tutors
Elmer Does Not Have to Be an Adult

L. B. Cebik, W4RNL

There is an old picture of Elmer that may need a bit of retouching sometime soon. We show him (usually "him) as an older, kindly fellow looking over the shoulder of a youthful ham-to-be, gently guiding the youngster's preparations for the exam. Perhaps we can revise the picture this way: Elmer is a more experienced peer of the newcomer, sitting across a table, conversing with the newcomer eye-to-eye. In school rooms and school-sponsored clubs, where guidance into the role of an Elmer is available, recruiting youth teachers and tutors is both possible and desirable.

Developing youth teachers and tutors is possible because the practice is already used in many programs. School systems throughout the country have introduced under various names the use of slightly older students to assist younger students in the mastery of many curricular skills. As well, we have long experience in many levels of student teaching, ranging from simple "show-and-tell" to formal individual and group reports.

Developing youth teachers and tutors is desirable for several reasons. First, it develops a firmer commitment to amateur radio in all its aspects within the youth teacher or tutor. By exercising what we have learned so far in the service of helping others to learn the same thing, we tend to learn more fully and deeply--if for no other reason than the challenging questions from those we help. Moreover, we tend to prize more permanently those activities in which we have successes, and helping others learn is a very impressive sign of success.

In addition, youth teachers overcome in the newcomer many of the barriers to learning occasioned by age and status differences. Questions we hesitate to ask the mature Elmer for fear of looking stupid become part of the normal conversational flow with our experienced peers. The net result is an enhanced view of the class or club as "ours," instead of being "their" (the older Elmers') activity. While certainly not a cure-all for everything that interferes with long-term commitments to amateur radio classes, clubs, and activities, the development of youth teachers and tutors can make a positive contribution to those commitments.


Many folks who are thrust into teaching situations take a wrong view of what "teaching" means. The most common misconception is that teaching means preparing a presentation to a group to inform them on some topic or another. While such presentations are often quite valuable, they miss the focus of teaching: the student.

Over my own years of teaching (35), I have picked up a different slant on teaching. "Teaching" means "helping to learn." Once we make the transition to this idea, our focus changes to those things that help our students to learn. This very thought gives us much more flexibility in trying to figure out how to get the job done, for we are no longer thinking primarily of ourselves as teachers. We are thinking of the student and what he or she is trying to learn. Whatever helps that process becomes useful, whether or not we happen to be the active ingredient in the teaching process.

From this perspective, youth teachers and tutors are not simply ways to distribute our personal work load. They are instead excellent means of facilitating the learning process. Employed carefully, youth teachers and tutors can not only convey information and provide a patient vehicle for practicing the knowledge until it is firmly grasped, but as well experienced peers can pass along to the newcomer some intangible aspects of amateur radio. Among these are the spirit of challenge, the excitement of communications, and the dedication to service. Parental lessons and values that we come to appreciate only later in life are absorbed more naturally from those our own age who share more immediately in the difficulties of growing.

Carelessly utilized, youth teachers and tutors who are unprepared for their roles or who are unwilling to exercise them can do more harm than good in the teaching process. Rather than these dangers being a reason to avoid using youth teachers and tutors, they are simply reasons to spend the extra effort to develop these members of the teaching team.

The concept of the teaching team--the team that helps the newcomer to learn--is crucial in figuring out the best ways to utilize effectively and productively every resource to help learning happen. One of the ways that we can keep the youth members of the group returning for further service is to help them understand that they have special roles to play and that those roles are vital to the success of the team. The team may have a captain or a coach, but its achievements belong to everyone.

Youth Teachers

The idea of giving our youth a significant teaching role seems at first daunting in light of the differential between their limited experiences and our far more extensive seasoning. However, if we look at the many small steps they have taken in the process of becoming teachers, we can gather some confidence in them. From their earliest school days, they have participated in one or another form of show-and-tell. Even in the elementary grades, they prepared and presented reports of educational value to their classmates. Finding appropriate teaching roles is simply a matter of using these experiences as a model and then finding appropriate units of material for them to teach.

Without probing into educational theory, here are some practical guidelines for developing and employing youth teachers.

As the overall leader, you can begin the process of developing both the skills and the confidence it takes to teach. One easy method is to regularly reserve time for folks to express their recent achievements, whether in the learning process toward a license or in the world of ham operations. You may spot reports that deserve fuller treatment and ask (apart from the group session to remove any pressure) the individual to make a longer report. You can also use well-placed questions in these sessions to aid the members in better articulating both the facts and the excitement of the achievement.

You can also remove some of the barriers to good teaching, such as the use of adult-size tables and podiums, having specified places for reporters and teachers to stand, and other practices best reserved for later in life. Sitting comfortably around a table or in some other group arrangement, with the youth teacher situated in a comfortably familiar way, can do wonders for overcoming stage fright. And, by all means, be a good example.

Youth Tutors

Teaching a group is only one half of the task. The best Elmering is a one-on-one affair in which the newcomer becomes a full person with highly individualized talents and weaknesses. Developing the spirit of individual assistance within the class or club can go a long way toward making it a permanent part of each member's natural way of thinking.

The process of developing a tutorial system can begin with something as simple as dividing the group into pairs for code practice, for prelicensing drill on question, or any number of other similar activities. These can be either mutual help sessions or activities in which the more experienced help the newcomers. Besides their primary function of reinforcing learning, these sessions will also help you identify potential tutors. Some of the group members will show a genuine enthusiasm for the task. You may detect that some of the experienced members do better in assisting with certain subjects or skills. These are observations you can capitalize on in developing the tutorial system within the group.

There are many ways to organize a tutorial system more formally, and your choice may depend on circumstance. The range of options generally runs, on the one hand, from having a "big buddy" for each newcomer to follow through the entire initial licensing process, and on the other, to having topical specialists available for special help on demand. Tailor the style of the tutoring to the nature of the group and its special needs. Since needs may change over the years, so too might the tutoring system.

In general, youth tutoring works best when there is a common study unit the tutor and the newcomer can work through together. This feature allows the session to have focus. However, encourage tutors to have some pure conversation time with the newcomer in order to let each person know the other. In addition, encourage tutors to let you know of any special circumstances that may arise in the course of tutoring. These may range from a unique problem facing the newcomer to the need for additional technical information to answer questions raised by the newcomer. Often, youth tutors will be more forthcoming with such notes if they contribute to the formulation of new things to teach that are for everyone.

Youth tutors require guidance, especially is maintaining a suitably modest approach to the newcomers. Learning how to be proud of what we have learned well enough to pass on to the next newcomer, while not flaunting the achievement, is a difficult task, even for very experienced teachers. Therefore, guidance sessions for youth tutors should include continuous attitude training as well as the other elements necessary for success. (These other elements include comprehension of the study unit, good tutorial techniques, and feedback on newcomer progress.)


These brief notes on youth teachers and tutors cannot hope to cover the entire subject. They are only an introduction designed to encourage their use in class and club situations where there is long-term contact among group members. Setting up a system of youth teachers and tutors requires more energy and involvement than merely making presentations. However, that effort translates into more energy and involvement expended by group members in helping each other. The end result is often a life time of dedication by more hams to amateur radio and to radio amateurs.

From Proceedings of the 1999 National ARRL Education Workshop, (Newington: ARRL, 1999), pp. 81-84. © L. B. Cebik, W4RNL. Data may be used for personal purposes, but may not be reproduced for publication in print or any other medium without permission of the author.

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