Guest post 11-7 – Bujtás Barbi on teaching one-to-one

Balatonfüred, on the shores of Lake Balaton, Europe's biggest lake in Western Hungary

My next guest blogger is Bujtás Barbara (aka Bujtás Barbi), who lives in the lovely resort town of Balatonfüred, on the shores of Lake Balaton, which is – despite what she says below – the biggest lake in Europe. When I read Barbi’s blog (, I was quite intrigued by her take on one-to-one teaching, so I asked her to tell me more about her work.

She’s done exactly that in, I think you’ll agree, an engaging and quirky way. Plus, as someone called Ken, I’ve always wanted a guest blog from someone called Barbi. 😛

Teaching one-to-one

Bujtás Barbi

Hi, I’m Bujtás Barbara from the really tiny town of Balatonfüred by the really tiny Lake Balaton in really tiny Hungary and I’m a really tiny teacher. I’m not even a real teacher (I don’t even work for a school, all the institutional stuff I do is that I teach tiny kiddies in a wee-little family daycare.)

Let alone my blog, which is another teeny-tiny one, not well structured, a real mess, sometimes in English, sometimes in Hungarian, brrrr. All the more surprising Ken’s invitation to be a guest blogger, he is definitely one of the great big ones :O Thank you, Ken.

The tiny, not so serious thing I do most of the time is teaching one-to-one. You might think is a ‘lightweight’ area, as there is no solid literature on the topic, hardly any books published. This is what nearly everyone (TEFL/TESL) does for at least a while but it seems like some sort of secret. It can’t be seen somehow. No tangible methodology except for business English. Am I right? It is out of the interests of big publishing houses, that’s why it seems to be such a neglected area one might say.

How come I’ve been focusing on one-to-one? Well, I had never wanted to be a teacher before I actually became one. (I actually wanted to be a jazz guitarist :D) I have never believed in school as such. (Large groups of  randomly selected kids, all presented the same content using the very same approach, it still sounds weird to me, sorry.) Right after secondary school I didn’t even want to go to university, I hated all schools so much, not my one-to-one guitar lessons of course.

The whole TEFL thing started when a friend of mine wanted to learn English and asked me (someone with an English language exam certificate, level B2 or so) to teach him English. I said yes, I thought “Right, I have my old coursebooks, I know how to learn English, consequently I know how to teach it.” Yes? No. It turned out he did NOT learn in the same way I had. This made me curious and basically that’s why I wanted to go to teacher training college. During the three years of EFL teacher training I had one-to-one students, so it was indeed in-service training. No need to say all the methodology we learned was kind of aimed at groups of learners.

The first lecture of my Materials Design course (delivered by Poór Zoltán) started out with the statement: we teach students, not coursebooks. Sure, definitely. But how to teach so many of them? Needs analysis. Needs of which one of them, for goodness’ sake?

The more I worked and studied the clearer it became: no single method or coursebook was suitable for everyone. Having face-to-face one-to-one lessons you can’t just skip the personality, interests, attitudes of your students. This is the scheme that allows truly needs-based content and methodology.  Learning is so personal, isn’t it? I was insecure, that was not mainstream at all. I took part in a workshop by Andrew Wright on storytelling. He used a wonderful metaphor: when you see a group photo, who is the first person to find? Yourself. Then why not use other “genres of photography” when teaching English? How about “portrait”?

It was difficult that time, I was trying to photocopy single pages or exercises from coursebooks that seemed relevant to my student, authentic material was not within easy reach. Customise materials, so to say. Around 2000-2001 or so I bumped into Scott Thurnbury’s Dogme ELT as I remember.  Hoorray! That was the way! I didn’t have Internet access at the time plus I’m a non-nest. Although Dogme ELT was just the right solution, apparently Utopian back then.

I did work for schools however. A complete disaster I was. I’m no authority figure at the slightest (you know I am the one who is always followed by the security guy in shops). Kids’ silly jokes made me laugh, instead of stopping them from being distracted I got distracted myself 🙂 These schools are pretty artificial: students sitting with their backs to each other in silence (at least what they are supposed to be doing). Some teachers managed to “keep discipline”. I had the feeling that my students wanted to let off steam in my lessons after and before the 45 minutes with the “strict” ones.

It took shape: groups are not for me, especially in state schools. However one-to-one does not seem economical, to me it appeared to be the only efficient way of learning a language.

Roughly this is how and why ….

I have been a freelance EFL teacher for 12 years now. 90 % of my time I work on one-to-one basis, I have 7-12 lessons a day.

That often means the ‘human touch’ is  somewhat deeper than the usual daily encounter, mind you, spending 45, 60, 90 minutes with the same person each time. I am lucky I can get to know the very best face of each of my students. That is the sweet part of one-to-one, also you are forced to be flexible and open. Of course you can’t expect the feeling of being a real leader (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy making a group move:), what you can expect here is that you’ll have to become a “student forever”. Eternity? 😀

Years ago there was a boy (13) I ‘taught’ for a couple of years. It was not teaching in the traditional sense, rather talking about things he was interested in, in English of course. Luckily he always managed to express what he wanted to.

He spoke good English  (he used to spend most of his free time playing games on the computer, later programming, styling computer houses ). His focus was mainly the IT world and other craft projects. I was just listening to him, as I remember,  asking him questions, things.

Later we kind of became friends, I was not teaching him any more, but he took me gliding, we went hiking, talked a lot. He went to the USA as an exchange student, we often talked on Skype, I read his Myspace blog etc.

Well, he has always been the kind of student who seems to me much more intelligent than I have ever been, ever would be. Even when he was ‘just’ a kid I really appreciated the guy he would become one day.

After some years I met this boy. It was amazing! Now I am still an EFL teacher, the setting has slightly changed however. Now I rely mostly on the Internet, I have a PLN, I do learn something daily, I may say my strong point is ICT in EFL. (Without the Internet personalized or semi-personalized one-to-one courses are the edge of unearthly-supernatural for me, being a non-native speaker of English.)

It was astonishing how we were still able to understand each other’s ideas. He is a student at a technical university, studying IT engineering I guess, he has lots of other projects as well.

It was shocking: we think in the same way about certain things . Hardly ever do I find such a like-minded person around me! And he was a schoolboy when I was already a teacher.

Thrilling. There comes the question: Would I ever have become a techy EFL teacher if I had not had the opportunity to talk to that  boy back then in 2001 or so? Well, that time I was not especially enthusiastic about computers. Was it my flair for finding the sparkle in certain kids?

Now I think that gamer boy hugely contributed to what I have become in my profession, added a lot to the person I am now. Thank you, I feel fine!

Very true that teachers have immense influence on students future lives. But never forget it might be mutual 🙂 Just listen to them.

With web 2.0 my time has certainly come (being  a student-centred-one-to-one-EFL-facilitator-assistant, that is). Thanks Bendegúz (the main character of the above story) for opening that ICT window for me.

And thanks all the others I’ve had the opportunity to learn from, I might not even be aware of all.

Barbi blogs at



12 thoughts on “Guest post 11-7 – Bujtás Barbi on teaching one-to-one

  1. Hi Barbara – that was a very interesting read! Twelve lessons a day! OMG. Can I ask you how you manage to handle so many?…

    I used to think of myself as a devoted group teacher. I thought one-to-one was not for me – unlike you – as it missed the group dynamics and the games and stuff. But when I still had to teach one-to-one (had a baby), I changed my mind. One-to-one style taught me quite a few things about needs analysis and adjusting a coursebook, as well as finding a key to the individual – all the advantages you mentioned. I’ve worked out a number of special tailor-made courses and made a considerable professional advancement (contrary to my expectations). However, I still miss the group dynamics and variety so much I’m back to teaching groups again – simply cannot help it – now equipped with the techniques I mastered with individuals in addition to group-management techniques. I still am positive that in some respects working with groups has a lot of invaluable advantages over working one-to-one – my one-to -one students thouroughly enjoying the speaker’s club I’ve launched. They say it’s something they were missing!
    Yet, I agree about the personal touch and everything else you mentioned. Perhaps, one-to-one + some group work is a perfect match – this is my inference so far… Great to read about other teachers experience. Thanks.

    1. Hi Kate,
      I said 7-12 lessons :), which is quite easy to manage with your computer at hand. I have set up a blog or a Facebook group (as for the newest solution) for most of my students, that makes planning and ‘administration’ easy, also everyone is in picture.

      Great to read you have also done one-to-one, especially what it added to your professional development–why isn’t one-to-one part of pre-service teacher training? Hmmm…

      You are absolutely right about group dynamics, I also love it when cooperation and games are in the air, though. Luckily I have some groups. 

      Another great point is your one-to-one + some group work idea! Well, my one-to-one ‘student-portfolio’ is made up of  mainly kinds of learners: 1 adult learners who can’t fit language school courses in with their schedule, 2 students preparing for exams (mostly teens), 3 school children who learn English at school anyway but have problems, 4 school children who learn English at school anyway but they (and their parents) would like more.
      That is to say nearly all are exposed to group learning.  
      There is a strange phenomenon worth mentioning over here in Hungary, it might be called ‘shadow education’  (spooky…hha!) That means large number of students attend private EFL and math lessons, just to boost up their school performance. The mere aim is–unfortunately–to improve their marks. (Not necessarily their skills or knowledge.) This sort of tutorial is often a secret one (some school teachers don’t fancy the fact that their students take/need private tutorial). As this system is highly infomal, no one knows what really happens, kids’ test results keep improving, school teachers might get a false reflection of students’ progress and thus of the quality of  their own work. What a backwash…swirl…omg.  
      Would this massive structure of informal shadow tuition exist if schools were able to provide sufficient training in group-circumstances? Anyway, what is sufficient?

      Thanks for your comment. It made me think.

  2. I loved the post and as a person who has taught (and still teaches occasionally) one-to-one I totally agree with what you say, first about books and methodology and second about the dynamics of the pair.
    The story with your student is also a good example how interactive this process is: as another blogger somewhere here says “when one teaches, two learn”….

  3. Hello Barbi!

    What a lovely story! Thanks for sharing it! I’m also convinced that teaching and learning are inter-mingled. As a teacher of group and one-to-one classes, I can tell you that both have pros and cons but it depends on the students’ styles. I have one-to-one students who prefer to have conversation classes in that way, which is a more personalised type. I even have a one-to-one student via skype and I enjoy those classes.
    Hugs from Argentina!

  4. Huh! I’ve just met that then-13-year-old guy! Now he is 24 or so and can drink more beer than me! Aaaaaand I was right! I mean I was right to respect the person he was to become as a kid! Yippie!

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