Evaluating Potential Tutoring Clients

Professional tutor and guest blogger Josh Sohn's method for evaluating tutoring clients and the importance of being particular.

For my first ten years as a tutor, I had my sights set on one challenge above all else: get clients. I had nobler pedagogical goals too, but they were secondary. By a lot. In order to support myself (let alone innovate as an educator) I needed fuel for the machine a.k.a. new students to tutor. With that in mind, there wasn’t a gig I’d turn away. Kids in Gravesend or Sunnyside — both hefty commutes for me — were yeses. I don’t regret that, but I do see things differently now.

These days I consider every potential client on three different categories. Okay, blogs are for truth — I score each prospective client in three different categories (*see note). Then, depending on the aggregate, I’ll either take on the client or politely decline.

Before we get to the categories, I’d like to offer a caveat: if you’re a new tutor looking to establish yourself within the industry, accruing tutoring experience really should take precedence. In that case, what follows may not directly apply to you. Still, learning which attributes matter most to you when it comes to your clients (no matter how many of them you’ve got) is helpful towards crafting your ideal work/life balance.

Here goes:

1. Proximity to Session Location

If our most precious (and least renewable) resource is time, then this has to be your top priority. Parents who demand you travel great distances to see their child will inevitably mean less time spent working. Beyond the financial ramifications, there’s the psychological toll (!) of spending extensive time in transit — there’s only so much podcasts can do for your well-being amidst arduous commutes.

Scale: 1–8 (8 = a short walk away, 6 = Skype/Facetime, 1 = hour+ transit required)

2. Potential Duration of Engagement

While it’s important to build a client base for right now, what about for next year and the year after that? Students with the potential to be clients for more than a few weeks/months are simply more attractive. Long-term clients not only alleviate pressure to find new students down the road, but there’s evidence that the longer a student/tutor relationship goes, the more effective that instruction becomes. Grade level is typically the best indicator of potential longevity, but do your research with the parent about his/her child. If it seems like there’s an opportunity for support beyond the proposed time frame, that should affect your evaluation.

Scale: 1–8 (8 = 3+ years of potential employment, 1 = 1 month till test)

3. Rate

If you’re independently wealthy or you simply prefer to work for free, this won’t apply to you. For most of us, however, rate matters. And it’s the metric over which we tend to have the most control. Case in point: I have 17 different rates for the 30+ kids I’m tutoring. (Thank you for keeping track of all of that, Clark!) The key questions here are: how much you value your time and how badly you want the gig. Rate is an extremely tutor-specific calculus, as it connects to your cost of living, lifestyle, sense of self, etc. It absolutely should be a part of your evaluation of new clients.

Scale: 1–8 (8 = a rate that exceeds anything you’ve ever been paid, 1 = you were paid more in high school)

If the aggregate for the above lands at or above 20, it’s a client you should actively try to enroll — and that includes being flexible on rate. If it’s in the 10–20 range, you’ll want to weigh some personal life factors as to how badly you want the work. And if the score is below 10, you’ll probably be better off letting someone else take on the client. Remember: if you take on a tutoring gig that you don’t really want, it won’t just erode your quality of life, it’ll make you less available to other more desirable clients down the road. And perhaps most importantly, the student likely won’t be getting the support he or she needs in order to really shine academically. No matter who they are and what sort of community/household they come from, kids need responsible adults they can count on — so saying yes to a client and then changing your mind down the road incurs extraordinary risks for that child that go well beyond the academic. Being a good tutor means knowing your subject material inside and out, but it also means being a good human.

*Note: There are dozens of attributes you can/should consider in evaluating prospective tutoring clients. For simplicity, I winnowed this post down to three, but honorable mention for potential breadth of tutoring, the educational environment within household, schedule flexibility of the student, the student’s academic history, younger siblings, particularly unruly pets, and many more.