Professional tutor Josh Sohn discusses the pros and cons of general versus specialized tutoring.
When I started tutoring in 2001, I had very little actual tutoring experience.
In high school, I’d worked as a teacher’s assistant. In college, I’d worked in a writing workshop. And for a short time post-college, I’d taught ESL at CUNY. In each position, there’d been some one-on-one work, but it was hardly robust -- and I certainly hadn’t received any formal tutor training. On top of all of that, I hadn’t really been tutored either. My father (a former math teacher) helped me through some unpleasant calculus at Stuyvesant and I’d enlisted a friend’s assistance with some economics while I was at Wesleyan, but that was it.
So when I landed my first tutoring gig, I knew only that I would be as patient, positive, and diligent as possible.
As I built relationships with my first few clients, they started to recommend me to their friends. But their friends’ kids didn’t always need help in the subjects I had experience with. Rather than pass on these new opportunities, I immersed myself in the new content because more skills meant more work. Over time, I was able to expand my tutoring repertoire beyond basic math and literature to Physics, Chemistry and SAT prep.
Diversifying my skills was good for acquiring new clients, but there was another upshot. Existing clients would occasionally have a disappointing quiz or test or paper in a subject that I hadn’t been explicitly hired to help out with. Alerting kids and parents to my willingness (and ability) to pitch in on other academic needs made me that much more indispensable to them.
All of this raises a key question: is it better to have one tutor offering support in a variety of subjects or several highly specialized tutors? Let’s tackle this from two perspectives: tutors and parents.
If you’re looking to build your client base, it’s in your best interest to have at least a few different subjects that you can effectively tutor. That said, pursuing a broader tutoring skill set may not be for you, which is fine. Here are some advantages to being a single-subject tutor vs. a multi-subject tutor:
Single Subject Tutor
- Depth of expertise and experience
- Less preparation required
- Clearer reputational build
- More broadly employable
- More hours with individual clients
- Less susceptible to seasonal/exam fluctuations
If you’re a parent looking for tutoring support, you’re probably looking for someone who can help your son or daughter improve academic performance quickly, and in a way that lasts. But what if your child needs help in more than one area? Should you look for several specialists or one person who can cover it all? Here are some pros and cons of hiring several single-subject tutors vs. one multi-subject tutor:
Several Single-Subject Tutors
- Likely superior content expertise
- More clarified session work/expectations
- Less expensive*
One Multi-Subject Tutor
- More efficient
- Easier to schedule
- Interdisciplinary learning opportunities
Here's the takeaway:
Tutors, if you think you can master multiple subjects well enough to be able to effectively guide a student to reach their goals, then go for it. If nothing else, you’ll gain a deeper insight into the academic challenges your existing students are up against.
Parents, if you find someone who truly has the skills to do it all, hire them. But if you can’t find that perfect diversified tutor, then it’s worth locking in individuals with the specific skills your child needs. If you do go this latter route, however, it’s essential that you set up clear, regular schedules with all of the tutors to avoid logistical confusion.
Most importantly, for both parents and tutors, the best way to ensure that the arrangement being considered is a good one for all parties involved is to meet face-to-face and discuss goals, process, and jointly construct a learning plan. And this meeting should ABSOLUTELY include the student who will be tutored. Whether you're a parent contemplating one multi-subject tutor or several single-subject tutors or you’re a tutor trying market your services, the foundation of high-efficacy individualized instruction is open and honest communication between student and tutor. So the sooner student and tutor begin building that critical rapport, the sooner academic gains can be achieved.
*The multiple subject-specific tutor's plan tends to allow parents to pause tutoring more easily and thus save some money. Still, regular (ideally weekly) work -- even if/when the student seems to be back on his/her feet -- is the best way to ensure strong academic results.
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