Jul 19, 2017
Professional tutor Josh Sohn discusses managing multiple students and indicators that a client load is too heavy.
In April of 2017, Alex Barron successfully flash juggled 14 squash balls. That is insane. And incredible. It’s also a fitting analogy for tutoring, and, well, an extremely busy life.
We all know what juggling looks like, but what about the math of it? According to Newton, the time a ball spends in flight is proportional to the square root of the height of the throw. Here’s how I translate that: if you want to put several balls in the air at once, you can either cultivate lightning fast reflexes or get those balls higher in the air, so you have more time in between touches. Needless to say, both are preferable. But here’s the thing — increasing the number of balls in the air and the height of those balls each incurs unique risks and challenges.
Let’s say each ball represents a student, and each touch constitutes an interaction with that student or that student’s parent or guardian. An interaction can be a tutoring session, but it can also be a text or an email or a phone call or a Facetime appointment. And when you’re talking about an involved, engaged parent (which is great!) you’re probably also looking at increased interactions with the family. While frequent communication diminishes the chances of things getting lost or forgotten, it also means more management responsibilities for the tutor and, in my experience, a higher level of anxiety for everyone involved.
The remedy to being overrun with too-frequent interactions with one or several students seems simple: just throw those balls higher in the air, aka communicate with students and their families less. But the longer students go without seeing you, the greater the chances are they’ll lose track of assignments, and grow fuzzy on whatever academic support you’re offering them, all of which can drive down your value as a tutor. Further, if your way of limiting interactions with a client is to just ignore correspondences, you’re not only putting your student’s academic performance at risk, you might also be nudging that family towards a more responsive tutor.
If you’ve found (and are able to maintain) enough tutoring to satisfy you financially while still attending to all of your clients’ needs, then I congratulate you. You’ve achieved something amazing. But as someone who has worked within the tutoring industry for nearly 20 years, I can promise you that the more you cultivate your craft as a tutor, the more people will seek you out, and the more likely it is you’ll become overwhelmed.
For the purposes of this piece we’re going to look at indicators that you’ve got a problem with your client load, and corresponding remedies to help you (and your students) towards a healthier and more productive academic arrangement. The fixes are ranked Low, Medium and High in accordance with the severity of the problem.
Depending on how many missed appointments/late cancellations you’re experiencing, the fix can be simple and cosmetic, or complicated and existential. It could be you that’s over-extended or your student. Or both.
Low (1–3 missed appt’s / month)
Medium (4–10 missed appt’s / month)
High (10+ missed appt’s / month)
For most parents, there’s nothing worse than being blindsided by a low score, missed homework or underwhelming final project re: the subject material you’ve been doing. Isn’t the point of tutoring to improve academic outcomes? Beyond the obvious ramifications for the student, you’ve probably ruined the possibility of recommendations from that family and, in extreme cases, you may even have increased challenges extracting payment for work you’ve already done.
NOTE: Sometimes parents have unreasonable expectations of tutoring efficacy, but with these simple actions, you can greatly diminish the likelihood of drawing parental ire.
We all measure quality of life differently. Whether it’s being able to get 8 hours of sleep, making a certain amount of money, having the time and resources to travel, and/or having time for friends and family — you probably have some idea what your ideal life looks like. And if nothing else, you can feel when you’ve drifted uncomfortably far from that halcyon place. If you’re finding yourself trending in that unfortunate direction, rest assured, there are things you can do to right the ship.
I can’t juggle.
But over the years I’ve gotten better at managing a large roster of kids and parents. Part of that is meeting clients before agreeing to work with them in order to glean as much info pre-tutoring as possible. But there’s also a feel that comes with experience — some clients give off a vibe that says, “this work will be difficult.”
While you can’t know exactly how the work will unfold, you can be honest with yourself and your clients when you’re feeling stretched. And more importantly, you can remind yourself that it’s probably because you’re good at what you do and caring and responsible that you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Most tutors want to help as many kids as we can as much as we can, but sometimes the path to that involves taking a step back from (or at least reevaluating) your existing obligations. Not only will that make you happier and healthier, it’ll probably also result in better outcomes for your students.
NOTE: I’ve found that 5 hours of total engagement each week per student — and that includes actual tutoring sessions and independent student homework — is the sweet spot for meaningful academic gains.
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