Jan 04, 2018
Tutoring is a noble calling but it can take some effort to stay in the game: tutor Josh Sohn shares his tips for long-term survival.
Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. - Henry David Thoreau
We live in a tricky time.
Not that long ago, advertising was confined to radio, print media, and TV, which meant that, for the most part, we knew when people were trying to sell us things. Today, highly customized ads, subtle product placements, and all-powerful tech and telecom companies have radically altered the advertising landscape and ballooned the industry to nearly $200 billion annually. And while ads come in all shapes and sizes, there are two enormous life imperatives which show up more than others: do what you love and buy stuff to help you become your best self.
The problem (or “challenge” if one is an advertiser) is these directives are often antithetical.
Should you pursue an art/passion/volunteering opportunity that speaks to your soul if doing so means forgoing life’s conveniences? Or should you work an abhorrent job for an ample salary to buy things whenever and on whatever scale you desire?
Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different responses. Romantics will tell you life is too short to do anything other than the thing you love. Realists will argue that the life strain of a profession which pays you little or nothing outweighs any spiritual boon from doing what you love. Still others will lament not knowing what it is that they genuinely love to do. And then there’s this sad fact: most of us have jobs that are neither lucrative nor spiritually fulfilling.
But what if there was a profession that was intellectually fulfilling, socially beneficial, and paid a livable salary? I’m talking, of course, about tutoring.
Having spent nearly the last 20 years working as a full-time tutor, I’m well acquainted with the challenges of the profession. But I also know first-hand the impact teaching can have. Nearly every day a new study is released lending scientific credence to what educators have long known: teaching is among the most important jobs in the entire world.
In one recent study, a positive student-teacher relationship at age 10 was shown to have a beneficial impact on the student’s personality and behavior up to four years later! If you’ve spent any time at all with teenagers, you know how important prosocial tendencies are for fostering healthy relationships.
Cliche as it may sound, kindling an intellectual curiosity in just one student can affect extraordinary positive change on the world. And while teacher burnout is well-documented and partly to do with these extraordinary responsibilities, tutoring typically allows tutors to exert more control over their learning environments than is afforded to classroom teachers. As a result, tutors can tutor longer and (likely) happier than other educators - assuming they want to. Tutor attrition tends to have more to do with tutors drifting off towards other interests than with professional burnout.
So tutoring represents an opportunity to do enormous social good, while generally asking less of tutors than is asked of classroom teachers, and while typically paying more.
But there’s a catch.
Building a self-sustaining tutoring practice entails more professional uncertainty (read: risk) than pursuing a more conventional teaching path.
For starters, independent tutors are heavily reliant on testimonials and referrals for new work opportunities. So if parents/friends/faculty don’t recommend you for whatever reason, then scaling up with ads/promotions probably won’t get you to the promised land of self-sustainability. Further, many households view tutoring as a luxury item and thus an obvious candidate to be excised when financial problems arise. And in the test prep world, tutors are generally retained only until the test, which can mean short gigs and high client churn.
So while tutoring has undeniable perks, none of that matters if you can’t generate enough tutoring hours to sustain you.
With that in mind, here are five techniques I’ve found that make tutoring gigs last longer and increase the likelihood of referrals:
1. Model Excellence
We all know the importance of positive modeling in early childhood development. When it comes to adolescence, this is just as critical. If the tutor is perpetually late, it’s only a matter of time before the student is too. Likewise, with cancellations and reschedules. Whether or not they directly acknowledge it, parents and students appreciate (and expect) diligence in their tutor. So behaving like a consummate professional will absolutely translate into new and/or extended tutoring opportunities.
2. Set realistic (attainable) academic goals
Frequently, parents and students perceive tutors as quick fixes to academic challenges. It’s not hard to see why: what parent wouldn’t want to believe that their son/daughter was only a trick or two away from an improved class performance/test score? Disabusing clients of this perspective can be daunting, but it’s essential. An expectation of instant stark academic improvement is almost certain to lead to disappointment. What’s more, chasing a quick gain can lead to an inferior product and an emphasis on the result ahead of the process, which is not a recipe for lasting academic gains.
3. Communicate honestly and openly with students and parents
As with the previous example, it can be difficult to tell the truth about student progress when things aren’t, well, progressing. Still, the more regularly and honestly you communicate with parents, the better they’ll understand the challenges before them and the more they’ll ultimately value your contribution. Session reports are an essential ingredient in that process.
4. Diversify your skill set
If you want to make yourself indispensable to a family and more marketable in general, brush up on specific academic skills. I’ve found that high school math and science, and college entrance exam (SAT and ACT) test prep skills are what parents want support in above all. Learning the intricacies of these or other disciplines means you’ll be more qualified for more tutoring opportunities. And remember, most parents would rather keep you on to help with something additional - provided you’re qualified - than search for a new tutor.
5. Stay positive
For most kids, school is just plain difficult. And the world already has plenty of parents and teachers and administrators who think admonishing kids is the way to push them forward academically. Of course, there are situations in which kids need to be chastised, but it’s been my experience (as both a tutor and a teacher) that kindness and an acknowledgement of things that the student has already done well go further than a more austere approach.
Teaching is difficult. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t really taught or has an agenda. But whether you’re a tutor or a classroom teacher, this much is undeniable: you have before you an incredible opportunity to change lives and ignite intellectual passion. And if you’re like me and you’re not sure you have the makeup for classroom teaching, tutoring represents a terrific foray into meaningful work that can also be flexible and financially viable.