Scaling Up

Five things tutors can do to improve skills and scale business successfully.

When I was seven, Back to the Future was released. I wanted to see it in the theater with a conviction that can really only be experienced by kids that age. Citing inappropriate adult content, my parents refused, forcing me instead to wait a few months for the movie to be released on VHS. It wasn’t long before I forgot how unfairly I'd been deprived, but my interest in time travel? That continues to this day.

As we enter National Tutoring week - a natural opportunity to reflect upon one’s tutoring career - I can’t help but wonder about traveling back in time to do things differently. While that quest remains theoretical, I'm hopeful that there are some among you readers who are currently in that early stage of tutoring and can still benefit from some of the lessons (read: mistakes) I fell prey to in those early days.

With that in mind, here are five tips that will not only improve your skills as a tutor, but also super-charge your ability to scale up your tutoring business without any loss in product quality whatsoever:

1.Record keeping
  • Why it matters: It’s not exactly revolutionary that diligent, accurate record keeping is an integral part of most successful businesses. For tutors, it’s even more critical because each student/household/engagement is so unique.

  • What you can do: Clark’s Learning Plan and Session Reports functionality are amazing tools and a great place to begin. The Learning Plan helps set and manage parent and teacher expectations, while the Session Reports not only keep parents looped in on the work being done, but can also confer critical student-specific pedagogical insights that can serve students above and beyond the tutoring underway. As great as those tools are, you don’t have to stop there. Everything from students’ answers to questions on practice tests to grades to test scores to unique learning preferences to things as mundane as home and school addresses and faculty/administrator emails should be recorded. For me, Google Drive, Dropbox and things like these work great towards keeping my data accessible and organized.

  • How it will help you be a better tutor: While tutoring requires an extraordinary degree of flexibility and improvisational skills, marketing and client acquisition is far more scientific. The more parents trust that you are organized and disciplined, the more likely it is you will be hired. Remember, most people -- adolescents in particular -- struggle with staying organized, so demonstrating that you personally possess that skill is demonstrating an immediate value-add to a prospective client. Further, the ability to draw on lessons learned from past students (something record-keeping facilitates) will absolutely improve your tutoring skills. And all this is even more true within the world of standardized test prep, where both the importance of a system and the stakes tend to be higher.

2. Study (and keep studying!) the content
  • Why it matters: As important as it is for tutors to have great interpersonal skills, so is good, old-fashioned content expertise. The more technical/specialized your subjects are (think: Chemistry, European History, and Calculus) the more essential it is that you are able to quickly and accurately answer your students’ questions.

  • What you can do: When I started tutoring in 2001, my preferred place for free, self-guided professional development was Barnes & Noble. With brick and mortar bookstores disappearing by the day, you might be better served going to a library or even doing your research online. And if you’re really serious about becoming a master tutor - consider buying a few of your own textbooks, test prep books, and/or content review packets, so that you can mark them up and do the “workouts” therein. And if you want to learn and increase visibility, review your content out in the world, so that potential clients can see and possibly even hire you.

  • How it will help you become a better tutor: Increasing your content skills means it will be harder for kids to stump you with questions on obscure aspects of the subject(s) you’re tutoring. But more than this, deep content expertise increases efficiency within your sessions by allowing you to quickly and deftly field questions and then funnel students back to the tasks at hand. And on top of that, word of content mastery tends to travel fast, which will mean more business for you down the road.

3. Streamline your payment procedure
  • Why it matters: Not being paid for work you’ve done is terrible. And exhausting. And completely avoidable.

  • What you can do: Let Clark handle payment processing for you. And if your clients can’t or won’t move over to Clark’s system, consider insisting upon up-front payment and/or instituting and enforcing (!) strict late-payment fees.

  • How it will help you become a better tutor: When the money part of your tutoring practice is streamlined, you can focus on what really matters: becoming a great tutor. Things like keeping good records, volunteering, taking on unusual gigs, and studying content all get more feasible when your valuable time and energy isn’t going to nagging delinquent clients.

4. Volunteering
  • Why it matters: Society and the educational community in particular desperately need volunteers. Also, it’s good for your health!

  • What you can do: The Brooklyn Public Library, and New York Cares are just a few organizations doing great work and bringing much needed services to the communities that need them most. And with each of these organizations, there are opportunities and affiliations that go well beyond the New York community.

  • How it will help you become a better tutor: Beyond contributing positively to society and improving your health, volunteering will allow you to log critical hours and thus acquire essential tutoring skills. We are all busy, but volunteer tutoring represents an amazing opportunity to both do something positive and make yourself more employable down the road.

5. Be adventurous with tutoring opportunities
  • Why it matters: Great tutors can quickly and adeptly cultivate rapport with new clients. There’s simply no better way to improve your skills in this arena than tutoring a wide variety of kids.

  • What you can do: The next time you receive a tutoring inquiry from someone at the edges of New York or for a rate that doesn’t seem economically wise or feasible, don’t reject it out of hand. You might offer that client a discount for Skype or Facetime tutoring or even structure your fee in such a way that it increases over time and/or is linked to the student’s progress. But even if none of these are possible, consider that the gains from tutoring someone outside of your immediate community and comfort zone may go well beyond your immediate remuneration.

  • How it will help you become a better tutor: There are a lot of tutors in New York. And most parents understand that they don’t have to look that hard for someone who can offer their child support. And yet, direct word of mouth recommendations from friends and colleagues still tends to carry more weight than conventional advertising. When you venture into remote communities, you create completely new word-of-mouth referral opportunities for yourself. And before you know it, you may be going to Manhattan Beach for 5 kids and not just 1.

Whether you've decided to make tutoring a full-fledged career or you're just looking to get your feet wet in the industry, you might as well tutor with integrity. If you embrace one or several of the above tips, you will (at the very least) learn whether tutoring is for you. Then again, you can always just wing it and hope a Delorean arrives out of nowhere to whisk you back in time so you can rewrite your past...

I’m not holding my breath.

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