Jun 14, 2017
Professional tutor and guest blogger Josh Sohn's thoughts on how to make the most of the summer as a tutor.
When I was 7, my older sister (12) and I went to a magical place in Vermont called Camp Thoreau. I don’t know how deeply my parents considered the decision at the time, but I will forever be indebted to them because of it. Thoreau was an incredible place: brimming with jangly guitars, homemade tie-dye shirts, and leaky canoes. To this day, Thoreau is responsible for some of my best friends and many of my fondest memories.
But camp was just camp.
Whatever my parents thought of Thoreau’s politics, I was there chiefly (and explicitly) to have fun. If I learned something about the world or how to behave ethically or how to hit line drives to right field, that was great. But it wasn’t the point. And I certainly wasn’t there for resume building.
As elementary school turned to middle school, Thoreau gradually started splitting time with more overt “academically enriching” opportunities. By the time I started high school, it had been supplanted altogether in favor of activities that would look good to colleges. I don’t begrudge my parents this evolution. For starters, I had mostly outgrown being a camper if not the camp itself. And those “college-y” programs my parents found for me were thrilling in different ways.
As an adult educator, my perspective on the summer has evolved in some ways and stayed the same in others.
When I first started tutoring, I was 22 and I welcomed summer’s slower work cycle. In those early days, I fluctuated between 3 and 5 students at a time with only one who spanned multiple school years. It was something, but it wasn’t enough to live on. To make ends meet, I had a few other part-time teaching jobs, worked as a landscaper, and generally took on whatever miscellaneous gigs I could find. It was a fun time, but juggling different jobs was chaotic. Summer represented a much-needed break from everything and, at 22, the world was begging to be explored. So most summers, I sublet my apartment and traveled as exotically and adventurously as I could.
The downside, of course, came in September when I’d finally face my dwindled bank account and try to will the phone to ring. (Selling my Stratocaster and guitar amp to pay rent was the low-point for me in this early period.)
As I tutored more and started building a client base, my perspective on the summer (on life, really) started to shift. Instead of just hoping for new students to magically appear in the subsequent fall, I started nudging parents of existing students in spring re: continued academic support down the road. Some declined outright, but even those who assented did so in the form of vague promises. Unsurprisingly, many of those vague promises went unredeemed and it became clear that I needed a new strategy if I really wanted to add meaningful client security.
One idea was to push parents to sign some sort of contract to ensure that I’d be retained in the fall. (Nobody went for that.) Another idea was to connect with schools as a supplemental instructor or perhaps even summer school teacher. (Between my own reluctance/lack of classroom teaching skills and many schools’ elaborate internal tutor referral protocol, that didn’t go very far.)
Then it hit me.
The trick wasn’t artificially convincing parents to keep me on, but rather making myself truly indispensable to them. And the way to do that was to become more diversified in my skills so that they could rely on me for more varied academic support. I decided to start with test prep.
Discerning the industry leaders wasn’t difficult, and so I’d spend a few hours each day over the summer thumbing through prep books and exam hacks, keeping what I liked and discarding what I didn’t. In retrospect, this was an era in which my own personal tutoring methodology/techniques started taking shape, though I’m sure I didn’t see it that way then. I just wanted to be able to teach as many subjects/tests as would allow me to get more and retain more clients.
We live in an era of high specialization and so perhaps it’s unusual that my “innovation” was to broaden my skills as opposed to sharpening one or two. But it worked. Parents who’d hired me for school math support were initially surprised when I told them I could also pitch in on SAT II Literature or AP US History or remedial French, but they mostly responded as I’d hoped. They already knew and trusted me and adding more subjects to the existing tutoring arrangement didn’t require the same level of convincing for their son/daughter as finding a new tutor. Plus, I reminded them, this would mean greater efficiency: if I arrived at a session to help with math but there wasn’t anything pressing, we could turn to other areas that needed more attention. And the more skills I had, the less likely parents were to cancel tutoring sessions — a perpetual challenge for even the most successful tutors.
These days, I still look forward to the summer. It’s still the best time of year to travel and/or pursue other interests and projects because, no matter how hard I try to drum up business, the workload will always be lighter than it is during the academic school year. And summer still means time for professional development. In 2002, that was studying AP Biology so I could tutor it. In 2017, it’s building data-driven analytical tools to help kids score even higher on the SAT, ACT and SAT II’s. Perhaps it’s significant that as I’ve accumulated a more reliable client base, I’ve drifted away from adding skills toward sharpening them.
At the height of my tutoring year, I’ll see as many as 7 students in a single 10-hour workday. On top of the physical exhaustion, high-pressure test prep brings with it a mountain of residual anxiety. Put differently, pushing worn-out teens towards ever more prep confers an emotional toll not only for the student but also the tutor. Don’t get me wrong, there are parents who will grind their kids down with or without me as their tutor, but if I can spare a student or two from any unnecessary burnout, I can sleep easier at night. And, of course, the longer you work with a family and the more they trust you, the more able you are to steer them towards a healthier work/life balance for their kids.
A few days ago, I ran into an old friend from Thoreau who I hadn’t seen in years. He’s a father of two (3 and 7) and was weighing summer programs for his kids. I asked him if he’d thought of sending his kids to a place like Thoreau, and I saw something flicker in him. Before he could respond though, his phone buzzed and whatever was there disappeared. “It’s a different world these days,” he said, and downed his coffee as he stood up to leave. I wanted to reminisce with him about capture the flag and talk about what happens to over-scheduled 7-year-olds when they become teens, but before I could say anything, he was shuffling off to collect his oldest at soccer practice.
It is a different world these days. But as a tutor, you’ve got a unique opportunity (responsibility?) to offer kids and parents crucial insights that go beyond the academic.
For more tips on keeping your tutoring business at full speed during the slow months, join Clark today.