Feb 28, 2018
As a tutor, knowing how and when to communicate directly with your students or when to escalate an issue to their parent, can make all the difference in nurturing a healthy and successful tutoring engagement.
When it comes to triangles, it really depends.
Pascal’s is fascinating. Bermuda’s is (supposedly) dangerous. 3-4-5 triangles are a personal favorite of mine, given how often they seem to show up on the SAT and ACT. And then there’s the Triangle Offense, which ruined my favorite team for years.
But of all the triangles, I wrestle with one more than all of the others combined: the triangular relationship between tutors, students, and parents.
I’ve written before about the confusion that can arise from not knowing exactly who one works for, so here I’d like to focus on communication. More specifically:
How to disrupt communication protocol when the tutoring isn't working as well as it should
“17 to 20,” I say. “Hit it.” We’re reviewing four math questions he’s just completed. David looks at me and grins. “D, F, C, G,” he says.
“BET!” I respond. He pumps his fist in celebration. I’ve said exactly one word and he knows he's nailed all four questions.
Every student-tutor relationship is unique and so, of course, is the shared parlance therein. While some tutors insist on keeping their dialogue with students extraordinarily professional, I’ve evolved away from that over time. To be sure, tutors (like everyone else) are usually better off adopting a more formal disposition at the outset of a tutoring gig, but as the tutor and student get to know one another, an exciting opportunity arises to loosen things up. To me, actively cultivating this sort of banter isn’t just fun, it also usually results in better academic outcomes.
For starters, kids who legitimately enjoy spending time with their tutor are less likely to cancel. And cancellations - just like missed days of school - are the arch-enemy of academic progress. Consider also that the most productive tutoring engagements are fundamentally built on trust. And what better way to build trust with a student than actively cultivating a rapport - sometimes called “matching” - which has been scientifically proven to help build trust.
If tutor-student communication works best when it’s casual, tutor-parent communication is generally the opposite.
In the vast majority of households, the tutoring is sponsored by an adult (usually parent) and not the students themselves. Further, it’s the rare parent who witnesses much if any of the actual tutoring happening. (And this is a good thing!)
So for many parents, tutoring is, first and foremost, an expenditure. And the extent to which that expenditure manifests in better grades, more confidence, and impressive test scores is generally how the product (read: tutor) gets evaluated. Of course, not all parents see tutoring so transactionally, but the nature of communication between parent and tutor can be critical to framing the work that’s being done such that it can continue in a productive way.
A tutor who breezily chats with a parent (or refuses to communicate whatsoever) can send the message that the tutor doesn’t take the work seriously. This can cause parents to second-guess the tutor’s pedagogy, which can spell trouble for everyone. On the other hand, a tutor who regularly communicates with parents in a mature fashion and is punctual and professionally attired, is signalling to the parents that the student is in capable hands. This can be especially important if the tutoring doesn’t instantly produce stark academic improvement, an inflection point at which disgruntled parents can be inclined to pull the plug.
Written session reports are the cleanest way to communicate in a controlled professional manner and can gird the tutoring (and child!) from unhelpful parental interventions.
And yet, sometimes communication breaks down. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of tutor, student and parents, things start to sputter. This can manifest in missed homework, unexpectedly low test scores, frequent (and last-minute) cancellations or a slew of other indicators. And while looping parents in on assignments from the very beginning limits the likelihood of things unfolding this way, nothing’s perfect. In that case, it can be helpful to reconsider the communication protocol.
1. Talk directly to the student
In my experience, the most direct path usually is the best -- especially when it comes to education. Remind the student as unequivocally as you can that regular effort (homework, tutoring, active class participation etc.) is the surest path to academic achievement.
2. Talk directly to the parent
If you’ve spoken to the student and the problem hasn’t abated, it’s probably time to speak to the adult. This can be done within session reports, but is generally best handled by phone or in person.
3. Urge the parent to intervene with their son/daughter
The truth is: this shouldn’t be necessary. The parent is, after all, the parent and he/she should know how to talk to their child. But if you’re really trying to affect meaningful academic change, then being a catalyst for a shift in the way a parent interacts with his/her child may be the most meaningful contribution you can make.
Good tutors are two things above all else: customizers and communicators. Beyond that, every tutor has his/her own unique means of specializing instruction and getting through to one’s students -- both of which typically vary from student to student or even for a single student over an extended period of time. Still, building a culture of regular, direct dialogue with both student and parent (however colloquially one chooses to do so) can only help academic outcomes. In some instances, it can even lead to lasting life change for student, parent and tutor alike.