Jun 21, 2017
Professional tutor and guest blogger Josh Sohn's thoughts on the best and worst places to tutor.
It’s raining. Hard.
I check my watch. It’s only 1:04 pm, but I’m nervous. Elian is never late. In fact, he’s been so consistently early for our 1 pm session that I’ve taken to putting 1250–2:20 in my calendar for our standing appointment. I shoot him a text: “You on your way?” Another few minutes pass. Nothing. Now it’s 1:10 and the rain has only gotten harder and I’m pretty sure-
The doorbell rings. I smile and let a drenched and profusely apologetic Elian into my home office.
This is new.
It’s no secret that the physical learning environment has a profound impact on academic outcomes. Any teacher will tell you: student customization of the classroom, space between desks, light, temperature, desk orientation, etc. all contribute to students’ ability to concentrate, take in information, and retain it. With this in mind — and in a bit of (rare) great news — all NYC public schools are now in the process of being properly air conditioned.
When it comes to tutoring, however, the physical location of the instruction tends to take a back seat to convenience and schedule — with little thought given to where a student might learn best or a tutor might instruct most effectively. This is particularly unfortunate because, as compared to classroom teachers, tutors have a degree of location flexibility that’s often wasted in the name of seeing as many students as possible.
Within any tutoring scenario, there are lots of things at play — from the makings of the physical learning location to the student’s and tutor’s unique concentration capacities, to financial considerations etc. In other words, every situation is unique and a setup that works for one tutor or one particular student might not work for others. For the purposes of this conversation, I’d like to focus on where I tend to work, why, and how my own perspective on each location’s role in tutoring efficacy has shifted over the years.
Let’s start at the bottom:
Don’t get me wrong — I love libraries. With well over a hundred branches throughout the five boroughs, they score high on convenience and even higher on free. Add in the 300+ Starbucks and you’re never more than a few blocks from a place to work. The problem, of course, is the externalities. Whether it’s screaming toddlers, a lack of chairs/tables, spilled soy macchiatos, work-thwarting EDM, oblivious tourists, a lack of power sources, or inconsistent WiFi, there’s just so much beyond one’s control. Especially for short sessions, giving away a few minutes while waiting for seating is extra damaging. If it’s truly the only option and/or if you’ve found a highly productive neutral location, then so be it. Personally, I’ve concluded that I rarely do my best work in neutral locations and so I’ve increasingly steered clients away from that configuration.
Current student allocation: 5%.
Once upon a time tutoring was a luxury item for only the most affluent. The explosion of the tutoring industry has democratized the field somewhat in creating more and cheaper options, but the culture of an in-home specialist persists. And many parents, tutors, and students simply assume that on site in-home tutoring is just how things are done. But not all homes are created (or configured) equal. Many of the aforementioned challenges of a Starbucks or a library hold true for apartments, with the crucial addition of unruly pets. Seriously. I’ve found that NYC dogs, often socially traumatized by too many hours spent each day in a tiny apartment, are the single biggest impediment to high-quality in-home tutoring. Still, one’s ability to banish Bailey, move to a quieter room, or turn off the music or TV all contribute to making on site in-home tutoring generally more productive than neutral location tutoring.
Current student allocation: 50%.
Let me first say: having a home office where one can tutor is an extraordinary luxury. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to present this option to clients and it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve come to understand (and implement) student/tutor chair configuration. To my surprise, parents have increasingly opted for it, and I have a few ideas why this might be. First, see the chaos inherent in the previous examples. Second, many parents believe that having their son/daughter going to a separate location for tutoring can create a culture of seriousness that’s harder to achieve in one’s living room. (I tend to agree.) Third, it’s a low-stakes opportunity for parents to endow their children with the responsibility of getting to and from the tutoring appointment on their own. Fourth, sometimes parents need their own space and knowing that their kid won’t be home for even a few hours each week is appealing. Fifth — and perhaps most critically — I make this option decidedly less expensive than on-site tutoring. For me, the in-home office tutoring option is preferable for two obvious reasons: control and convenience. I can block out distractions, give students snacks, and print worksheets with ease. Further, tutoring at home allows me to see 20–30% more students by obviating unpaid, inconsistent, and often frustrating travel-time. When I’m hosting students, I can also stay productive when they’re late (or have to leave early) in a way that’s much more difficult out in the world.
Current student allocation: 30%
This is the trickiest of the options to evaluate. On the one hand, I have complete control of my own work environment when I tutor in this mode. These days I video chat almost exclusively from my office, but I’ve also done so from co-working spaces, airport terminals, and, well, noisy libraries and Starbucks. For all of the aforementioned reasons, the more controlled my own video chat work environment the better. The more interesting component — and far harder one to alter — is the environment my students are video-chatting me from. Most of my students Facetime me from their home, but the distraction levels within those homes varies wildly. One kid might like to work via a laptop on his desk in his well-lit bedroom, while another sets up shop at the kitchen table amidst a noisy household that is totally oblivious to the work we’re trying to do. In certain extreme cases, I’ve asked kids to expel a cat or to politely request a sibling to go elsewhere or to just plain abdicate to a quieter room in the house. Mostly, however, the choices students make re: their video chat work environment tend to reflect their own understanding of how important and serious the work we’re doing is.
Current student allocation: 15%
Tutoring is difficult. Mastering content such that you can effectively and efficiently instruct disparate learners, who are already overworked and under-slept, in a variety of subjects takes practice, familial support, and some luck. And yet, no matter how diligent you are, the whole process can be subverted by a work environment that isn’t conducive to learning. Talking through the above with parents before you’ve started working with their child and, if necessary, making a location switch mid-engagement can allow you to not only deliver a better product, but also to fundamentally enjoy the work more.
For all of that, the chocolate covered pretzels, and the umbrella you lend him, Elian will thank you.
For more tips from professional tutors and how to make the most out of your sessions, join Clark today.