Jul 12, 2017
A short lesson in tutoring, cappuccino, and self-worth from professional tutor Josh Sohn.
I know this house. Everyone does. Well, not everyone. It’s a wood and brick Federal-style structure, situated in the middle of a one-block street. I stare up at the elegant cornice and meticulously painted eaves. Suddenly I’m back in college talking about Jane Eyre and attics and the darker recesses of the mind. From where I’m standing, this home is legitimately perfect, so I have no choice but to assume that the contents — the inhabitants — are likewise. I check my watch: 3:55 pm. I like being early for the first appointment, so I ring the doorbell. A few seconds later, the door opens and a woman in a light blue uniform is smiling politely at me.
“Josh?” she says. I nod. “Celine will be down in a moment.” The woman, who definitely isn’t Celine’s mother, gestures toward what looks to be the dining room. Or maybe it’s a parlor. Or, I don’t know, a sun room? Soon I’m standing awkwardly under an antique chandelier in front of a boundless mahogany table littered with crisp European newspapers.
Would you like anything,” she says. “Water. Perrier. Cappuccino? Celine will be right down.” I smile. “Well in that case, yes. I’d love a cappuccino.” The drink arrives and I sip it gingerly, not quite sure if it’s safe or appropriate to put it down on the table. (Obviously, it’s delicious.) More staff members come in and out, offering me things and making sure I’m comfortable. At some point, a tray of croissant and freshly cut seasonal fruit is placed before me.
At 4:25, I’m informed that Celine isn’t feeling well, but would I be willing to return tomorrow for a makeup session? Without checking my calendar or giving any serious thought to the ask, I accept. Just another typical day in the life of a tutor… Okay, not really. Not at all. None of this is normal.
I’ve been hired to help Celine with Precalculus because Celine’s mom, who is a lawyer, knows a parent of another student of mine. It was only a few days ago that I’d been contacted by Celine’s mom’s assistant. On that initial call, and standing in front of the glorious home, and waiting endlessly for the infirm Celine, I hadn’t really thought much about setting parameters for the work to come. Quite honestly, I’d been too enamored to press on any rules or long-term scheduling, let alone personal policies. And besides, who was I going to press: the staff? I still hadn’t met or even spoken to any actual members of the family.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that, several weeks later, Celine and I have only had one actual session despite me logging roughly 10 appointments. As for the one session we actually had, it’d gone surprisingly well. You see, Celine’s school is somewhat famous for its “unique” approach to math : we were working on an independent project about wheelchair ramps which involved some light trigonometry. After that session, I’d been invigorated — concluding that Celine was actually quite good at math. The truth is I hadn’t logged enough hours with her to know anything other than how difficult it was to log hours with her.
When it came time to invoice the family, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. On the one hand, every single cancellation had been within 24 hours of the session. Several had happened with me standing in Celine’s home. On the other hand, many of the missed appointments were reschedules and (newsflash!) most parents assume they won’t be charged for rescheduled appointments. But then, between the staff and honeydew and the cappuccino and the well-appointed everything, Celine’s family clearly had plenty of money. Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but when you’re running your own business and you feel more than a little marginalized by a tutoring engagement, you rationalize things in funny ways.
In the end, I sent them an invoice for 6 sessions. After weeks of barely being able to correspond with Celine and still never having actually spoken to Celine’s mom, I immediately received a call — from Celine’s dad! He was angry and I was utterly incapable of defending my invoiced hours, though I did meekly request that Celine do a better job of honoring our scheduled appointments going forward. Because he was feeling “generous” he said he’d send me a check for 2 sessions. Before I knew it, the call was over.
After two more weeks, 5 more late cancellations, and still no check for the work I’d done, I had a very real problem. I was effectively serving as an unpaid on-call tutor for an affluent family that didn’t seem to value my time. But quitting would mean foregoing an avenue for potential referrals, and maybe we just hadn’t hit our stride? It was another frustrating week or two before I’d finally had enough. When I tendered my resignation (and that’s really what it felt like) I did so as graciously as I could despite more than a little anger and resentment. Oddly, Celine’s parents seemed genuinely sad to lose me, though I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.
Looked at from one perspective, the Celine affair was really one of sunk costs — the time I’d already wasted in cancel purgatory — and opportunity costs — the loss of revenue from work I hadn’t been able to do as a result of my time there. More than this though, the decision to walk away came down to how I felt I’d been treated. If you’ve read previous posts and/or you’ve worked within the tutoring industry, you know that tutoring is a strange mix of trivialized personal assistant and well-respected industry expert. You can only spend so much time gritting your teeth through the former in hopes of arriving at the latter.
The way in which one negotiates with a frustrating/delinquent client comes down to a lot of things: the size of the outstanding balance, the projected duration of the gig, the potential for referrals, the size of one’s current client base, and the emotional toll of being perpetually canceled on. That last one has everything do with one’s own psychological balance and almost nothing to do with the actual client, but it matters nonetheless.
How do you avoid a similar situation? Here are five ways:
Press the family for an in-person (or Skype/Facetime) pre-tutoring consultation. If this is difficult to coordinate, that could portend scheduling challenges and/or cancellation issues down the road.
Use a business tool that automates client payments.
Build a learning plan with the client in which you spell out both the projected duration of the tutoring and some key goals of the work to come.
Insist upon regularly scheduled weekly or twice weekly appointments. Needless to say, DO NOT offer clients a time slot which you will have trouble adhering to.
Communicate regularly with both the student and parents re: reminders and session reports.
NOTE: Clark does 2, 3, 4, and 5 and has personally helped me manage my business and clients more effectively.
I walked by that home the other day. They were redoing the same bay window they’d redone all those years ago. For a second I thought about ringing the bell and trying to sweet-talk my way to the sun room for pineapple. Would the staff remember me? Did any of them know why I’d stopped coming? Did Celine’s family even still live there? I thought about the tutor they must have engaged after me. Had he/she been tougher with Celine? Had they insisted on putting a credit card on file before beginning? Or just navigated the family better — taking the whole thing less personally? I looked up at the eaves and noticed some paint flaking. It wasn’t much, but I liked it.
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