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Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Does it Take to Be a Tutor

I have been recently contemplating what it takes to be a good tutor.  Nearly everyone has some sort of knowledge, experience or expertise that they could pass on to others.  It does not matter whether you have a PhD in a subject or you are an auto mechanic that likes to share knowledge, there is probably someone out there that would like to learn about what you know.  When someone considers hiring a tutor they generally think of someone with knowledge in a traditional academic discipline such as algebra, reading, or history and by and large, this is probably still the bulk of the tutoring opportunities available.  But with the internet and distance learning technology now available at low cost nearly anyone with a niche specialty and desire probably has opportunity to benefit in the tutoring arena too.  Currently there is no formal accreditation required to call yourself a tutor.  All you need to do is hang up a sign advertising your services and start tutoring.

Beyond knowledge of a topic, what else is required to be a tutor?  There are a number of items that I can think of based on my own experience including: desire to teach, patience and ability to explain a subject, ability to "read" your student, flexibility and a willingness for continuous improvement in your own performance.

Desire to Teach
My own experience has been that I love to learn a new subject and then I really get a kick out of explaining what I know to someone else that wants to learn.  In fact, in addition to working at paying tutoring jobs, I like it so much that I am willing to volunteer for free at my church too.  I once considered teaching as a career, but it never seemed to be the right fit for me.  Working in a classroom with a bunch of kids according to strict rules was not my thing.  But, working informally one on one with a student, helping someone who has been struggling with a subject and seeing them "get it", now that is what I enjoy.  I think this desire and passion to help others learn is a must if you will have long-term success as a tutor.

Ability to Explain a Subject
Knowing something and explaining it well to someone are two different things.  Knowing is necessary but teaching also takes patience, practice, skill and the ability to look at the subject through the student's eyes to anticipate where they will have problems in comprehension.  Tutoring can also be about personality and not all tutors will necessarily mesh well with a student, hindering the learning experience and leading to frustration on both sides.  Especially in early sessions with a new student the tutor must get a handle on what should be considered success for a particular student.  Some students just want to get by and pass the class and therefore teaching mechanical skills to solve specific problems may be what is required.  On the other hand, excellent students can also benefit from the tutoring experience and the tutor has an opportunity to look at more minor problems that may be holding back the student from mastery.  In this case the tutor may also be able to provide more understanding or depth for the student, showing them multiple ways to arrive at the correct answer.  The tutor will also learn over time and will probably develop successful techniques that can be employed for particular student needs.

There are various aspects to flexibility.  One aspect, as mentioned above, requires adjustment of teaching methods and goals depending on the student needs.  Other aspects of flexibility may involve willingness to accommodate last minute schedule changes or locations.  After all, the student is your customer, and the customer is almost always right.  Being flexible will be a selling point, especially if you need a recommendation from the student's parents.  Recommendations and word of mouth will help you grow your tutoring client base over time.

Willingness to Improve your Own Knowledge

Through hard experience I have found that I do not always know a subject as well as I thought and the best way to find this out is to try teaching it to someone else.  I have had this experience with geometry and statistics.  Despite knowing analytical geometry inside and out, understanding all of the underlying math, I have had a terrible time trying to teach Euclidean geometry and proofs to a high school student.  Again, this is a case of practice and to be honest I have not had to practice working proofs for a long time.  I have also had numerous statistics classes both in college and in my professional life, yet when it came to teaching it, I again faced the hard reality that I did not know it as well as I thought, or I should.  Fortunately, despite the holes in my knowledge I was able to get some of my early students in statistics successfully through their classes.  They were happy and satisfied with my performance but I was not.  Since then, I have gone back and done my own self study to master this subject so that I will do better next time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Private Tutoring Through Wyzant

For the past 9 months I have been tutoring through Wyzant.  Wyzant is one of the larger web-based companies that matches students with private tutors for in-home tutoring.  Wyzant has over 18000 tutors registered across the country.  I have been successful in getting set up with several students through Wyzant.  Billing of the students is done by Wyzant so I don't have to worry about collecting money at the time of the lesson or after the fact.  Here are some details as I understand them

Registering and Qualifying for Subject Area Tutoring
Signing up for Wyzant is easy as a tutor.  Once you are registered you must pass rudimentary subject matter tests before you are listed to tutor in specific areas.  I say rudimentary because the tests are very basic in areas such as physics and math.  These tests do not guarantee a student that a tutor is an expert in the subject but will at least weed out someone that has absolutely no competence in the subject.

Tutor Profile
Wyzant allows the tutor to set up their own profile, describing background, qualifications and tutoring experience.  In the tutor profile you will set hourly rate and you can post the schedule of available hours.  In addition, Wyzant recently introduced a background check through Lexis-Nexis that prospective students can review which can make you more marketable.  You also have an opportunity to produce a video describing your tutoring methods, or write blog entries that may attract more students.

Student Contact
Students can find you by searching the internet for tutors or directly on the Wyzant site.  Wyzant seems to show up at or near the top of the list in search engines.  (More on how to optimize for this later).  A student must contact the tutor through the Wyzant system.  Tutors can set up their account so that a text message will be sent to their cell phone notifying them that there is new student email.  If the targeted tutor does not respond right away the student's email will eventually be posted in a site that allows other tutors to see the need.  At this point Wyzant's text system can also alert other tutors that a particular tutor job (category) is available.  For instance, I received messages that say there is a new physics job in a particular city within my area.

Once the tutor responds and the student has entered their billing information into the Wyzant system then phone numbers may be exchanged and the first session scheduled.  Subsequent tutor/student contact can continue through the Wyzant email or through phone calls.  Wyzant's email allows for attachments, which can be handy in case the student would like to send something for the tutor to review.

Wyzant pays the tutor twice a month either by check or by direct deposit.  Wyzant has a pay schedule based upon the number of hours worked.  The starting rate is 60% of the tutor's advertised rate, gradually increasing to a maximum of 80%.  Tutoring hours are logged through the "Lesson" system described below.  Tutors are not employees of Wyzant but rather private contractors and are therefore responsible for paying their own income taxes.  So far, I have been satisfied with Wyzant's payment system.  I don't have to worry about the hassle of getting the student's to pay and Wyzant has been prompt at their payments.

On completion of a session the tutor will enter in details of the session, including day and time along with a series of questions about the student's performance.  If you are tutoring a younger person your response to these questions will aid the parents in understanding what progress has been made.  I have tutored several adults and these questions seem a bit absurd in that context.  Once you have entered the lesson details your comments and time will be transmitted to the student or parent by email.  The student/parent then has an opportunity to review and agree to your time estimate.  Time can be broken down into increments as fine as 5 minutes.  You can go back later in your account to view lesson history for your students.

Suggestions for improving odds of showing up in a web search for tutors
Originally I set up a basic profile describing my tutoring subjects and experience.  As time went on, as a trial I would search for tutors in my subject area to see where I would show up.  Often it would be low down on the list.  I have purposely updated my profile such that it shows up high in general google searches.  I found that often prospective students will search on "Tutor, Subject Area, and Town/City".  I added all of the towns that I am willing to travel to in my profile and I am very specific on the subjects that I will tutor.  This seems to have worked well.  I will provide updates on other tips for improving tutor profile visibility.

So far, I have been happy with Wyzant.  They have actually matched me with students and they pay promptly (within 2 weeks generally).  They take a good size cut of the overall pay early on, but they provide a lot of visibility for me and I don't have to worry about the hassle of collecting payments from the students.  I would be interested to hear other's opinions regarding Wyzant or other tutor matching services.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Welcome to the Tutor Toolkit

Welcome.  This is the first post in the Tutor Toolkit blog.  In this blog I intend to post resources and links to assist private tutors and students to enhance their tutoring experience.  Competition to get admitted to top schools is becoming more intense each year and opportunities for tutoring these young scholars continue to expand.  If you are a student in school looking to assist your peers, you are a college student looking to earn a few extra dollars with your recently acquired knowledge in a subject, or you are a retired professional looking to supplement your retirement income, tutoring is a great way to help yourself and your community. If you are a student or parent looking for a tutor, this blog may also provide you with some insight when looking for a tutor.

There are many options for you as a tutor: 1) work for a local tutoring company in their facility, 2) perform private in home tutoring, 3) work for an on-line tutoring outfit, 4) volunteer to perform free tutoring for those in need.  If you are really serious about it you may want to formally set up your own business and manage a network of tutors.

Personally, I have tutored for years, starting in my undergraduate days at college.  My college had an independent study program in physics for those that desired that path, and to supplement the students own self-learning efforts tutors were also provided to assist.  I did this for a couple of years.  In the intervening years I have tutored junior high school and high school math and science and occasionally more advanced subjects such as calculus and college-level physics.  I found that I really enjoyed tutoring but the jobs I would get were typically by chance, generally by talking to an acquaintance and learning of their need.  Most recently I decided to get more serious about tutoring to supplement my income and after doing some on-line research signed up with Wyzant, a company that matches tutors and students for in-home private tutoring.  I also volunteer at my church where free tutoring is offered.

Wyzant has worked OK for me so far, matching me with several students but I would like to improve on the number of students that I work with during the year.  As time goes on I will wrtite about my own experiences in tutoring, in getting more business and resources that I come across.  In addition, I hope that I can get comments from you, the reader that can be shared with other tutors too.

In my next post I will give you more detail about the Wyzant experience.