Advice for Families - How to Find a Great Tutor

As someone who has tutored and counseled students for well over 30 years, who has written countless tutoring and training guides, and who has personally trained more than 500 tutors and counselors, I can tell you first-hand, second-hand, and third-hand that being an effective tutor requires significant skills that go far beyond IQ and subject-matter expertise.

Unfortunately, many tutoring companies are merely involved in window dressing – only hiring individuals who have attended top colleges and earned “impressive” degrees – with no regard for their communication or tutoring skills. They believe that parents will be impressed by the pedigree without knowing anything about the quality or style of their teaching. For all you current and aspiring tutors out there, you may be brilliant and/or have deep content knowledge, but if you don’t know how to help a struggling student master a difficult subject, test, or assignment, then you are not a good tutor.

There is an appropriate sports analogy that applies quite well here. “The best players do not necessarily make the best coaches.” It is not hard to understand why this might be the case. For certain super intelligent people, learning comes easily while teaching those same skills may not. Further, they may have never, or hardly ever, sat across the table from a tutor to receive instruction in a subject that may have eluded, perplexed, or frustrated them. In theory, having been tutored can provide wonderful insights into becoming a tutor.

This is not to say that highly intelligent people cannot make great tutors. Indeed, many excellent tutors are incredibly brilliant people who have graduated from top colleges and earned many advanced degrees. My point is that highly intelligent people with these kinds of credentials are not necessarily great tutors. That is because it takes more than intelligence to be a great tutor. To be a great tutor you must have great people skills, communication skills, organizational skills, and a highly evolved intuition that may border on clairvoyance or perspicacity. Generally speaking, sensitive people make great tutors; insensitive people do not.

Patient people make great tutors; impatient people do not. Excellent listeners make great tutors; incessant talkers or those reading from a script do not. Finally, passionate people make great tutors; those who are just in it for the Almighty Dollar do not.

As a parent, how can you find, or know that you are hiring, a great tutor? Admittedly, it is not easy. But one starting point is to not assume anything based on a résumé. You also cannot go by what your child tells you after the first session, because they may not be the best judge of effectiveness either. At Avalon, we instruct our tutors in the 15 factors that go into an affective tutoring session. Of course, we touch on some obvious imperatives such as establishing expertise, setting aspirational but attainable goals, and arriving on time. However, we also stress the importance of sensitivity, professionalism, and communication skills. We teach tutors to look into the eyes of their students to make sure that the lessons provided are sinking in, not bouncing off like images from a reflective surface. We encourage our tutors to ask questions, and to encourage their students to do the same. We dissuade our tutors from having only one way of explaining something, and to have a series of checks and balances to make sure that lessons are having the appropriate effect.

Here are a few tips to help you find and hire a great tutor.

  1. Ask all potential tutors questions and make sure that the explanations given are clear and concise. A good answer will acknowledge and address the question directly, even if the answer does not lend itself to a simple explanation.
  2. Be leery of tutors who merely point to their academic record as proof of their tutoring prowess.
  3. Ask yourself if you feel that your child will be comfortable working with this tutor. After all, you want the experience to be a positive one, rather than one that feels a bit like pulling teeth.
  4. Ask the tutor these questions:
  • “Tell me about your tutoring experience.”
  • “In your opinion, why should I hire you over all the other highly qualified tutors who are out there?”
  • “Please describe your teaching style.”
  • “Have you ever worked with a student who you felt you could not help? If so, how did you resolve the situation?”

If you are comfortable with the answers to these four questions, then you may have found a good tutor. Make sure to check in with your child after the first session and on a regular basis. Also, check any notes that the tutor has provided. Notes should be provided and reviewed after each and every session.