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Why I'm Different

Currently, I'm tutoring a 9th grader in biology. After fielding some questions about cell division, he asks me, "Are you good at math?" I say, "Yes." we then work on a bit of geometry. He then asks me, "Are you good at English?" I told him that I am, and that's one of the reasons his mother picked me. I'm reasonably capable and knowledgeable in many areas.

But the truth is a bit more complicated. I'm not a good tutor just because I know a lot of things about a lot of subjects. Knowledge helps, but it's not the whole story.

Parents appreciate my subject area competence. But they appreciate my psychological insight more.

For a number of reasons, I think I'm relatively good at "reading" students. Through some gentle questioning, and observation, I can infer things about their motivation, and their way of thinking. This is in the first meeting. With time, I can infer their values, hopes and fears, and tailor tutoring in a way that makes them receptive.

To borrow a phrase I learned years ago from tutoring a student in business (I was hired initially to tutor astronomy), I embrace Y Factor leadership. I'm optimistic, and believe that humans are innately curious about that world. Sometimes we have that curiosity beaten out of us. But it doesn't die. My job is not to browbeat students into learning, but create the conditions such that they can do what they naturally do -- learn, ask questions, and think more deeply about a specific subject and how it fits into the world.

That's why I'm special as a tutor. I can quickly identify the cognitive lay of the land in a student, and figure out what drives them, and what holds them back. That's the easy part. Then, through coaxing, structure, and active listening, I help them help themselves learn to learn. If this sounds like therapy, it is; it's modeled a bit after what I know about cognitive-behavioral therapy, with some logotherapy thrown in for good measure. I'm not a therapist, but all tutors should be, at some level.

I suppose this post is self-serving. And it probably is. The next post will probably be how to solve general physics problems. But I don't think it's in any way an exaggeration. I also want to emphasize that this isn't some sort of natural gift I have--inborn giftedness is a bit of a misnomer, and a maladaptive world-view in any case. This facility in inferring the psychology of students is a product of experiences in my personal history, as well as a conscious effort (as an only child) to learn as much as possible about human interactions and psychology.

For parents that are screening prospective tutors, I would encourage you to consider both subject knowledge and the ability of this tutor to read, and empathize with, your child. Tutoring can take place without emotional or psychological insight, but it's not nearly as successful.


That is so true!!! I have been a psychotherapist for 25 years and I applaud your astute observation.  Me too.  I see pictures in my mind's eye about what the client is NOT saying.  I, too, have been like this from childhood and I am sure that it is the key to my success as a clinician.  Thanks for putting that out there.
Ashely Siegel, LMFT
Ashley, glad you're using your training. It's a challenge to navigate the boundaries that are defined by professionalism, pragmatism, and possibility. Sometimes, as a tutor, I do find myself conveying messages from parent to child, or vice versa. On the other hand, it is important, out of professionalism and just plain self-preservation, to make sure there's that boundary that prevents us from getting ensnared in a family's dynamics. It's a line I've been able to toe reasonably well, but it's still something we have to watch out for.

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