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.


Doug H.


100+ hours
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