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The nightmare of hiring a tutor

In principle, hiring a tutor is an enterprise that is anticipatory and deliberate.

It involves anticipating what potential problems might crop up, using a student’s history and self-evaluation. Tutoring can also be in response to a desire to advance more quickly; it’s not always used to “fix” a “problem”. A parent might consult with friends, or with the student’s teacher, to obtain personal referrals. After interviewing a number of possible tutors, the parent and child, together, choose the tutor that embodies the combination of empathy, subject knowledge, teaching ability, and cost effectiveness.

If this sounds like you, congratulations. No need to read onward, to find out how the rest of us in the real world live. If this doesn’t sound like you, don’t worry; you’re not alone, and I promise this won’t be a “you should feel guilty about this” post.

Here’s how tutoring often works in practice.

A student starts struggling in a subject, but that isn’t noticed by the parents because of some combination of being busy with work and student denial/subterfuge. The first test reveals that a student is in serious trouble. There might be an exchange in which the parent chastises the student for not letting the parent know about the struggle; the student, in exchange, either blames the parent for being inattentive, or claims that it’s possible to salvage the grade.

Perhaps the parent tries to tutor the student directly. But the parent might not know the subject. Even if the parent knows the subject, the general tension that exists between all parents and children makes it such that the student resents the advice, and the parent is tempted to be overly critical. There’s just too much history and baggage, even in the best families, for it to work. (For this reason, I’m perpetually amazed at the relative success some people have with homeschooling.)

Finally, the parent decides that, even though money is never abundant, it’s time to call in an outside tutor. But it’s too late to go through a lengthy interview process with several tutors. A parent might turn to their friends for a reference; on the other hand, they might not want it to be known that their child is not great at everything. Invariably, they turn to either a local academy or an online website, where they hire someone who is some combination of appearing to be inexpensive and appearing to be qualified.

The student, by the way, might not think he or she needs tutoring. This attitude can persist throughout the actual tutoring, with predictably bad results.

Thus is the tutoring relationship formed. It involves bringing in a stranger that may or may not be qualified, may or may not be a good instructor, and may or may not have a good rapport with the student. And, given that the arrangement is made under duress, the parent is reluctant to break it because it will take time (and stress) to find another one. Also, if we can be honest, the parent might not know whether this tutor is good or not; a bad tutor can fly under the radar for a depressingly long time.

If this sounds like you, don’t feel badly. This is common, more common than anyone wants to admit. And it’s no one’s fault.

Teachers and schools, for a host of reasons, often don’t have the time or resources to develop a framework to support those who are struggling.

Parents, especially parents who are working, don’t have the time or, quite frankly, emotional energy, to help their kids with some of these subjects.

Students might struggle with incompetent or inattentive teachers (who, as mentioned above, just might not have the resources needed to deliver customized help). Given that looking stupid is about the worst possible sin, in school and in life, the student might do his or her best to conceal poor performance, or mentally code the subject as “something that doesn’t matter, anyway”.

Tutors can be tempted to exploit this insecurity to bill more hours. We may, explicitly or implicitly, overpromise, and temper the anger at underdelivery with vague promises of improvement just around the corner.

Sometimes, the tutor doesn’t actually say anything; the parent and student project expectations, and don’t listen to efforts to manage it. Or, maybe a realistic assessment means not getting the job, forcing the tutor to choose between professional integrity and paying bills.

Everyone’s just too busy. Everyone’s anxious. And it’s really hard to measure educational quality – hence the perennial arguments about education in America and elsewhere.

In the next post, I offer some advice to parents, students, and tutors. (Remember: it is possible to overpay for free advice.)


Ryan Y.

Harvey Mudd/Cornell grad; multi-subject, empathetic tutor

800+ hours