Choosing a Tutor

By Ned Johnson and Emily Warner

When you go to choose a tutor for your child, it’s crucial that you know what you’re looking for first. It’s pretty clear you want someone who knows Latin to help your daughter with that tricky Latin course, or someone who actually plays the tuba to give your son a little extra band practice. After that critical criterion has been met, however, it’s sometimes difficult to know your next move in finding that tutor who is really going to help your child succeed.

Spend a little bit of time clarifying your goals. Are you looking for some supplementary physics help, or are you prepping for a major exam? How intense should the preparation be, and how high of a priority is this in your child’s life? You’ll want to choose a tutor whose level of intensity, schedule, and hourly rate match up with your schedule and priorities. Also, don’t forget to ask for your child’s input. He’ll be much more likely to make good use of the extra help if he’s had a hand in making it happen.

Once you think you’ve found a great tutor, don’t jump right into setting appointments and plunking down checks. Taking care of a few crucial questions can make an enormous difference in your child’s tutoring experience. Some of these questions can be answered through simply talking with the prospective tutor; others may require calling up a few of his references.

Ask around. Good tutors will have solid reputations in your school, your church, and your neighborhood. Educational consultants and other tutors also know who else is good in the business. Ask people what they specifically liked about a certain tutor. The attributes that they appreciated may be the wrong ones for your child.

Find a tutor who knows his stuff, and can convey that confidence to your child. My student just this morning told me that she was one of those people with an incredibly uptight attitude towards the SAT, but that my calmness helped her set a better tone in her test preparation. She was then able to take that same confidence into the test. An intense tutor may be able to teach your child a whole new set of skills, but may also increase the likelihood that your child will be too stressed to make use of his new tools when it counts. A tutor who can share his confidence with your child will make it more likely that your child will have the confidence to shine on test day.

A good tutor will ask lots of questions to assess your needs before presenting himself as the solution. I’ve heard parents complain that their former tutors just wouldn’t listen to their assessments of their child’s problems and were, understandably, unsuccessful in solving those problems. A good tutor is like a good physician. He has a good bedside manner and recognizes that the patient and his family can provide invaluable information. It’s not that the information won’t be discovered eventually by the tutor himself—it just makes a whole lot of sense to have that knowledge at the beginning rather than spend time bumbling around without it. Your tutor should ask not only about past test scores and grades, but about your child’s learning personality, extracurricular pressures, and academic goals. After all, how can he help to meet your child’s goals if he’s never listened to what they are?

A good tutor is responsive to the needs of his student. That, after all, is why you’re looking for a tutor instead of a large classroom situation. Ask your potential tutor how she plans to adapt her curriculum or style to the specific pedagogical needs of your child. A tutor who is unable to explain this is probably not the best tutor for your child.

Personality is incredibly important. Especially for a sullen or withdrawn child, it can take weeks to break through that surface resistance to get the child to a point in which she can actually listen to and learn from a tutor. An impatient, dictatorial, or supercilious tutor will never be able to do that. We all fantasize that it is only ourselves whom our children tend to ignore, and that they sit rapt with attention in class. In fact, kids only really listen to people they like and respect. People like people who like them. A good tutor is a bit of a chameleon. She can show interest in the arts, music, or sports of her students, even if she doesn’t do those things herself. Students respond to tutors and teachers who care about not just their academic success, but about their lives as well.

Finally, don’t be afraid to change horses midstream. If your child is reluctant to complete tutoring assignments or to attend tutoring sessions, if he returns from those sessions unengaged, unexcited, and discouraged, you may need to look for a tutor who is a better fit for your child. Be sure, however, to ask your child and tutor specifically why things aren’t going well and what they’d like more or less of. If, on the other hand, your child returns from a tutoring session energized and confident, then your tutor is doing just the job you’re paying him for: helping your child be successful.

By Ned Johnson and Emily Warner, who tutor for various standardized tests at PrepMatters, Inc. in

Bethesda, MD.


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