Tutor: Friend or Foe?
A great tutor can be life changing. An okay tutor can do more harm than good.
Many people ask us ways to evaluate whether someone will be a good tutor for their child. Choosing tutors is something we have a lot of experience with and we are happy to share what we’ve learned. Over the past 12 years, Revolution Prep has interviewed over 100,000 potential tutors and hired and trained over 5,000 of them. Here are the top 3 most important lessons we’ve learned from all that work.
1. The tutor needs to know the material they are teaching… but that’s not enough.
If your child needs a tutor in algebra, of course you don’t want a tutor who squeaked by with a B- in algebra. Likewise if you’re hiring an SAT tutor, they’d better have impressive SAT scores. However, being great at algebra or the SAT, or any other subject, does not necessarily mean you are great at teaching that subject. In this example I’ll focus on the SAT because it is so easy to measure a tutor’s ability by looking at his or her own scores.
At Revolution Prep, we only hire about 10% of the applicants for SAT tutoring positions that have perfect or near perfect SAT scores. And while 10% is better than the 1% of applicants overall that we hire, that still leaves a lot of top percentile test takers confused as to why they didn’t get a job teaching something that they’re great at.
So why don’t we hire them, and why shouldn’t you? We have found that many people with amazing SAT scores are not great tutors for one of two primary reasons. The first is that while taking multiple-choice exams might be one of their strengths, being interesting and connecting with students is not. The second is that he or she is such a natural test taker that they never had to struggle to understand the material. Thus, they are less effective at clearly and patiently explaining it to their students.
2. The tutor needs to connect with your child… but that’s not enough.
The subject(s) where your child needs tutoring are probably not going to be his or her favorite. Oftentimes the reason why a student needs help is because the material is simply not interesting, or it’s just really hard. Neither of which is a pleasant feeling.
It is important to counter that unpleasant feeling with a tutor who can bring previously boring material to life in a way that makes it interesting, or who can turn that feeling of defeat that comes from not figuring out a hard problem to a feeling of triumph that comes from solving a problem you know is hard. In doing so, the tutor shows your child what John F. Kennedy meant when he inspired a country to go to the moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard”.
We don’t want to prevent our kids from struggling or trying things they know are hard. We want to show them that it is OK to try and not immediately succeed, that it is important to try again and know they will eventually figure it out. That is how we help develop lasting self-confidence and ignite a love of learning in our kids.
But a tutor who just connects with your child is not enough. Make sure that the tutor is really helping your child grow as a learner. I often I hear parents say “we have a great math tutor” and then when I ask how their child has grown in math, in terms of academic performance, confidence and interest in further study in the subject, too often the answer is that the grade has gone up marginally, and the interest and confidence have actually gone down because now they need help just to get a mediocre math grade. Maybe before at least they got that slightly more mediocre math grade on their own.
In these cases the family doesn’t have a great math tutor, they have a really likeable math tutor who is likely doing more harm than good.
3. Helping explain material is not enough…sometimes NOT helping is far more helpful than helping.
Every parent has heard his or her child say, “I can’t do it. Can you show me?” And most parents, out of love and caring for their child, and most tutors because they feel that it’s what they’re getting paid to do, oblige the request and rob the child of the opportunity to show themselves that they can do it.
The best tutors and teachers will respond to that same question, “I bet you can do it. Why don’t you show me?” And then when the child gives an irritated look, that talented tutor will have the patience to wait in silence and the confidence and skill to nudge the student down the path of struggle, discovery and eventual success.
In time your child will change their perspective and when they see a difficult problem, they’ll shift from “I can’t do it. Can you show me?” to “That’s hard. I bet I can figure it out.” Who do you think will grow up to be more successful and, dare I even say self-confident and happier?