Money. So easy to spend, yet so hard to make. I learned this lesson the hard way from my parents who constantly emphasized that “money didn’t grow on trees.” Every allowance made from cleaning dishes and babysitting didn’t go toward Malibu Barbie or the red patent leather Mary Jane’s I’d always wanted, but was fed directly to my pink, plastic piggy. This was why when I was a senior in high school and prom time came around, it was no surprise that my parents wanted me to either pay my own way or go the Molly Ringwald way from ‘Pretty in Pink.’
Luckily, I had attended an SAT preparatory academy during high school to study for the SAT’s and had done well enough to get asked to teach there during the summers while I was in college. And that marked the beginning of my decade-plus long career as an SAT instructor. While I’ve had numerous jobs from being a barista to taking sushi delivery orders, no other job has given me the opportunity to pay my way through school and to gain financial independence from my parents.
From then on, I’ve always been fortunate enough to help a steady stream of students through word-of-mouth (thanks to all the tiger moms!) and this financial freedom has allowed me to take certain risks, ones that I would never have been able to do without these teaching gigs. For example, I had worked in publishing for some time and was seriously considering a career change, but without having a severance to fall back on, there was no way that I could’ve taken the leap without having tutoring’s safety net catch me.
Lesson 1: Get Everything in Writing
Whether you’re acting as a freelance tutor or working for a private institution, make sure all the terms, including number of hours worked, hourly rate, cancellation policy, etc., have all been discussed, negotiated, and on paper. If you’re working for a private institution, pay close attention to your hourly rate for a class versus a one-on-one tutoring session. Although logically, you should be getting paid more for a class in comparison to one-on-one tutoring since you’re teaching more students and the academy is making a greater profit, ironically, most places pay a flat hourly rate per class and a higher hourly rate for one-on-one tutoring simply because the hourly rate that it charges parents is higher. If you’re a freelance tutor, you’re your own boss, so you have the freedom to make your own hours and charge whatever you want per hour. But beware—that flexibility comes at a cost! Since parents are paying a higher hourly rate, they also have higher standards and demands, so if you can’t deliver, you won’t be able to maintain a steady workflow. Ultimately, by making sure that everyone’s on the same page, this will prevent unnecessary conflicts.
Lesson 2: Be Selective with Your Students and Don’t Overload Your Tutoring Schedule
If you’re working for a private institution, you don’t really have much of a choice in this matter. Since at the end of the day, it’s still a business, a private academy’s number one priority is profit, so it’ll do whatever is best for its bottom line. Because that’s the case, you’ll encounter all kinds of students, even troublesome ones, who’ll have absolutely no desire to learn, which means your success rate with them is generally low. But that’s not your problem—you didn’t choose them! With a private institution, you’re not liable for your success rate and won’t have to play PR manager with the parents either. However, if you’re working as a freelancer, know that reputation is gold and word-of-mouth goes a long way! Just because you have many students, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a good tutor or that you’re the right tutor for a particular student. Ultimately, if you’re not a good fit with a student, he/she will neither perform well on the exam nor get into his/her first choice school, which can be damaging to your reputation. Don’t get me wrong—the money can be tempting, but remember that your hourly rate and the pool of students you have to choose from will be based on your success rate. Also, if you pack in too many students, then you won’t be able to provide the same focus and enthusiasm to each student (especially those later on in your schedule), which can hurt your success rate as well. I recommend a trial run with each potential student for about a month to see how well you mesh with him/her and take it from there.
Lesson 3: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!
Whether you’re working for yourself or for an academy, preparation is a MUST. Be sure to review all the material that you’re going to cover in class because if you’re unprepared, students will take notice and are less likely to respect you let alone pay attention to you. If you’re working for a private institution, it will have the agenda set and resources made available to you, so all you need to do is show up. If you’re working for yourself, make sure you create a precise and focused road map of your plans then buy your books, create lesson plans and tests, and be ready to assign homework.
Lesson 4: Be Patient with Your Students
I know everyone’s all too familiar with the cliché quote, “patience is a virtue,” but there’s no other quality more necessary than in teaching. First, if you don’t like adolescents and can’t stand the teenage angst years, then this is definitely not the job for you. There are already so many odds stacked against the teacher-student relationship, ie-age, culture, and the usual differences in personality just to name a few, so a little patience can just a long way. Point out that this is a short-term goal (especially since we all know the short attention spans of teenagers!) and to relieve the pressure, emphasize that the SAT’s are just a means to an ends (more specifically, getting into college), which may help to manage them a bit easier. Don’t use threats or ultimatums. Instead, use your patience to learn to read your student well and find out what methods work when trying to get through to them.
Lesson 5: Just Have Fun
Do you remember that one teacher who always had a scowl on his face, barked through an entire class, and expected everyone to magically understand everything he taught? If you don’t like what you do, your attitude will be reflected in your demeanor and in your ability to teach. The money is only a temporary incentive, and eventually, you’ll turn into a cantankerous wolfman (or woman!) who’ll make everyone suffer, but most importantly, not learn anything! Know that whether it’s tutoring for yourself or at an academy, you have an amazing opportunity to make some good money AND to mold the minds of tomorrow’s generation. I’m have never been prouder of myself than when I was contacted by an ex-student who told me that he got into his top choice university because I pushed him to work a little harder and dream a little bigger. Being able to help a student realize his/her potential and help them to achieve his/her goal is the most fulfilling aspect of the job, something that even money can’t replace.