It is time for school to begin, and many of you are already considering whether or not to start the year with a tutor. Good tutors can be invaluable but they definitely come with a cost and more importantly, they can be hard to find. So what should you look for in a tutor?
Parents often turn to college students or young adults who are looking for supplemental income. These tutors are usually the least expensive option; they offer minimal teaching expertise but bring a heartfelt desire to see students do well in school. Frequently, these are individuals thinking about teaching as a profession and a regular tutoring job is an excellent addition to their resume. I believe this option is ideal for families that wish a tutor to be a “study buddy,” helping their children complete their homework in a timely fashion, and studying for upcoming tests. For those of you that have heard every excuse known for why homework has not been completed, this is a great way to de-escalate dinner table tension over schoolwork.
Students sometimes struggle in a specific subject area that causes trouble in a number of academic disciplines. Most frequently, this type of struggle is found in sequential classes such as mathematics and foreign language where a skill deficit from an earlier class can cause increased difficulties at higher levels in later years. In this case, I recommend looking for a classroom teacher with experience in the academic subject matter to serve as the tutor. Teachers have an understanding of the scope and sequence of the curriculum and will be able to recognize the root causes of the problem. Due to the inherent conflict of interest, it is not appropriate for a teacher to tutor their own students, but if a student is struggling in a subject, your child’s teacher should be able to direct you to one of his or her colleagues for help.
Finally, there are a number of students that have diagnosed learning differences who struggle in a traditional classroom. Frequently these students have individual learning plans, but even the best plan can be difficult to implement in a regular classroom. As a result, extensive tutoring may be required. For these students, tutoring should be with a learning specialist familiar with the nature of learning differences and trained in different methods of instruction. Unfortunately, these tutors are more difficult to find, are often booked, and are typically very expensive. If you are a parent of a student with learning differences, do not let these issues dissuade you from using a learning specialist. Your child needs instruction specific to their learning issue, not repetition of the classroom lesson. The cost may be more up front but in the long run your child will be a much more self-sufficient learner.
One caveat in the world of tutoring is the concept of “learned helplessness.” Students, like adults, will gravitate towards the easiest path. Students often find that having a tutor makes studying or completing homework easier and thus they may come to depend upon their tutor. Remember that an essential element of schooling is developing the ability to work through novel situations on one’s own. Continued dependence upon a tutor may eventually erode the willingness of a student to become independent, thus hampering their success in college-level courses. Particularly in middle school where grades are not as impactful, you may want to periodically assess whether a tutor remains necessary and whether self-sufficiency with a slightly lower performance level is more desirable.
The decision to tutor can be a costly one. Before you embark on this path, be sure to ask yourself why a tutor is necessary. Your answer will help you in finding the very best tutor available.
Christian J. Proctor, Ph.D.