What Every Parent Should Know About Hiring a Tutor

Why do we Need Tutors?
During pre-modern times a formal education was reserved for religious leaders and the very wealthy, including royalty, who enjoyed a one-on-one relationship with their teachers. Labor skills, however, were passed down in the age-old fashion of apprenticeships whereby a student or very small group of students learned from the master by watching and working side by side with him for many, many years. Girls learned domestic skills as they grew up working in the home by imitating their mothers. In none of these scenarios was the student-teacher ratio as great as it is today, with K-12 classes averaging 30 or more students per instructor. The individual attention that so carefully shaped the skills of past generations has been replaced by overcrowded classrooms full of underdeveloped talent.

The earliest American schools were modeled after English institutions. However, unlike the privately funded schools of England, American schools set the first precedence for publicly-funded education. But “publicly-funded” often equates to “under-funded” and, even from the start, American schools lacked the essential necessities for formal learning: books, writing utensils, and appropriately-trained teachers, to name a few.

So how have parents been able to prevent their children from falling between the cracks? Well, in a word, tutors.

Tutors range from peers who are also students, to professional teachers trained in specific subjects and to accommodate specific learning styles. There are also learning centers that offer a franchised form of tutoring, like Sylvan and Kaplan. So how does a parent decide who to hire? Here are some basic guidelines.

How to Find a Tutor
Like doctors and dentists, people traditionally rely on referrals to find a good tutor. Parents often turn to other parents, or to teachers for tutor recommendations. However, what if you cannot find someone who knows a good tutor? What if a recommended tutor cannot accommodate your budget or schedule? What if your child’s learning needs are different from that of your friend’s child?

You could flip open the yellow pages and start cold calling to set up interviews with various tutors and learning centers; but this is tedious and may still result in a poor match. A better option, thanks to the computer age, may be to hop online where you can now find various listings for tutors on the internet. Multiple agencies post tutor profiles, some even screen their tutors to ensure quality.

One particularly useful site is www.tutorz.com, which compiles tutor profiles from multiple listing sites so that users can shop for a tutor from one location rather than searching all over the internet. In fact, Tutorz boasts the largest database of tutors in the world, with over 30,000 listings. Even better, starting in Fall of 2011, Tutorz will facilitate tutor ratings so that clients can post reviews of tutors, similar to how online travel sites like TripAdvisor and Orbitz enable users to rate travel accommodations. So parents will be able to use Tutorz to search for highly rated tutors, in addition to preferences like cost, location, and subject.

What to Look for in a Tutor
Select a tutor with a teaching style, personality, and schedule that specifically meets your child’s needs. Although it would be nice if teachers could provide the one-on-one help that students need, this is not always an ideal option. First, if the student did not understand the material the fist time, the way the teacher explained it in class, maybe he or she will benefit from the different perspective a tutor can offer. Second, based on individual personalities and preferences, kids do not always feel comfortable working so closely with every teacher. Teachers that are engaging and approachable to some students may be intimidating or irritating to others. Third, many teachers do not have enough time to provide students with the amount of one-on-one instruction they truly need. Secondary teachers are responsible for planning, preparing, and delivering curriculum to more than 200 students. Grading assignments, preparing for classes, adjunct duties like coaching or policing the halls, staff development and parent meetings leave teachers with little or no time for “Extras” like phone calls home and tutoring.

Children with learning disabilities can easily fall between the cracks at school. If you suspect your child has a learning disability like dyslexia, a condition in which individuals see letters and numbers in reverse order, find a tutor or learning center that has the ability to test for such.

Private tutors are generally less expensive than tutoring centers and tailor their instruction specifically to their students, while tutoring centers often use their own curriculum which may or may not work for your child. Consider a tutoring center if your child is fairly self-sufficient and not easily distracted, learns better in a group setting, or has a specific learning disability that the center specializes in.

How to Make the Most of Your Child’s Time with the Tutor
Create a tutoring plan with your child and tutor that defines the goals your child is trying to achieve, and how the tutor will help him achieve them. Start by identifying your child’s weaknesses, especially where he is below grade level. Do not forget to consider your child’s study skills as a potential area of weakness.

Next, outline a plan for how the tutor and your child will use their time together to work on these areas of weakness, and how your child will continue to do so outside of the tutoring sessions as well. For instance, you might specify that the tutor spends 75% of her time reviewing mathematics concepts, one chapter each week, and 25% of her time addressing reading comprehension, which can be augmented by assigning your child books to read between sessions. Also discuss how you, as parents, can assist in reinforcing concepts reviewed in tutoring. For example, if your child is struggling with basic math, then opportunities like adding up groceries at the store or helping to measure ingredients during meal preparation should not be missed. Home improvement projects are a great way to reinforce algebra concepts. Helping calculate and pay the monthly bills will reinforce math and economics skills; and there are ample opportunities everywhere that exemplify science, from the physics of football and chemistry of cooking, to the biology behind hand-washing.

Finally, make sure that tutoring supplements and does not supplant learning at school. That is, make sure the tutor is reinforcing concepts that have already been covered in class and is not getting ahead of the teacher. Remediation should be top priority. Plus your child will be bored in class and lose interest if he already knows the material. Facilitate communication between your child’s teachers and tutor by introducing them or exchanging their phone numbers with one another. Provide copies of each teacher’s class syllabus to the tutor. Not only will this help the tutor know what material to cover, it will also help her know how your child’s grade is calculated in each class so she can help your child learn to organize and prioritize his work around these requirements. If teachers do not provide your child with a syllabus for each class, request one in writing. They are required by law in most states.

It is important to remember that a tutor should not be employed to help your child with homework. The purpose of homework is for students to practice concepts they have already learned. An appropriate role for the tutor is to re-teach any concepts needed to understand the homework using alternative practice questions.

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
Even those of us who took calculus once upon a time would probably find it difficult to recall enough to be of any assistance to our kids today. While some parents are capable of tutoring their own children, many lack the time, ability, or desire to do so. It is important for parents to employ a tutor as soon as possible if their child is beginning to struggle in school, in order to head off frustration, impaired self esteem, and compounding academic deficiencies.

The Federal government is so confident that tutoring is an effective way to improve student achievement that it’s No Child Left Behind act mandates that low performing schools in year two of school improvement must provide tutors free of charge to their low income students. However, the tutors must be approved by the state. You can find out which schools are required to provide free tutors for students, which tutors are approved for each state, and how to apply to receive services for your child by visiting www.greatschools.net.

Kristin Majda

About Kristin Majda

Kristin Majda is a freelance author and educational consultant residing in sunny Santa Paula, California with her husband and two kids. Her background includes working as a technical writer and trainer within the software industry, and teaching high school and adult education science and math. She earned a bachelor of science in biology and a minor in professional writing from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1997, and her teaching credentials from Cal State Northridge in 2005. She is currently in the process of earning a dual masters degree in biotechnology and business administration (MBA) from Cal State Channel Islands. She attends classes in the evening and works part time out of her home so that she can remain actively involved in the education of her teenage son and the social, emotional, and cognitive development of her toddler daughter. Despite academically performing above grade level, her son struggles with ADHD and the emotional consequences of a system that does not know how to appropriately educate these children. As a result, Mrs. Majda has also become an outspoken advocate for the appropriate education of special-needs children.
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