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Dear Mitch,

My husband and I are in the process of trying to find a math tutor for our son, and we know from our friends that there are all kinds of tutors around, and their prices vary enormously. We would be willing to pay more if that would mean we would see better results, but we have no idea what it is that we are supposed to be looking for in a tutor. The thing we do know, though, is that we need to find one right away because we were told if Brian doesn't get tutored this summer he's going to have a very hard time next year and we better get him prepared.

What should we be looking for in a tutor?

Hope you can help,

Florence D.

Rapid City, South Dakota

P.S. Is it even a good idea to make a teenager spend his summer being tutored, or can we hold off until September?


Dear Florence D.,

There is a lot packed into your question, and it would truly require twenty-five pages to thoroughly address each issue. What I'll say is this: You leave me with a lot of questions, and so I am going to present the questions which you and your husband need to ask yourselves before proceeding.

I will also address some of the major issues in an order different from the order you've presented them, as I'll begin with the most important and personally-interesting ones and work from there.

First, if tutoring was recommended to you by someone in your son's school, or someone who has knowledge of his relevant strengths and weaknesses, then you should have him tutored over the summer. Do not hesitate; begin now. September is when he should have the material that challenges him mastered, or as close as is reasonable when all is taken into account. I'll assume the recommendation referred to having him learn, review, practice, and/or master material which he and his peers have already encountered, and of course in September there will be some review by the classroom teacher, but not of the depth I'm guessing would be most beneficial to your son. Then the problem will compound and become more of a challenge for remediation. Remember, in September he will be involved with his other courses as well, and, quite possibly, some range of extra curricular activities. Having the opportunity to do math alone, even for a couple of hours per week over the summer is an excellent way to get him to focus on the subject without distractions.

However, as I stated upfront, I have questions. What year is your son entering, and what are his goals? If the issue is to simply 'pass' the next year's math curriculum, then that is what you should be thinking about when you interview potential tutors. Although I am told one can say the same about professionals in any field, I can tell you from experience that the differences in effectiveness among tutors is remarkable. And it is a very personal thing; a tutor who gets excellent results with one type of student or one type of student personality may not get the same quality results with another student who is learning the exact same material. In a one-on-one teaching situation, the relationship is more important than in a typical teacher/classroom setting where a teacher cannot alter his tone to match the needs of each and every student's sensitivities at once.

BUT, with that said, the remarkable thing is this: Almost without exception, even the least effective tutor (least experienced and least skillful) typically is able to improve a student's knowledge and ability in math more than no tutor at all -- and often even more than an excellent classroom teacher. Why? Because of the one-on-one arrangement. Regardless of how comfortable a student believes he is with himself, there is a magic freedom and power that comes from having no peers in the room to observe the rate of one's learning and the 'stupidity' of his questions and attempts. Students simply are DIFFERENT when even one other student is present in the room, whether they realize it or not. For this reason, it is important that the tutor remind your son at the beginning, and periodically after that, that he can ask ANYTHING and no one will report it. And no one will laugh or think less of him. If your son cannot recall how to do single-digit addition, the private time with the tutor is the time to ask. You know he will not ask in front of his peers!

The tutor will respect him for the question. And, furthermore, an experienced tutor will not be surprised. That is what happens in one-on-one teaching scenarios.

Which leads to a point you did not specifically raise, but which is far more important than most people seem to realize. There are tutors that come to the student's home, and there are tutors who have offices and/or home-offices, etc,. where the student must meet him/her.

Of course, no one can argue with the convenience of having a tutor show up at your door and leave when he is finished with the session, particularly if there is a substantial commute involved. Also, of course, parents feel they can sort of peek in without really being seen to observe what they are getting for their money. And parents feel their child is more comfortable in the safety of his own home, not to mention too tired at the end of a school day or summer's afternoon to have to go and come from some tutor's office.


Why? Whether the student realizes it or not, and whether the parent realizes it or not, students are as aware of the reaction of family members as they are of their peers. Generally, students fall into one of two groups, both of which always strike me as a little sad in different ways: 1) The student who will not easily 'fail' in front of a parent, and 2) The student who will not easily succeed in front of a parent.

The first type subconsciously feels pressure to perform and when the parent who is spending money sees the child seemingly learning more slowly than that parent had fantasized, the student's focus is fractured and is no longer 100% on the problem in front of him. The second type, who does not like to succeed in front of the parent, often has very good reasons. One not-so-good reason is they do not enjoy giving parents pleasure of an academic nature, but the more common situation is that the student, who has quickly come to ENJOY being tutored, will justifiably sense the parent's thought: "I knew he knows how to do it, he's perfectly smart and if he would just buckle down by himself instead of going out with friends he wouldn't need a tutor... not working up to potential..." And every incorrect answer thereafter is a sign of inadequate effort....

I have had students whose parents come a few minutes early because they justifiably want to see what it is that they are getting for their money. Unfortunately, if they are unable to do it stealthily enough, many students (and some who really surprised me) would close their book or metaphorically close down and refuse to continue. "Time to go, parent's here." When in actuality, the truth more often is that after one or two sessions (usually just one), if the chemistry is right, the student ABSOLUTELY ENJOYS being tutored, though few openly admit it to their parents. Why do they enjoy being tutored in the middle of a summer when their friends are presumably out at the beach? Because people tend to like to learn in a relaxed, noncompetitive environment with a person who they feel is not judging them but is focused on getting more knowledge into their head in an hour than most students are used to learning in two weeks in a classroom filled with the kinds of distractions that make adolescents, adolescents and teenagers, teenagers.

Finally, in the case of tutoring for SAT work or similar standardized tests, the best tutors I've known wouldn't/couldn't come to the student's home, because the teacher has developed such a wide range of materials that he/she has customized over his career that he would have to carry a file-cabinet-filled van to be able to pluck the right sheet for each and every new challenge that pops up. Besides, the SAT will not be in the student's home with his dog to pet; it will be in a room that is not part of his house with none of his fluffy security blankets, and that is how he or she should be preparing.

Lastly, although there is nothing wrong with the famous and well-known tutoring companies, particularly for the famous tests, every one of the companies suffers from one weakness which an independent tutor who loves the material does not face. And that frees the teacher up to do whatever is necessary to raise the student's score. I will explain this and elaborate further in another q&a very soon, which will be called Choosing a Tutor For Your Child, part 2. I have been accumulating a pile of letters from parents curious about this exact topic, and so I've held them until I felt the time was right to address them together, at least to whatever extent I can without having to write an entire book on this website.

Hope this helps,