RSL Educational | How to become a private tutor
29/09/16

I wrote this (possibly over-long) email to a recent graduate who asked me for advice about establishing herself as a tutor in London. I’m posting it here in case it is useful for somebody else in her situation, but also in case it is of interest to parents who are curious about how the tutoring business looks from the other side.

Hi Katharine,

I'm sorry it's taken me longer than planned to get back to you.

Rather than trying to form this into a coherent argument, I'm going to focus on throwing plenty of ideas at the page in whatever order they come. I hope you'll find the odd diamond in the dung-heap. I could give this the title 'Things I Wish I'd Known a Decade Ago'; consequently, it will probably seem at times as though I am teaching you to suck eggs – for which I apologise in advance.

Okay:

Some tips for good teaching

One of the very best things you can do as a tutor is to complete the exact exercise that a student is doing, next to them, while they do it, and then compare answers. This is, for example, the only reliable way I have found to show a young child what creative writing actually means, or how to integrate short quotes with a simple argument. Above all else, your own mistakes will motivate them! Hardly any tutors do this - let the parents see that you are different. Of course I'm not advocating that you do this every single lesson like a conscientious robot – even the most interesting methods become boring if over-used.

Here are some other thoughts for making a good impression (and, more importantly, for doing a good job):

  • Write detailed email reports to clients after each of the first few lessons with their child. It inspires enormous confidence when they still don't know you well.

  • Know what you plan to do with a lesson before you arrive, even if this will probably change in practice. "So, what work do you have for us to do today?" is not encouraging when it comes from the teacher! Show that you know exactly what you want to achieve.

  • Communicate, communicate ... I won't write this three times, because it isn't fashionable to sound Blairite these days. And his security once stopped me with a firearm while he got into his car, which I rather resented. But, back to the point: the main thing is that you communicate lots with the parents.

  • The most important thing: Develop a clear set of short, medium and long-term objectives for each student. If they know what they are aiming for, they might actually achieve it.

  • Praise achievement, copiously and often.

  • Don't be afraid to criticise underachievement, so long as it is owing to a lack of attention or effort. You can't teach through praise alone. Parents understand this unless they are unreasonable - and surprisingly few are.


On the one hand, be yourself; but on the other (when teaching younger children), you will need to find a version of yourself that remembers how to be a child; how it felt to be a child. For me, the ideal demeanour with a ten year old, let's say, is an enthusiastic, humorous playfulness, which keeps focus through a sense of fun, but can distract when respite is is called for; the challenge is to hold something in reserve so that you can reassert yourself as an adult when this is needed, without seeming capricious or fake. This is difficult to get right, but it is one of the most important skills to acquire. I'm not claiming to have perfected this. Of course other people find their own methods, but I try to make this mine.
When telling a child off, I tend to do so with humour - for example by exaggerating wildly, using comical insults, gesticulating ... This gets the message across without demeaning them. Just occasionally, of course, you will have to do it properly, but this is very rare.

Never beat yourself up after a bad lesson. It will happen sometimes, and even when it feels like your fault it very likely isn't. Anyway, everybody has a bad day at work sometimes, whether or not they are paid by the hour; but it's possible to feel particularly hangdog when you've just trousered a payment that you feel you haven’t earned.

An hour is a bit short to get everything done; I like 90 minute lessons.

Choosing work

Always resist any urge to call yourself a 'supertutor' - just because it's an odious and meaningless marketing phrase used by charlatans.
Know what kind of work you want to focus on. Whatever it is that you feel able to teach, teach that and only that. Especially if you get involved with the big agencies (I would be cautious here - see below), you will be urged to take all kinds of jobs teaching things you don't really know about. This is stressful, involves vast amounts of prep, and won't see you giving a good service. I suggest ignoring the money and saying no. Other work will turn up.

Having said that ... if you aren't confident teaching maths to at least 13+ level, start revising! Only teaching English is a huge handicap - most parents of younger children want an all-round tutor. You should be able to say honestly that you teach maths and English. These are the subjects which count and will probably be over 90% of your work. If you're not sure how good you are, try the St Paul's Girls School papers here (and if that was easy, try these Eton King's Scholarship Papers).

I started by mainly doing A Level and Oxford/Cambridge entrance. I teach these less frequently nowadays.

  • There is a very large amount of preparation involved (reading books, planning), which can become unmanageable when you have a lot of clients.

  • The jobs often involve only a handful of lessons, so there is no stability of income; moreover, while you are doing them you have to reject longer-term work in the same time slots.

  • This work is seasonal – mostly April to June and October to early December.

  • Working with younger children is often more fun, even if not always as intellectually invigorating.


11+ and 13+ work is available all year round. Because the academic content is relatively straightforward, you can focus on developing a child's intellectual habits, having fun as you teach them, and building a relationship with them and their family. Their parents will know lots of others in the same situation, so word of mouth is likely to help you build your business if you are good. Prep for lessons is more manageable than for older children, as you will usually be working from past paper materials, writing stories together, practising maths problems, etc. I don't usually take marking away because the child won't read my comments anyway: the most valuable thing is to mark work with them.

Always Google a new client before accepting a job! And never agree to do a job without knowing exactly who the parent is, not just the name of a PA. I could tell you some interesting stories ...

[Cough]

Residential jobs are not for everybody. Only do them if you have met the family and like them.

Do ask parents to recommend you to others, by the way. They might not have thought of it.

Right - that's a lot of stuff you didn't even ask about. Now for a bit more focus on finding work:

Finding work and building up your business

Agencies are very tempting. However …

  • Some of the big agencies have a business model focused on recruiting inexperienced tutors, taking the greatest margin they can, and not hugely caring whether you are appropriate to a given job; and all while spending large amounts on marketing their brilliance at finding the 'perfect' tutor and caring deeply about each child. Of course, this will not be true of all of them,

  • Agencies sometimes seem to foster the notion that they are the only reliable way for a tutor to find work. This is untrue.

  • Some small agencies (not the majority, but a fair number of them) are half-hearted start-ups who don't know their posteriors from their elbows. Get to know the owners before you accept work from them, and make sure that their (and your) financial records are always accurate and up-to-date, to avoid misunderstandings.

  • Many agencies have a fixed monthly payment date. If they don't, they should be able to give you a good reason why not.

I feel happy to recommend Gabbitas, who are outstanding (though they would probably want you to have a fair amount of experience before you approached them), and (not really an agency) Tutorfair. I recommend setting yourself up with Tutorfair - talk to Edd Stockwell about it if you are interested; he is very approachable. If you want this platform to work for you, you need to make your page nice, accumulate reviews, recommend other tutors ... it’s a bit much for me these days, and I want to deal with my clients directly and send them monthly invoices, not interface with them through a messaging platform and payment system. However, it is a very good way to get started, and well run.


So, on to the main thing: do not be afraid to advertise privately. Gumtree is king, because it is popular and does well in Google results as well, so non-Gumtree searchers have a good chance of finding you. Initially, be prepared to pay your £5 or so every couple of days to bump yourself to the top of the listings.


The main thing in an advert, of course, is to present yourself well.

  • Nice photo: focus on looking friendly rather than glamorous.

  • Clearly state what you are able to teach - what you specialise in.

  • Give a short academic biography. Your particular interests in your degree, etc.

  • Include some humanising personal details.

  • Major on relevant experience - talk about the Latin teaching you have done (and mention this or that success).

  • After a few lessons, ask your first clients for references to put in your advert.

  • State your price in the ad.

  • Sound fun, enthusiastic and accessible, but not to the point of trivialising yourself. (I didn't when I started out, in my desire to sound SERIOUS and PROFESSIONAL ... but I should have done.)

  • Talk about your first class degree in the advert. Yes, maybe you will cringe (being, as you are, English), but it is enormously reassuring to potential clients. Give it a clear title like "English & Maths Tutor with First Class Oxford Degree - Lessons for 11+, 13+, GCSE & A level in Central London".

Read lots of past papers for the relevant levels, so that you can honestly write that you have a thorough knowledge of the entry requirements for schools including [give a short list]. (This also means that people googling for these schools might find you.) Put this near the top of the ad.

Other advertising sites may also be good. I haven't done this for a while, but when I was in Hong Kong for six months, a number of years ago, I put adverts on various sites and found work quickly.


Pricing

This is one of the most difficult things to get right. I don't know what the entry level is now. Bear in mind that people who hire you directly are saving a lot of agency commission, and should be prepared to pay you some of the difference. Of course, if you charge a decent rate you are creating an obligation on yourself to offer a commensurate quality of teaching - but you wouldn't have contacted me if you weren't serious about this.

Whenever you feel that you have a decent amount of work (or are getting more enquiries than you expected), add a little to your new-client rate. When you have a busy schedule, ask yourself, "What amount of money would I be willing to take on more work for, as opposed to having more free time?" That should be your new rate.

However, avoid hiking up prices for existing, ongoing clients, unless you agreed your current rate a very long time ago – and always do so in a consensual manner, so that it doesn’t come across as blackmail.

If in the beginning you don't get much interest from potential clients, of course lower your rate slightly - but don't undervalue yourself.

I tend to invoice monthly and take payment by BACS. Some clients prefer to pay cash. Be aware that somebody paying cash is likely to assume that you are tax evading. If you have an opportunity to make them aware that you pay all your taxes (for example by reminding them that BACS or a cheque would be equally convenient), they will often feel reassured that your fee is fair.

In summary: You objective should be to charge an amount which is worth your while, but to provide service of a quality that still means you are good value.

Final thoughts

Don't end up working seven days a week. It is a very difficult trap to escape from and sucks your soul dry. Have windows in which you will take work and don't let it splurge outside these too much.

I'm sure I'll have forgotten something important, what with all the waffle. Feel free to reply with any questions.

I might publish this as a blog post, some day.

Robert