How to pick the best tutor for your child

At the end of the year, most students will tell you that watching movies in class while consuming candy canes definitely trumps schoolwork. Parents, armed with their child’s annual school report and the constructive criticism it provides, do not always agree.

Despite the fact that schools have just finished for 2014, I get a large number of calls about tutoring at this time of year. Just two days ago, I got a call from a mother (who was halfway down her Christmas card list at the time) about booking some sessions for 2015; ‘If I call you now, at least I know I’ve done it!’

Typically, parents call me for two reasons. They either call out of concern that their child is under-performing, or out of fear that their child will be ‘left behind’ in today’s increasingly competitive educational landscape.

And I don’t blame them. Today’s parents care deeply about education. They want the best for their kids. So it’s only natural for parents to seek out additional support if their kids aren’t doing so well.

But herein lies a problem. Parents looking for tutors are vulnerable people. They know that Johnny’s friend across the street had some maths tuition last year and found it helpful. They know that maths is an area of weakness for their child, courtesy of school reporting. So they do what any resourceful parent would, and Google ‘maths tutoring Sydney’. After a thorough online perusal of Sydney’s most highly marketed tuition centres, (plus perhaps a convincing information session or two), they are left with one certainty: the child needs tutoring.

And perhaps they do. But this isn’t always the case.

Despite being a tutor myself, I didn’t have any coaching during high school, and I still managed to get an ATAR of over 99. Sure, I struggled at times. Without a doubt, I would have benefited from tutoring. In fact, if I’d had a tutor, I’m sure I would have felt calmer, more self-assured and less stressed. But at the time, I chose not to have tutoring for two reasons: I had (and still have!) two very supportive parents who were only too happy to help me, and an equally supportive band of teachers who strongly encouraged my every effort. This was enough to keep me afloat during year 12.

When it comes to tutoring, know that you always have a choice. You should never be put under any pressure to funnel your child into tutoring. Tutoring company marketing needs to be taken with a grain of salt, because at the end of the day, tutoring businesses have to make money out of you. And if you’re ripe for the picking, they won’t hesitate.

What it comes down to is this. If you’ve recently read through your child’s report and you think that some extra support mightn’t go amiss, a tutor might be the way to go. But you need to find a good one, and the right one, for your child. Here’s how.

So, what makes a good tutor?

1. A good tutor is prepared to give an honest opinion about whether or not your child needs tutoring

A good tutor or tuition company will want to have a long discussion with you, firstly in order to get to know you, and secondly, to get an idea of your child’s age, academic situation, motivations, behaviours, attitudes, learning style, and any specific areas that need to be addressed. These details will indicate whether the tutoring on offer is a good fit for your child. For example, if your child is chronically shy and doesn’t open up in large groups, a tutoring school that offers classroom-like group tuition might not be the best option. A good tutor will be honest with you about things like this, instead of asking ‘when would you like to start?’

When it comes to tuition, I’d also recommend getting advice from someone impartial. Ask the opinion of someone who is not set to make money out of your decision. Perhaps your child’s classroom teacher could help.

2. A good tutor has a flair for teaching, not just an enviable ATAR

Don’t get me wrong – marks matter. But if you’re after a good tutor, don’t just recruit based on marks. Tutoring is more than understanding content and writing it down in exams. To have a tangible impact on a child, a tutor needs to engage the student, relate to the student, and equip the student with tools they can use to do everything the tutor is teaching when the tutor isn’t there. Tutors need to be great communicators, and they need to be passionate about helping students. Tutors need to understand how your child learns best, and how to help them self-motivate.

Good tutors view tutoring as more than just a job – it’s an opportunity to make a hugely positive difference to the educational journeys of students.

3. A good tutor really cares

This might sound obvious, but it’s extremely important. A good tutor really cares about how their students are tracking academically, as well as how they feel in general. Putting students at ease is so important when it comes to learning, as your child is far more likely to open up about what they don’t understand with a tutor who listens without judgment, criticism or disappointment.

Parents aren’t to be left out here either – you’ll want a tutor to establish a relationship with you, so that everyone is kept in the loop. Keeping you updated with personalised communications and advice at any stage is really important. This doesn’t mean pandering to parental worry and compounding concerns over academic performance. This means maintaining honest and open communication where any school-related concerns can be addressed in the most realistic way possible.

4. A good tutor aims to meet your child’s specific needs

No two students are the same. A good tutor recognises this and tailors lessons to suit your child. These lessons should complement schoolwork in order to reinforce concepts and enhance learning. Be wary of tutors who provide one-size-fits-all worksheets and resources, or who insist on setting additional homework that places unreasonably high expectations on students.


5. A good tutor aims to be made redundant

I realise that by writing this I’m almost certainly shooting myself in the foot, at least in a financial sense, but it absolutely needs to be said. As a tutor, every single lesson needs to get the student one step closer to academic self-sufficiency.

Why? Two reasons.

1. Spoon-feeding comes back to bite students in the long run, especially at university when nobody is checking up on them, making sure that their assignments are handed in on time, asking them to hand in that important note etc.

2. Self-made success helps students to gain confidence and motivates them to seek out further challenges. I’ve seen students achieve great marks in the HSC and not feel proud of their achievements, purely because they put a lot of their success down to the tutor(s) they had. Pride in their achievements is essential for students’ growth and development in general, not just academically.

Finally, a good tutor is the one who believes in your child and who wants them to do well. Happy hunting!

Sarah Carman is a passionate tutor, science writer, blogger, presenter and health advocate. Sarah is the founder of Sponge, a tuition school in Sydney that helps Higher School Certificate (HSC) students to understand difficult subjects, enjoy learning, ace exams, and maintain balance. She has written for ABC Radio National, The Royal Institution (RiAus) and CSIRO children’s magazines.