How to Hire the Right Math Tutor

by | Jan 12, 2021 | Students Tips

The Three Biggest Pitfalls in Hiring a Tutor and How to Handle Them

When searching for a tutor there are three major things you need to have in place to ensure a good experience. Having a good tutor can be a great benefit far more bang for your buck than classroom education, but there are three common problems that can interfere with your getting your money’s worth. These problems are inability to communicate, lack of real knowledge of the subject matter, and plain irresponsibility. On the other side of the equation, you can (if you are deliberate in your choosing) find a tutor who doesn’t merely avoid these problems but gives far greater benefit than all the teachers you’ve ever had combined.

FACTOR #1: ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE

Brilliant mathematicians are notoriously bad communicators. (Those of us who are not downright schizophrenic, like John Nash, famously portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, often love the world of ideas especially because of its removal from real life!). If you have an absent-minded- professor type for a tutor, you have an abundance of knowledge but no way to access it. If you have a present-minded tutor who knows how to nurture the students’ learning process, you have an invaluable aid to your learning.

What a good tutor and good tutoring company do to communicate clearly:

  • A good tutor listens. She/he is patient, she listens to your needs, works with you at every step and continuously monitors your progress, and takes you from where you are to where you want to be. (Not from where you aren’t.)
  • A good tutor is very experienced at tutoring, not just at classroom teaching, which is a very different activity.
  • A good tutor is intuitive about students’ needs.
  • A good tutoring company hires good tutors, not just brilliant mathematicians, or certified teachers, or people looking to earn a buck. When it contracts a tutor, a company director should ask her/him to teach a sample lesson.
  • They have a conversation.
  • They interact. An experienced tutoring director knows when someone can communicate well.
  • They’ve paid attention to their students, to feedback, and have analyzed and reflected on the communications process to see what works. Some students need things to be spoken slowly, some need things repeated many times, while others may need things to go fast in order to keep their attention focused.

People who apply to work as tutors at many tutoring companies have studied at some of the top universities in the country. Yet there are some candidates who shouldn’t be hired even with the kind of credentials any student of mathematics would envy, simply because they do not have listening or teaching abilities. Many students and their parents believe that if they get a tutor from an ivy league school, then that tutor is immediately knowledgeable and possesses the necessary teaching and communication skills, and can also build rapport with them. This is a misconception that needs to be dispelled. Many tutoring companies actually use this approach for their marketing strategy:

“All our tutors are from ivy league schools”

does NOT necessarily translate into:

“Our tutors can help you, they are knowledgeable, and have good teaching and communications skills”

Therefore, a successful tutoring company that actually yields significant results with its students, seeks talent everywhere. Whether it’s from an ivy league school or from a small college with a strong math program. It can be a brilliant student that immigrated to the United States from abroad or a talented math professor from a public college.

In matching you with your tutor, the right tutoring company listens carefully and gets a sense of what the best kind of match will be. And if they really has class, then if the tutor isn’t a match for you, they won’t pair you with a tutor who can’t really help your needs, they may simply refer you to another company which may help.

What YOU can do to ensure your needs:

When you speak with a tutoring company the first time, be sure to ask about the communication skills of the tutors. Then, when you get matched up, have a conversation with the tutor yourself, and ask questions. Ask the tutor to explain a mathematical concept to you. If you don’t understand the explanation, or if you find you’re having to work hard to understand or keep up, this might not be worth pursuing.

What to look for:

  • A great tutor will ask you questions while explaining, and find out if you’re following.
  • A great tutor won’t assume that just because you’re hearing the words that you’re understanding.
  • If you don’t understand the first explanation, a great tutor will explain it differently the second time, rather than simply repackaging the original explanation in different words.
  • A tutor will have the attitude that if the explanation wasn’t clear, the student is not to blame. The customer is always right. On the condition that the student is cooperating, of course, and not just there, because his or her parents insisted on them getting tutoring.

FACTOR #2: KNOWLEDGE OF THE SUBJECT MATTER

A tutor needs to know the material not just well enough to pass the exam himself/herself, but know it when on the spot, and be able to explain it as well as doing it. Real knowledge of subject matter is actually a different skill set from the ability to solve a problem and get a grade on a exam.

A tutor needs to have teaching-knowledge as well as learning knowledge. Concepts often seem to slip out of some people’s heads when they’re asked to explain them. A real understanding of the context for a mathematical concept is necessary, and of the fundamental principles involved, not merely a pat method for solving a problem. This is particularly true on the SAT or ACT, tests of reasoning rather than subject matter, and on higher level math courses such as college and graduate courses.

For higher-level courses: if you’re a college or graduate student, you need a tutoring company that specializes in tutoring for college graduate level math. There are few companies in New York City and around the country who are advanced enough in mathematics to be able to tutor these subjects. The best math tutors know the best places to work, so ask them which companies are good.

Some tutoring companies are geared toward their bottom line, not your learning. Their corporate structure legally requires them to maximize their profits, not your learning. They use rote teaching methods, formulas to ensure that quality is controlled. The downside of this is that, since the tutors aren’t free to depart from the tried-and-true methods, the improvement in students is very slight. The tutoring isn’t individualized or tailored to the student’s particular needs. As a business model it makes sense: put a large quantity of students through a rote program and ensure they’re all slightly satisfied. But the great additional gains that could have been garnered are all lost.

How a good tutoring company ensures knowledge of the subject matter:

Good companies test everyone who works for them. Potential tutors have to get a score of %80 or better on their assessment test. A good tutoring company doesn’t go by references alone. They ask tutors to explain a concept aloud, on the spot, in order to see directly how they teach. Many good companies give you a chance to “test-drive” a tutor for one session and guarantee a full refund if you’re not completely satisfied. (A good company will also have %95 or more of their clients satisfied and continuing lessons.)

How you can ensure knowledge of subject matter:

When you approach a tutoring company, ask what credentials the tutors have. Look at the tutor profiles page. When talking with a tutor ask the tutor to explain why something works as well as how to do the math.

Factor #3: Responsibility

The reality is some tutors, especially in fast-paced New York City, just don’t show up, or don’t return phone calls for weeks at a time.

What A Good Company Does to Prevent Run-away Tutors:

We’ve had a few come through our company even. We were astonished that some people could be so unprofessional. We learned. Now, though our default attitude continues to be trust-based, we understand it is possible for this to occur, and if you came to us for tutoring you’d need to know about us, that a tutor who does this is removed from her/his jobs and replaced, period. They don’t work for our company again. (Who knows, they may be working for some other company now, so be sure to do some due diligence!). We expect this is how any good company will handle this. But not all companies do have a backup tutor at the ready, one who’s fully competent to take over in the middle of the process and get your ready for your exams.

This kind of thing happens very rarely with tutoring companies, and is by far the most infrequent of the three problems we’ve outlined here. But when it does happen it can be very distressing for students. So it’s good to know you won’t run into that problem.

How to Do Your Due Diligence:

Ask a tutoring company if they’ve ever had this occur, and how they handled it. Ask for a guarantee that not only will your problem be addressed but that a backup tutor will be available immediately to ensure you’re ready for your exams in time. And that this backup tutor be at least as good as the original.

Summary: How to Get the Best Tutor for YOU

In summary, communication skill, real knowledge of the principles behind the material, and guarantees of responsiveness are the three most important things to ensure you’re getting a good tutoring experience that brings you to where you want to be in your studies and your grades. Don’t just take our word for it, ask us, ask whatever other company you look at out there.

Take the time to get it right the first time, since it will waste valuable time and make things that much more frantic if you have to do it all again later, plus adding more confusion to your studies or those of your child. And also, if you get a really good tutor, a really great match, you won’t just get the benefit of repairing what’s not been working in your education previously, you may find you are learning worlds more than you were before.

To recap:

What to ask the tutor or tutoring director:

  • How do you/your tutors communicate? What tools do you use to make sure communication is getting through to me in a way that I actually get it?
  • Explain a mathematical concept to me.
  • Explain to me why this thing works, what’s the substance behind the method, as well as how to do the math.
  • Have you/your tutors tutored before or only taught in a classroom?
  • My learning style is _____. Do you have a tutor / can you tutor to my specific learning style?
  • I don’t know what my learning style is. I’ve always had trouble with ____. Can you help me figure out what my learning style is, and will you/the tutor be able to tutor to that learning style?
  • Do your tutors have to pass a test to work for you, and what score do they need to get?
  • Ask if there are backup tutors in case of irresponsibility, and ask if the company has ever handled the situation of a runaway before.

What to look for:

  • A great tutor will ask you questions while explaining, and find out if you’re following what she/he’s saying, rather than assuming you’re understanding (or that you’re the one who’s at fault if you don’t understand).
  • A great tutor won’t assume that just because you’re hearing the words that you’re understanding.
  • If you don’t understand the first explanation, a great tutor will explain it differently the second time, rather than simply repackaging the original explanation in different words.
  • Backup tutors are available if anything should happen with your tutor.

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