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How to become a successful tutor

Jayme Kennedy
Aug. 5, 2019

Helping students learn and grow is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, and being a private tutor is an excellent way to lend your expertise to young kids who need a little help or guidance. Many families are looking to hire teachers to provide tutoring services to students during breaks in the school year, but you don’t have to be a teacher or have a background in education to be successful in the field. If you have a breadth of knowledge in a subject and enjoy working with kids, you can put those skills to use and become a successful private tutor.

Getting started as a private tutor requires some preparation and planning. How do you go from performing occasional homework help to getting paid as a knowledgeable private tutor? Rogene Penny, a private tutor from Arvada, Colorado, and Waveney Hudlin, a private tutor in Stanford, California, shared their advice on what steps to follow in order to establish yourself as a successful tutor and start building your business.

1. Decide which subjects you’d like to tutor

As a private tutor, you’re expected to be very savvy in the subjects you teach. When you’re deciding on the subject or subjects you’d like to tutor, consider the classes you were most successful in as a student or focus on a subject closely related to your degree or major. While having a college degree isn’t a requirement for many tutoring jobs, it is important to have at least some formal education or training in the subject you choose.

2. Choose the age groups and grade levels you’d like to tutor

Think about which age group or grade level you’re most comfortable tutoring. If you love working with younger kids, then grade-school tutoring would be a great market for you. Or perhaps you connect easily with teens and young adults; helping high school and college students with coursework and test preparation could be a fulfilling endeavor.

It's also helpful to familiarize yourself with childhood development and know the nuances between age groups.  

"A great tutor has extensive knowledge not only of her subject, but also of the age group with whom she works," Hudlin says. "Tutors with backgrounds in child or adolescent development have an advantage because they know how to make lessons age-appropriate, imagination-sparking, and attention-holding."

3. Familiarize yourself with the curriculum 

Once you’ve decided on a subject and age group, it’s time to make yourself an expert in the curriculum you’ll be teaching. If you have friends who work in education, reach out to them for old class notes, syllabi or lesson plans. For current Common Core curriculum, utilize websites like the Common Core State Standards Initiative to better understand the standards and methods of teaching that students are getting in a classroom environment. Creating outlines and lesson plans is a great way to plan out a tutoring session and refer back to for a refresher.

4. Establish your own teaching methods

Your teaching methods will vary depending on the age group and grade level you’re tutoring. For younger students, using educational games and activities during your sessions can turn learning into a fun and interactive experience. If you’re working with older students in high school or college, try incorporating technology into your lesson plans. PowerPoint presentations, coding exercises and even social media can bring a regular lesson to life and capture your student’s attention.

5. Communicate regularly with your students and their parents 

When you first meet a student, take the time to find out where the student is having difficulties so you can identify their specific needs and tailor a lesson plan to meet those needs. Some students will come to you for help with an entire subject (math, for example), while others need help with one or two key areas, like geometry or calculus.

Once you’ve established your student’s needs, touch base before and after each session to make sure they’re processing what they’re learning with you and that your lesson plans are effective and clear.

Throughout the time you spend with a student, it’s always a good idea, particularly for the younger age brackets, to keep the parents in the loop. Just like parent/teacher conferences, tutors should communicate with parents on a consistent basis, keeping them up to date on how their child is doing, where they’re excelling and areas that still need improvement.

6. Check in with your student's teacher, if necessary

For more demanding tutoring jobs, communicating regularly with your student’s teacher also ensures that your lesson plans are consistent with what your student is learning in the classroom.

"It is helpful and saves time to have contact with the classroom teacher, connecting reading and writing tutoring lessons to what is happening inside the classroom," Penny says.

Teachers can also be a great source of insight into what may or may not work with a particular student. Teachers will see firsthand if your student is getting what they need out of your tutoring sessions, so their feedback is invaluable.

7. Consider joining a tutoring association to become a certified tutor

Technically, you do not need any sort of certification to work as a private tutor in the United States. However, becoming a certified tutor is an excellent way to attain recognition, connect with other tutors through local organizations and build your clientele.

The National Tutoring Association (NTA) is a reputable organization of tutors around the country. When you join the NTA and pay the registration fee, you get access to valuable resources, like webinars, job postings and more. The NTA also offers certification for its members in several disciplines. Certification fees range from $25 for professional tutors to $55 for tutor trainers. Becoming a certified tutor will set you apart from the competition and shows that you’ve had consistent, effective training.

8. Be flexible

Tutors also need to be adaptive. A successful tutor seeks out and discovers needs and then adjusts instruction to fit those specific needs and learning styles.

"A tutor should be adaptive, able to tailor her explanatory style to the needs of each student," Penny says. "Resist the urge to offer 'simple shortcuts' and 'easy tricks' until the student has reached a level of mastery at which he can truly comprehend them."

It’s also helpful to be flexible with the location of tutoring. Decide whether you’ll go to a client’s house, a local library, tutor from your own home or another specified location.

9. Sell yourself

OK, now you just need some clients! In order to be a successful tutor, you have to be comfortable with selling yourself and your services. If you know any teachers, particularly ones who teach in the grade you’re focusing on, reach out to them and let them know that you’re open for business. If they have students that could use a little extra help, they can refer them to you.

Advertising is another way to find potential clients. Create a profile on sites like Care.com in order to advertise your services, or apply for positions on the many online job boards. If you’re working with high school and college students, consider taking out a small ad in the school newspaper or putting up a few flyers around campus and in the library. Also consider advertising on social media within your community, at schools, recreational centers like the YMCA and your local library. 

One of the most effective ways you’ll get new tutoring clients is through word of mouth.

"Word of mouth is, for a tutor, the best marketing there is!" Hudlin says.

Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals from happy clients, and consider offering discounts for established clients if their referral turns into a regular student.

10. Consider starting with a tutoring center

If you're struggling to get your business going, try working with a tutoring center or company. They handle finding clients and dealing with paperwork and might just be the support system you need. A predetermined percentage will be deducted from your earnings before you're paid.

Take note: Some companies do have their tutors sign contracts including a "no competition agreement," which means you will only tutor with them. 

11. Become a private tutor at a pay rate you deserve

Starting with a tutoring company is a great way to get experience and begin making money working with students. However, once you’ve found your groove and feel comfortable tutoring, you may want to branch out on your own. When you do, make sure you’re not under- or over-selling yourself.

As a private tutor, it’s up to you to set your own hourly rate, and the range is wide. The standard rate for a private tutor varies between $25 and $85 per hour depending on your qualifications and experience, as well as the age and grade level of the student you’re working with. Tutoring for elementary school kids should be in the $25 to $40 per hour range. High school and college students should be in the $40 to $85 range. If your qualifications put you in the expert-level category of tutors (for example, if you hold one or more degrees in the subject or are a certified tutor with plenty of experience), don’t be afraid to charge what you’re worth. You can check sites like the NTA and Care.com to find out what rates tutors are charging in your area. A successful, effective tutor is worth every dollar.

12. Give clients convenient payment options

When it comes time to collect payment, keep in mind that many parents like convenient options. Some people prefer to deal in cash, but nowadays, online and app-based payments allow people to pay using a debit or credit card. PayPal, Venmo, Square Cash and Apple Pay are all great ways to collect payment and maintain records with clients, and many of these apps will send an invoice automatically, too.

You may also consider creating an invoice to give parents or students upon payment, especially for cash clients. An invoice adds a professional touch.

Always collect payment before or after a session, unless your agreement specifies otherwise.

12. Take your private tutoring business to the next level 

Once you've established yourself in your area or gained some credibility online, it’s time to take this from a side gig to an actual business. Create a personal brand, including a promotional website, business cards and custom school supplies.

Ask for reviews from past students, and post them on your professional pages and website. Connect with other local tutors through the NTA and create a network on professional colleagues in your area. Show potential clients that you’re a knowledgeable and successful tutor, and soon enough, you’ll have more students than you’ll know what to do with.

Read next: Why you need to market yourself online — and how to successfully do it

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