Like so many specialties, New York City offers a huge range of private tutors and tutoring services. How do you find the best fit for your child?
Tutoring company or private tutor?
Finding a tutor through a tutoring company has some big advantages. Companies research their applicants' credentials, check their references, and often give them training. (Tutor training is especially useful for specific tests like the SAT). Tutoring companies also give you more options if your child doesn't click with a particular tutor. However, if your child needs tutoring in a very specific area (like engineering or Latin), a tutoring company may have noone available. The other disadvantage is cost. Since most companies keep as much as 50 percent of the hourly rate they charge, private tutors may charge significantly less for exactly the same service. Some excellent tutors only work privately because the hourly pay is better.
Where do you find the right tutor?
Even if you're using a tutoring company, you should still focus on the individual tutor your child will be working with. Call and ask companies to describe the tutors who are available in the subject and age group that your child needs; you can even ask for tutors' resumes. You may have to call two or three companies before you find a tutor who sounds like a good fit for your child. Alternatively, you can find a private tutor by asking for recommendations from friends or by looking on sites like craigslist.org and nymetroparents.com. Just use your best judgment and ask smart questions about the tutor's references, qualifications, and approach.
The two most important qualifications for a tutor are subject knowledge and teaching experience. The ideal tutor has majored in the subject in college, or is a reading or education specialist if your child needs help with basic skills. (Ph.D.s are usually not necessary, especially if your child is under 16). The tutor should also have teaching experience in the appropriate age group, because teenagers need a different teaching style than kindergartners. Look for teacher certification, an education or Master's degree, classroom teaching experience, and tutoring experience. Feel free to ask for references, too.
Of course, a tutor's chemistry with your child is critical. It's often a good idea to set up a trial session to make sure your child clicks with the tutor before you commit to a regular schedule. Trust your child's judgment as well as your own. Teenagers may respond better to someone who is young rather than parental. Some kids also may prefer someone of their own gender. At the same time, you are looking for a tutor, not a buddy. Discuss good goals with the tutor and your child to help establish accountability.
No tutor can guarantee As, and if you insist on them, the tutor may feel pressured to do too much hand-holding, or even to help do the child's work for them. At the same time, improvement is crucial, because otherwise your child can fall into the trap of relying on the tutor to be a permanent "homework helper" rather than a temporary aid. There are two good ways to ensure accountability from a tutor: One is to ask the tutor to work on "skills and drills" — relevant skills work — for at least half of each session, so your child does not just use the tutor to get homework done. (Completing homework will usually be your child's top priority!) Second, plan a short-term contract with the tutor (say 4 weeks), after which the child has to learn to be independent, and can only call the tutor for very specific skills or test review. That will help the tutor and child to focus on permanent skills, not temporary fixes.
When in doubt, trust your instincts and make a good plan with your child. You can help the tutor by helping your child to set some clear, achievable goals for the future, and by expressing faith in your child to get there.
RACHEL CAREY is an experienced New York City tutor who has worked with companies including The Princeton Review, Inspirica, and Champion Learning Center. She has a B.A. from Yale in English and an M.Ed. from Harvard. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (917) 613-0973.