(I know it sounds harsh. But please read the title as frank and funny, and not offensive in any way.)
This year, I dumped, fired, axed, let go and so forth of 2 bad (or perhaps the better word is “difficult”) students. It’s important as private tutors, where you’re your own boss, to know when to say “No, it’s over”. So this post will be a guide for those tutors, who have been in the same place that I have been in. That dark miserable place where you dread tutoring the student, where your faith in learning and teaching has been destroyed, and where you look sadly ahead at the next 1-5 years of tutoring them until they graduate high school.
What is a BAD student?
There’s no bad students! There’s only bad, incompetent tutors! No one is “unteachable”!
Sorry, this is a myth.
Some bad students are redeemable – you fumble around for a while, but eventually you know how to engage with their personality and get them to do work. However, it is silly to think that under your master tutelage that every bad student can become a good student. That is another myth – the fact, that you are a foolproof “master” tutor.
Bad students are not necessarily “bad” in the negative sense, but they may be “bad” for YOU in the sense that you and the student are incompatible. Your personalities, communication, teaching/learning vibe may be completely wrong for each other.
I’ll provide 2 case studies from my experience this year:
Bad Student #1
Bad student #1 is in Year 9, but has the maths capability of someone in Year 5 – cannot do anything with fractions, does not know their times tables, no negative integers.
In addition, they seem to have no memory ability. They fail to do their homework time after time. They refuse to do more than 1 hour of tutoring per week.
This student presents with multiple bad qualities:
- Lack of knowledge
- Lack of memory
- Fails to do homework
- Lack of commitment to learning
Bad Student #2
Bad student #2 has a poor memory and understanding, because of a learning disability. He attends a public school, where the maths level is far beyond what he is currently capable of. He cannot answer questions without assistance.
His parents expect that more tutoring will mean improvement. Even if he does not improve, at least he is doing work.
You have arrived at this student’s house twice to find that no one is home – they have forgotten or are running very late. You return home after wasting 1/2 hour driving back/forth and calling them.
This student presents with these bad qualities:
- Learning disability which you are not trained to handle
- Incompatible parental expectations – your goal is to teach/improve students, not babysit them.
- Poor communication/organisation with family
Why dump BAD students?
Ok, so sure they’re not great students – by why dump them? I mean, a student is a student, and money is money right? Better to have some students (even if BAD) rather than no students, right?
BAD students are charged the same rate as a GOOD student (unless you charge some special rate based on their “badness”) – so why waste extra time and energy on these students? Rather, end it and find better students. This is the beauty of being a private tutor – your own boss. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to!
Here are the reasons I dumped my students:
- Time: generally, you charge by the hour, but consider the travel time, preparation time, email contact time etc.
- Money: how much are you paying yourself to tutor a bad student? Is $20 really worth the agony of driving there, dealing with the bad student, complaining about it to your friends and partner?
- Frustration: why give yourself the extra stress and frustration of dealing with a difficult student who is unresponsive, has attitude problems, never does homework or refuses to listen?
- Inability: admit it, you can’t tutor this student – you don’t have the skills/experience to tutor someone with a learning difficulty
- Ethics: what is your goal? My goal with tutoring is to improve a student’s skills and grades. If the student isn’t learning anything, I’m not accomplishing anything in my eyes and I feel like a failure. If I keep tutoring, I feel like I’m robbing the parents blind. Even if the parents say to keep going, my goal is never to be a babysitter.
Bad Student #3
This was a student, which I didn’t dump, but which I was let go of after a while.
Bad student #3 was only in primary school and had difficulties reading and pronounciation. The charge was $20 per hour and I traveled 15 minutes to their house (1 way).
Basically all I did was sit with the student and listen to him read a picture book. This was odd. Is tutor also another word for babysitter?
One day the mum called me and said, “We’ve spoken to [bad student’s] teacher at school and they’ve recommended we take [bad student] to a speech pathologist. Thank you for all your help though.”
Here there were 3 reasons: time, money, inability.
I’m a university student doing Law/Arts – I am not a speech pathologist in any sense.
So no, you are not a master tutor.
How to do it?
Once you’ve decided you’re going to END IT. How do you do it? I’m horrifyingly bad at saying “No” or “It’s over” to people. I rather be fired than quit. Yet, this year allowed me to get over my fear a bit.
Wait a few months
Some students may seem bad and disastrous. SOME change – you can discipline/train them, you can find a way to connect with their learning style and personality. Or you may find that you can simply endure it.
Either way, wait out a few months before deciding that – once and for all – it is over.
Bad Student turned Good #1
Bad qualities: didn’t do homework, was behind in terms of knowledge/skills for their year level.
I told the parent that the student didn’t do their homework – this set them straight. Afterwards, they worked well and did all their homework, all the time. As a result, they caught up and actually started excelling in Maths.
Bad Student turned Good #2
Bad qualities: non-talkative/cold, didn’t do their homework
Initially, my “How are you? How was school? How was the exam?” was always met with grunts or one-worded replies. However, after over a year, they finally became more talkative and friendly. Sure, I still got the odd grunts and one-worded replies, but I got used to it. They also didn’t really do their homework that often or they would lose the homework sheet. The solution was that I simply didn’t give them that much homework, and didn’t have great expectations for their homework completion. However, I was pleasantly surprised in Year 12 (I also taught them in Year 11) that all of a sudden, they were completing all their homework. Sometimes, it takes the impending HSC to turn BAD students into GOOD students.
Get over the guilt and fear
- Remember, you are robbing the parents blind! Stop it! Have you no decency?!
- You have a right to end it. You’re your own boss.
- What do you have to fear? Anger, annoyance, disappointment from the student/parents? These are all temporary emotions – they probably won’t remember you.
Hi [parent’s name]. This is [your name], your son/daughter’s tutor.
I just wanted to talk to you about [student] – if you have a few minutes. We’ve been tutoring for [X months] now and I think it would be best for us to stop.
I don’t think that [student] is gaining much out of the sessions. [Explain reasons – for example:]
- They need a lot more assistance that I can provide them with at this point.
- My tutoring and their learning styles aren’t working well together.
I hope you understand and I wish you and [student] all the best in finding another tutor.
Explanations to avoid:
Avoid time/money reasons. This may make you sound selfish or very possibly – the parent will simply offer you more money to keep coming. But really, how much more money would get to keep you going with this student? Usually I’ve psyched myself up to end the tutoring and no amount of money will keep me going.
Avoid saying the student is bad. For example, don’t cite your ONLY reason as that the student doesn’t do their homework. Parents may say “Oh, but I’ll make sure they do it from now on!” or “Surely we can work on that together – keep tabs on them?” Parents will reason that they can change their child – when you KNOW it will not happen (any time soon). If you say it is a combination of problems between you AND the student (eg. My tutoring and their learning style isn’t working well together), at least the reason is out of their control and they cannot come up with an excuse for you to stay.
Why would you refer your BAD student to someone (usually a friend), who may then hate you for passing that student onto them? Unless you’re certain that somehow that other tutor is especially capable or compatible with your ex-student, don’t do it.
Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit. – George Carlin
Think about whether any of your students are BAD students.
If so, cull the BAD students and aim to multiply the GOOD students.
Remember that “BAD” and “GOOD” students are relative terms, because ultimately it is about compatibility of tutor and student.