Online tutoring: A how-to guide

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It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that education has gone online and will probably stay that way for a while. In the UK, most schools won’t reopen until September, which means that students will rely heavily on private tutoring to avoid falling behind at least until then.

From a student’s perspective, one-to-one tutoring improves their confidence and understanding, and therefore their grades, significantly, in the comfort of their own home and without the judgement of their peers or the fear of falling behind in class.

That’s not to say that private tutoring is universally available. While there are thousands of tutors, not everyone can afford them. I believe that, in times of educational upheaval tutors are morally obliged to offer voluntary tutoring for students who need it but can’t afford it in order to prevent them from falling irreparably behind. But that’s the thing: like many services, tutors are often asked to provide theirs at a heavy discount or even for free, even under normal circumstances. While it’s a great way, especially for university students, to make some extra money, there are challenges to overcome.

#1 – How do you choose a platform?

You can tutor independently and take 100% of your earnings. However, a good platform will put your platform fee (around 25% of your earnings) to good use, providing at least the following three services: a means for you and students to find each other; guaranteed payment if students default; and support with problems. And, if you are voluntarily tutoring, then do so for a platform that provides the same support and ensures that students are eligible for free tutoring. All you need to do to accommodate the platform fee is make sure that your rate leaves you with what you want after the fee has been deducted.  

#2 – What are your responsibilities?

It’s important to remember what your responsibilities are when agreeing how much to take on, especially in the beginning because you’ll be worried about disappointing potential students. In my experience, it’s worse to get into something and then try to get out of it than it is to say no in the first place.

Firstly, you’re not responsible for covering the curriculum. That sounds ironic, but for a student with plenty of commitments it’s a good thing. Teachers are legally responsible for covering the curriculum and parents are responsible in cases of home-schooling. 

Some parents and guardians have been using voluntary tutors as free babysitters while they work from home. While they’re under a lot of pressure, don’t agree to anything that you didn’t sign up for just because of that.

You are responsible for being trained in safeguarding and DBS-checked. Depending on the platform, safeguarding training may be provided, or evidence of your DBS check may be enough. You’re expected to provide your own advanced DBS check, so it helps to have worked previously in a role that requires you to have one. Platforms may still accept you without one, but it might be indicated on your profile and result in less interest from students.

#3 – What should you charge and what should you tutor? 

Helping students is important, but, unless you sign up for volunteering, you should expect to be paid for your time. Always have a rate that you’re happy with. That rate is up to you, although if you start too expensive and don’t have a track record on your platform then you might not get much interest. It’s better to start low and increase your rate as you tutor more, because then the cost more seems justified to students and parents.

Deciding what you will tutor is straightforward and should be based on the age(s) of student and the subjects and qualifications that you’re comfortable with. Choose as many as you can because that gives you the best chance of attracting students. Most subjects are relatively easy to tutor at KS3 and even up to GCSE, but once you’re at A Level it’s best to stick with your specialisms.

 When deciding how long to make your lessons, consider your students’ energy and attention span. There’s a reason that school lessons are generally an hour long.

#4 – Where do you find material?

You can get around finding material by only tutoring exam technique, as past papers and mark schemes are freely available on most exam board websites. For GCSEs, BBC Bitesize covers the content of most subjects and exam boards. There isn’t an equivalent for A Level, which is why it’s easier to tutor only subjects and topics that you’re familiar with.

 As for resources that cost money, if a student wants you to refer to a particular textbook and you will definitely use it again, then it’s worth buying. Otherwise, see if they can scan or photograph the relevant pages. 

#5 – How do you get students?

It’s easy to take on too many students, especially when you’re trying to get them in the first place. Start with a small number and build up to avoid compromising on your own education.

You may be searchable on your platform, in which case keep your profile up-to-date and professional. Students may be able to post ads, for which I recommend keeping a master copy response that you can edit accordingly. The amount of rejections or non-responses that you’re likely to get makes this approach the least time-consuming. The number of available students will also vary, generally with more appearing nearer to exams and coursework deadlines.

#6 – How do you deal with students?

Not all students are problematic, and they are paying customers, but that doesn’t mean that they should make unreasonable demands.

One issue is no doubt familiar. Students may work hard but lack confidence. You can’t promise that they’ll achieve their desired grades, but you can be reassuring. It helps to take on students as long as possible before their exams, to make sure that they have as much time to improve as possible.

As for the problematic students, there will be plenty. Even though you are there to help them, don’t feel obliged to accept behaviour that is wrong or makes you uncomfortable, such as: rudeness from either students or parents; students asking to pay less than your advertised rate; students who waste your time, by either not doing their work or missing their lessons; or students who want you to do their work for you. Platforms should have a policy on plagiarism, which includes completing work for students. They should also have expectations of their students and tutors. If anything seems odd or makes you uncomfortable, it probably goes against these policies, and the last thing that you should do is agree to anything that could negatively affect your relationship with your platform. Don’t hesitate to report any problematic behaviour and don’t put up with it just so that you have students. There will always be more students who need tutoring.

Tutoring can be an easy way to make money and it can be rewarding to watch your students grow in ability and confidence, but it’s not something to enter into lightly. You need to be persistent in order to get students and firm with your expectations when dealing with problems. However, if you tutor with a platform, you should be supported – and if your chosen platform doesn’t respond well to questions or problems, then it’s worth thinking about choosing a different one.