Reflections on Private Tutoring

This likely will be my last season of tutoring high school and university students. The final exams for the high school are coming up next week. I thought that it might be a good time to look back and reflect on those years.

I have started with tutoring already while I was in high school. At the beginning I would teach material that I just had learned myself shortly before. According to the four stages of competence this was just after crossing from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. I would recall pretty exactly what knowledge I lacked, which experiences were needed to understand. This made me a reasonable tutor for my peers.

Later on during university studies I did tutoring as an university employee and also on the side as a private tutor. In both cases I have eventually worked mostly with university students. In general university students are self-motivated and really want to understand the material at hand. Sometimes they just want to pass a course, sometimes they want to build a foundation that lasts longer. High school students on the other hand are usually not as conscious about their future as university students and seem to be a more motivated by their exam scores than with building a foundation. Of course, there are school subjects that one just has to bear with until graduation and already knows years in advance that they are not going to pursue a future into these directions. I certainly had those subjects and did not too well in them as I just lacked the motivation that drove me in physics and mathematics.

Over the course of the years I got to work with high school students in math and physics and university students of physics, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, dental medicine, computer science, agriculture, psychology and geodesy. In all cases of course I did tutoring in math, physics, statistics and programming. For the high school students the demand has been the highest in math, likely because in the German system one usually ends up having it in the finals. One needs to have at least one science in the finals, and people who pick a science on their own usually do not need tutoring in math. Then I just had a handful of high school students for physics, apparently only very few elect that course if they do not like it.

It has been very interesting to see physics from the eyes of a medicine student who just wants to pass the lab course but also from a mathematician's point of view who takes physics as his applied subject. Also students of mathematics has a very similar approach to programming as I have as a theoretical physicist. But teaching high school kids programming is something completely different. Over the years I even had a few people in their work life coming to me. One is a professional tutor who lives off tutoring and needs to keep up with the latest graphing calculators. Another wanted to catch up on the high school diploma and needed to study for it. And I also have the opportunity to teach Python and machine learning while getting better at it myself along the way.

Giving tutorials as an university employee as part of the Bachelor or Master course of studies is nice because one has a steady income during the lecture period (8 months a year). For the term breaks one needed to find something else or just stretch the income a bit. One gets paid around 9 EUR/hour for 10 hours/week, making in the ballpark of 400 EUR/month. When tutoring privately I can set my hourly rate freely but it takes a lot of organization to get a steady income from it. I routinely had people canceling appointments, or I had to cancel when I was sick. In the past year I added an agreement for sessions canceled in the last minute. Yet it is really hard to get 10 hours/week worth of regulars. There are also agencies that can fill your schedule, but they want a fee for their services. I have never tried those, but that is another option.

My experiences have been mixed. There have been people who were really gratifying to work with. They were motivated, asked a lot of questions and were determined to understand the topics. Others were only motivated by their grades to pass some course. And with some it was clear that their parents were more motivated than the students themselves. In either case it was always great to get feedback from the students. Sometimes it was something along the way, like improved quarter grades, a better grade in an exam than before or just feeling that they understand the topics better than before. Also seeing them pass the final exam made me feel proud and gave me a motivational boost for the next student.

I also grew a lot during from all the sessions that I gave. In some areas I now have a more solid understanding myself because students asked me detailed background questions that I needed to look up first. Explaining things also shows whether one has really understood them and forces one to sort everything before one can sensibly explain it. There is a proverb that one cannot learn something better than by teaching it. I think that this has some truth, but one should not push it and start teaching too early on. I've never formally learned didactics, but having to freely explain various topics over the years left me able to give a coherent talk about a lot of things on a moment's notice.

If you want to take this opportunity to earn some money on the side while studying, I can only recommend doing so. But perhaps with a few tips:

  • Make a rule about canceled appointments. Sometimes I had rescheduled a session three times and always had an empty reserved spot in my evening without being able to fill it with a recreational activity last minute. So have say a 15 EUR penalty for missed sessions and miraculously people will show up more more frequently.

  • If you are hired by parents, make sure to tell them that you cannot make their kid intrinsically motivated. I have felt that this really is the crucial difference between success and just getting by.

  • Be conscious about allocating your weekend. It is the easiest to have sessions on the weekends because regular university and school events are during the work week. But then you have a regular appointment on the weekend, which can put a dent into plans like staying somewhere over the weekend. I have found that canceling a weekend was no problem with the clients I had, but one should not do this too often. Scheduling in the evenings can be stressful as well, one just has to find something that works for both sides.

  • Keep an eye on your income. In Germany one does not have to pay taxes when the yearly income is below like 8000 EUR. But nevertheless one needs to file taxes after around 400 EUR of freelance income.

All in all I have enjoyed the experience and would do it again.