Forget about investment banking or going to law school. Of all my secondary school classmates, the first one to be able to afford her own car was a full time tutor.
We already know tuition teachers don’t have it easy. Just ask Benjamin, whom we interviewed for an earlier article, and he’ll tell you it’s a job that can make you get spasms every time you set eyes on a kid.
But it’s also a job in which earning five figures a month is a very real possibility. For those thinking of taking the leap, with some helpful advice from Benjamin as well as the benefit of first-hand experience, we present our guide to becoming a full time tutor:
Preliminary – decide what to teach
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of becoming a full-time tutor, we feel compelled to first state the obvious: you need to first decide on what subjects and levels to teach.
Depending on what you studied at tertiary level and your own level of proficiency in various areas, some subjects are easier to teach than others.
But, you might argue, I’ve forgotten everything I learnt at school.
Be that as it may, as an adult, it’s a lot easier to get up to speed on things. If you think you’ve forgotten all about the life cycle of mosquitoes and how an angsana tree disperses its seeds, well, duh, no one remembers that stuff.
But just check out a primary school science textbook and you’ll realise you can easily scan through the whole thing in an hour or two.
If you’re not familiar with the current syllabus but have natural aptitude for a particular subject, it shouldn’t be difficult to get up to speed. Teaching English is one obvious option if you’re a native speaker as you won’t have to grapple with formulae or weird diagrams.
When trying to decide which subjects to brush up on, don’t forget the following general rules:
- teaching multiple subjects to the same kid usually pays better per hour
- the older your students are, the more you get paid, so aim to teach at the most advanced level possible
- subjects like English, math, chemistry and physics are in greater demand than geography or literature simply because more students take them
A word of caution: While you might not be winning any teaching awards at the start, it’s important that you at least be proficient in the subjects you’re teaching prior to starting. Parents can be quite quick to sniff out a tutor who’s not doing anything to improve a kid’s grades, and even if they’re not, have a conscience!
How to find your first students
This is the biggest question on everyone’s lips. Well, it’s actually very easy to get students if you know how. I taught kids for 10 months back in the day and was working on a more or less full-time basis within 1 month.
When you start out, you’ll probably be travelling to your students’ places. The easiest way to get such students is by calling up tuition agencies. You find them by looking at the “tuition” section in the Straits Times classifieds. Nowadays, as many agencies also have websites, you can find more on Google.
For two weeks, call up every single agency in the listings. They will ask you about your degree(s) or diploma(s) as well as your A level and O level results. Tell them which area you live in and where you don’t mind travelling to, and they will get back to you when they have assignments.
Some still call you directly on your mobile when they have a new assignment, but these days more and more will alert you to new assignments via text message.
When you receive a text message about an assignment you’re interested in, simply reply before anyone else does, and then speak with the agent directly.
In general, agents will quote you an hourly rate and tell you how many lessons per week are required, how long each lesson should be and the location. The most common arrangements are:
- primary school: twice a week, 1.5 hours each time
- secondary school: once a week, 2 hours each time
- JC: once a week, 2 hours each time
However, don’t be surprised if you run into students who ask for different arrangements (eg. thrice weekly lessons), especially in the lead up to exam time.
You will typically be charged half of the first month’s tuition fees, which the parent will pay directly to the agent.
Tip: Unless you’re desperate, try to get only students who live under 10km from your home, as it’s much easier to convince them to travel to your place for lessons in future, and also saves yourself time because nobody wants to travel 2 hours to conduct a 1.5 hour lesson.
The above should be enough to get you started. Every time you feel like you need more students, simply call up the agencies again.
Building your tuition empire
If you’ve followed all the above steps, within six months you should have at least five students, which should be enough to earn you about $1,000 to $2,500 a month (more if you’re NIE-trained), depending on the levels and subjects you’re teaching.
At the start, it’s natural to accept assignments that pay a little less than you’d like. Eventually, when you have enough students you can afford to hike up your rates (which to most parents is worthwhile if you’re good) or decide which students you want to keep in the next school year.
If you’re looking to become a real tutor, not just a part-time dabbler, you’ll want to aim to combine multiple students in one class, and hold group classes at home or at some other common venue.
There are some ways you can do this, but beware. At this stage, tutoring becomes more like a business, so you’ll need to take some initiative to market your services rather than just wait for tuition agents to come to you.
- Convert existing students – At the start, students are often reluctant to travel to a tutor’s home, since there’s no shortage of teachers who don’t mind going to theirs. After some time, though, if you’re good and the parents see improvement in the child’s grades, so long as you live nearby it’s unlikely they’ll want to risk swapping you for a lousier teacher.
- Offer existing students a referral fee – When you’ve been in the game for a while, your existing students or their parents are likely to start referring friends or their friends’ kids to you. However, this doesn’t happen fast enough for you to build a business overnight, so be a bit more active by offering them a referral fee (eg. $50 off their next lesson).
- Market yourself online – Set up a website as well as a Facebook page that you can then get your existing students to like. One of my friends even has a Twitter account and tweets solutions to math problems and exhortations to his students to buck up. Some information you should put up on the web includes your timetable and the location of your lessons.
- Market yourself offline – This can be a bit hit and miss. I once spent an entire day stuffing 500 mailboxes with flyers and managed to get one student out of it, which wasn’t that bad. I also tried placing an ad in the Straits Times classifieds, but only one person called just to check the prices. However, one of my friends has had success sticking flyers up on noticeboards at international schools and tertiary institutions. Remember that proximity is a huge factor, so try to concentrate your marketing activities in areas close to home.
Making serious money
As your brood of students starts to grow, you’ll have to start organising them into groups. Obviously, you can’t charge the same amount for group classes as you do for individual classes, but this can work to your advantage, as it will be more cost-effective for your students.
The maximum number of students is up to you, but before you start dreaming of holding huge classes of 20 students and raking in big bucks, be aware that the more students there are, the more tiring it is for you.
When you teach one student, you get to rest when the kid is reading a question or writing down answers.
With a group of students, you’re talking non-stop from start to finish. Once you’re done explaining something to one student, another one immediately asks a question. For this reason, many teachers accept a maximum of 5-6 students in one class. Those with larger numbers are often off running their own tuition centres.
Create a timetable and then corral students into different slots. For example, Sec 2 E Math could be from 4-6 pm on Tuesdays and Sec 4 Chemistry from 10am to 12pm on Saturdays.
Once you start teaching group classes, the potential for referrals increases as students start trying to persuade their friends to join them for tuition, at least at secondary level and above. At primary level, focus on getting referrals from parents.
At the start, you’re going to have to be consistent in your marketing efforts. Just keep plugging away and also make the effort to forge genuine connections with your students.
After a couple of months or maybe a year, if you’ve been working hard to promote your services you should start to see more and more referrals coming in. Many of my tuition teacher friends (including Benjamin himself) work at full capacity, meaning that when they get an enquiry from a potential student they struggle to slot them in to one of the classes.
How to teach
This is a question that few tutors ever ask, surprisingly enough.
When you’re only teaching students one-on-one at the start, you rarely have to give much thought to how you’re going to conduct your lessons, as most students have their own assessment books and just want you to go through practice questions with them.
When you conduct group classes, however, your lessons need to become a lot more self-directed.
At the beginning of the year, many tutors will start teaching material alongside the syllabus, preferably a few weeks ahead of the school’s schedule.
For example, if you’re teaching A Math, you might start students on simultaneous equations in November or December the year before, a few weeks before they are taught the same topic at school in January.
In the month or two before the exams, you can either get the students to start doing mock exam papers or conduct “crash course” type lessons for new students who’ve just joined in a panic and need to catch up quickly.
Here are some essentials if you’re going to be conducting tuition classes at home:
- Ten Year Series
- Exam papers from other schools (can be bought in stacks at Bras Basah Complex or pushcarts at some neighbourhood malls)
- Assessment books
To be honest, it’s not easy to be a full-time tutor, even if it can be quite lucrative. Every second you spend working is really full-on, and it’s normal to feel completely depleted after just one lesson. But if you like kids or are looking for an uncomplicated way to start working for yourself, knock yourself out!
Are you thinking of becoming a full-time tutor? Tell us why in the comments!
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