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Last Lesson (or "4 things to know if you want to be a tutor")

Published on Thursday, 17 February, 2022

Today was my last lesson.

Ok, so here's a quick recap for those of you who don't know. My contract with Sofia Univeristy ended on the 1st of October 2021. Back then I was still hopeful that I will be able to find an interesting postdoc position in a top (well, mid-tier) university somewhere. I had applied for about 10 different places that all sounded promising, even if my chances were slim. Furthermore, I had applied to the Joint Institute of Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia - a place where I have some connection through my advisor, so I was hopeful about my chances. There will be a post about JINR sometimes in the future, as just last Friday I came back from a 15-day stay in Dubna. But yeah, more on that when the time comes.

So last-October Ivo was stuck in a conundrum - what should he do for money whilst waiting. In his mind, that was to be a 3-4 month period - from October to January or February. Well, I've already written that I like teaching, so I decided to try my luck with private tutoring. And boy, was it a journey...

First of all, there is this (very-bloaty) site, called uchiteli.bg. It serves as a main hub for both people giving and looking for lessons in various topics. There's the usual stuff - math, physics, biology - but also things like piano lessons, dancing lesson and the like. Honestly, it's not too bad of a service, although their subscription model is the pinacle of freemium scams - the site is basically unusable unless you pay. Still the fee is around 10BGN or so a month so it's nothing too drastic. Once you've made an account the fun starts - people from all over Bulgaria start trying to contact you. Now the site has it's own messaging system, but that almost never used. Mostly, people contact you either via phone, or via Viber.

Maybe October is a good month for starting your private tutor journey, because in a couple of weeks my schedule was full. Initially I had decided to limit myself to 8 hours of lessons per week. Since I was charging 30 BGN per hour of lessons, that amounts to approximately 1000 BGN per month. Not a great salary, but I had (and still have) savings and decided to not push myself too much. I wanted to play music, to read books and to be extra comfy. Of course, that didn't happen in the slightest. Very quickly the 8 hours of lessons a week became 12, then about 15. That still sounds like very little work, but remember that a school teacher's weekly mandate is 20 hours. And there is a reason for that.

Imagine starting your day with a 9th grade girl that comes into your house to be tutored in math, followed by a 12th grade boy that you tutor in physics, then you have 1 hour for lunch, then you have an university student that you have to teach thermodynamics and then a 6th grader that is from an all-English school which has a completely different curriculum. It's wasn't hard, but it's stressful and very, very draining. So for any of you that wants to start tutoring - try to find similar children. It didn't make a difference to me if I was helping the child with homework or doing Olympiad problems with them - both things were fun and instructive. The real energy-killer is trying to switch between topics and modes of tutoring. Originally I didn't intend to make this post as a collection of tips for tutoring, but to hell with it, it's that now!

Tips for Tutoring

Make sure as many of your students as possible have similar needs.

Yeah, I already explained why this is the case. It's just infinitely better to have to think about one thing, than to have to think about many. From my experience in Bulgaria, there are three broad categories of students that seek tutors - 11/12th graders who want to apply to universities abroad, 8-9th graders having trouble in high-school and 5-6-7th graders whose parents are worried that their kid is a bit slow to pick up new things like fractions, geometry and the like. If you can manage to stick to one category, that would be great. Two is doable as well. I was dealing with all three and at that point the energy and time investments in order to know what exactly students want from you starts becoming too much.

Your students will flake on you. A lot!

Data time! Firstly, I don't really have data for October, since I only tutored for about two weeks and it took some time for the whole process to start rolling. But I have kept strict records for the months of November, December and January and the amount of flaking is astounding. So, for this 3-month period I have scheduled 165 lessons in total. The amount of outright cancelled lessons is 42, which is 25% of the total number of lessons. Let me say that again - 1 in every 4 lessons was cancelled. Not to be mercantile, but that means 1/4 pay cut. Most of those lessons were cancelled last minute and there was no possibility for rescheduling. Furthermore there were 12 rescheduled lessons. In all honesty, this 25% number of flakes is probably a bit high due to the holiday season. Discarding the weeks from Christmas to New Years (20.12 to 03.01) the number drops to 20%.

I think the only way to mitigate this is to request an upfront payment at the beginning of the month, rather than being paid for every lesson. The ultimate method might be to announce a 15-20 week course and charge money for the entire course, but that requires some planing. That's what a lot of bigger language and math tutor programs do and is probably the safest route if you want to do tutoring for a living. There is also the option of being a air travel company scumbag and to try to over-book yourself, but that...just weird.

No work during school holidays.

Going back to the Christmas thing - you don't get paid on the holidays. It's even worse - you don't get payed around holidays as people start travelling and their kids become unavailable for lessons. So...it's a reverse holiday for you. It's probably even worse during the summer break - that amounts to two months of not being paid. So in essence you should multiply your monthly salary by 10 to get your yearly income, not by 12. You should 100% percent take this into account if you wish to start tutoring.

Weird business hours

This is very much related to students flaking, but your schedule can be very fragmented. I had a lot of 2 or 3 hour gaps between lessons that, if God forbid, turned to 4 hour gaps as soon as someone called last minute to cancel their lesson. It's a lot of dead time that is hard to fill with anything productive. If you decide that you want to try tutoring it's best if you have another freelance business or something that you can do in this time.

All in all, it's a cool job, but it's not for me. It's to much stress, to much last-minute calls and too much hassle for not-so-much money. It's cool being your own boss, designing your own schedule, doing your own accounting and all that, but at least for me, there are better ways of doing that. If things continued the way they were going I was looking at about 1000 BGN per month pay check (taking into account the 2 months of no-pay in the summer). Yes, you can go significantly higher, but your salary only scales linearly with your time spent working. It's really hard to imagine a way to be able to charge more down the line. Maybe if you somehow become a very-distinguished tutor you might be able to do that, but I don't see it. Most students need help with stuff that anyone with a university degree can provide. I'm hard-pressed to believe that people are going to pay me double what I'm asking now just because I have 3-4-5 years of experience under my belt. It's a job for a few months, or something to do part-time - not really a perspective career.

So yeah - I tried it, like it, and am now dropping it. I guess I can write private tutor in my CV, but it looks somewhat ridiculous. Today was my last lesson - ironically with one of my first students. He want's to be an aerospace engineer. Really smart kid, hope he makes it. Oh, and I'm starting a new job on Monday. More of that later.

Take care