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A service member recounts how she moved from air traffic control to tutoring and offers advice for those hoping to tutor online.

4 pieces of advice for aspiring tutors

A service member recounts how she moved from air traffic control to tutoring

Key points:

  • You don’t have to be an expert to be a tutor–you just need a willingness to learn as an adult
  • Working with a reputable tutoring organization is essential
  • See related article: 6 keys to effective tutoring

What do directing planes to land successfully on the runway and directing students to read successfully in the classroom have in common? A lot, as I found out during my transition to tutor following three decades of managing the flow of aircraft around the country. 

When I joined the Air Force in 1988, I became an Air Traffic Controller. I didn’t know it then, but this job would lead me down a path that included an eight-year military career and 22 years at the Department of Defense. During my 30 years of service, I managed both the training, and standardization and evaluation departments before becoming the tower chief controller.

As I looked toward retirement in 2019, I knew I still wanted to do meaningful work, but I wasn’t sure what I was qualified to do. My daughter, who was teaching English online, inspired my next steps, and now I’m in my fourth year of tutoring, supporting students and my fellow tutors to develop their skills. While controlling air traffic and online tutoring are worlds apart, there are a few key considerations that made all the difference in my career shift. Here are my tips for those considering a career switch to tutoring:

1. Work with a reputable tutoring organization. They can help you channel your natural skills and qualifications and focus them into being an effective tutor. I started my orientation by attending a workshop where I learned to use tutoring programs. My cohort and I had several days to practice the lessons and become familiar with the platform to gain confidence and familiarity with what our students would see. By the end of this time, I felt confident in my abilities and the resources I had available to ensure my, and my students’, success.

2. Choose a company that fits your needs. I wake up early to review my schedule, prepare for the day’s classes, and check to see if there are any substitute classes I’d like to pick up. My class times will often change with each new cohort; I might be tutoring at 9 a.m., 7 p.m., or any time between, so I do other daily tasks when I’m not in my office. Aside from the standard considerations of what a position pays and time off policy, here are some other questions you should ask before committing to a tutoring agency:

  • Do they only offer tutoring in the evening? Does that work with your schedule?
    • Are you required to provide lessons or be a subject expert?
      • Will you get paid for prep time and writing feedback?
      • Will you get charged for missing or canceling a class?
      • Are you expected to work a holiday if your client doesn’t celebrate it?
      • Does the company align with your values?

Asking these questions can help you better assess if a tutoring organization is the right fit for you.

3. Be yourself. Students value authenticity and they know when you’re not being your true self. I didn’t spend years teaching in a classroom and I don’t have a degree in education; however, I trained hundreds of air traffic personnel while also being a mom and grandmother, so I’ve been a teacher in various capacities for many years. I don’t try to be someone I’m not. Instead, I use what I know to make me a better tutor.

4. Don’t fake it ’til you make it. Despite what you may hear, “faking it until you make it” almost never serves you well. Rather than burying my head in the sand on a topic or question I need support with, I use what I don’t know to make me a better tutor. I ask the question. I do the research. Tutors are oftentimes students, too! Not knowing is okay, but pretending you know the answer when you don’t is a choice that not only impacts you, but will impact your students.

The commitment is worth it

Students have the greatest chance of success when they have a consistent relationship with their tutor, so the commitment has to start with the tutor. When I show up fully for my students, they know they’re valued which increases the likelihood they’ll show up fully in return.

Seeing my small groups of students two to three times a week allows me to catch and fix foundational errors that often make or break reading skills, comprehension, and enjoyment. It also allows me to get to know them not just as learners but as people. High-impact tutoring has quickly become one of the few evidence-based approaches to combat learning loss, but we need more qualified tutors to deliver it.

When I sit back at the end of my day and wonder whether I’m making a difference, I remind myself of the wins I’ve seen with each student I’ve taught. Seeing the joy on their faces when they’ve successfully passed a lesson, or learned how to correctly pronounce letters will stay with me for a lifetime.

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