The ebb and flow of students and hours

Students come and students go, that’s an inevitable fact of tutoring. If the last seven years of tutoring have taught me anything, it’s that tutoring work is not predictable. However, I’ve (somehow) managed to make it my full-time occupation for the past three years, having quit the part-time classroom job completely just over three years ago.

I found classroom teaching exhausting and increasingly unrewarding as funding and student support was cut and I had to jump through more and more management hoops to justify my existence.

Most of my students have always been in years 11 and 13 and therefore the most basic pattern of student numbers is to pick up a few in July and August, then increasing demand in September and October, building to being almost fully booked by the end of November.

Fully booked for me means around 20 to 25 hours of contact time per week. However, I usually find myself “over-booked” from March/April through to the end of the exams as my existing students want more of my time and in May/June I can be tutoring for 50 hours a week. I tutor Maths and the Sciences so they often start with me in one subject and then add another as the exams approach.

All this builds up a financial cushion for the inevitably lean July and August that follow. And July and August are often a lonely time for an exams-focussed tutor like myself.

All of a sudden you go from being desperately needed 24/7 and feeling like the most useful, helpful person in the world to nothing.

This is when I do my tax return, reorganise my office and get lots of gardening done. The real reward comes later in August when they contact you for one last time to tell you they’ve been successful and are moving on to the next phase of their education.

Every year is different, of course, but 2020 has been so much more than just different. When lockdown was announced in March and the exams cancelled I went from a decent income to zero overnight. With a great deal of help from some of my fellow tutors I rapidly (if sceptically at first) moved online and managed to sound confident about it to parents. My private students who were not in years 11 and 13 carried on with me online, and the students I tutor through the local authority carried on too, but it was a very lean few months compared to previous years.

In July I made the decision to stay fully online in September and I wondered whether I would pick up any new students or whether I needed to start looking for additional non-tutoring work or a return to classroom teaching to pay the mortgage. Thankfully my fears were unfounded and I started to get enquiries in September for online tuition at roughly the same rate as any other year. One of the unexpectedly great things about tutoring online is that instead of spending at least an hour a day driving to and between students, I can fit in an extra hour or more of tutoring instead.

At the time of writing (December 2020) there is still the possibility that next year’s GCSE and A-level exams in England will be cancelled next year and replaced by some sort of in-class assessment. There isn’t the element of complete surprise that we had in March and I think most of my year 11 and year 13 students will feel the need for continued support but it’s more difficult to predict what effect unemployment might have on parental ability to pay. 

So, this tutoring life is definitely not for everyone. If I had dependents and was the sole earner, I probably would have stayed in the classroom, at least part-time, for security of income but am very glad I made the leap into full self-employment. Tutoring is the most fulfilling and enjoyable job in the world, just not a very predictable one.

But if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that life is very far from predictable.

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