Today I am going to complain, but I am going to do it in a way that is intended to be both useful and cathartic. If you sense an undertone of frustration in this post, you’ll soon understand why.
Leo Tolstoy wrote at the beginning of Anna Karenina that ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its way.’
Interviews are the same: while successful interviews (and interviewees) possesses a narrow set of consistent qualities, there seem to be a nearly limitless number of ways to fail.
Having screened thousands and personally interviewed hundreds of tutors over the last 10 years, I still routinely encounter new, unexpected, and often baffling ways that people manage to screw things up.
Consider this lengthy yet permanently-incomplete guide as instruction via-negativa (that is, what not to do) on how to pass a tutoring interview if you would like to work for an agency. If you are starting an agency, screen carefully for these behaviors and characteristics.
In-home tutoring is a premium service, and parents who spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month on tutoring have every right to expect the tutors who show up to their house to look “premium”.
When a prospective tutor comes to an interview dressed in a way that does not say “premium” and in fact says “I don’t really care”, it’s simply not going to work out.
For men, the issue tends to be sloppiness. I once interviewed an older, well-established tutor who sounded great over the phone. When he showed up, however, he looked like he was a vagrant. His sweater was ripped and his clothing was falling apart. How can I send this tattered man to a client’s house as an established expert and charge them $100-$200/hour for his time?
For women, I’ve had more than a few shows up to interviews dressed in an overly provocative manner. Remember, this is a job where you are going to be going to people’s homes, and working with their kids. If I can see your bellybutton, it’s not going to fly.
Now you may be thinking ‘Well, that’s not how I’m going to go to my clients’, but guess what – your interviewer doesn’t know that. More importantly, it shows them that you don’t care and that you’re not taking this very seriously. You wouldn’t show up like this to a corporate job interview, right?
If you want to fail, don’t take care of your appearance.
Sometimes tutors show up and they look fine, have a good resume and everything.. but you sit across them from the table, and something immediately feels off.
It might be their unlaundered clothing, it might be their breath, it might be cigarettes, it might just be them – but whatever it is, the first thing your subconscious wants to do is to recoil. It takes a few minutes, but you quickly realize “Oh yes – every time they breathe at me, I want to curl up and hide”.
A person with bad hygiene cannot be sent to a client’s home to work with their kids. People will be uncomfortable with the tutor – even if they don’t know exactly why. The tutor probably doesn’t know this, but it’s not my place to tell them to “come back when you smell better”. If a person is lacking the self-awareness to deal with basic personal hygiene they very likely have deeper issues as well.
If you show up to a tutoring interview and you haven’t brushed your teeth, you haven’t showered, your hair is greasy, or you haven’t washed you clothing in weeks you’re not going to be placed or hired – even if you know the material.
Believe it or not, I’ve had multiple tutors show up to interview for a position as a math tutor who couldn’t do the math that they purported to know.
All my interviews have a mock tutoring session component, and perspective tutors know this long before the interview. In the mock tutoring session, I would ask the candidate, for example, if they could tutor Algebra II. “Yeah, I know Algebra II” they would tell me. I’d ask them to solve an Algebra II problem and they would make the same mistakes that they should be helping their students with.
Overconfidence and a lack of honest self-assessment are unacceptable traits in a tutor.
It’s much better to say ‘I don’t know this’ or ‘I’m not comfortable with Algebra II, but I can do Algebra 1’ than to say ‘I know how to do this or that’ and then not know it. Even a cursory verification will quickly reveal the truth anyway, and no interviewer will trust (or hire) the tutor after that. Students will likewise quickly catch on to someone trying to B.S. them. It’s far better, to be honest upfront.
Not knowing something and then lying about it is probably the easiest way to fail a tutoring interview.
Communication and Personal Responsibility
Most new tutoring candidates seem to be millennials, and over the last few years, I’ve noticed that an increasing number (though not all) of them have abysmal communication skills coupled with a distinct lack of personal responsibility. This is too big a topic to cover here, so I’ll just give a few examples.
I was once planning to interview a tutor who I was already unsure about. I was running behind on the day of the interview and had to reschedule with her for later in the day. I sent her something like the following email:
Hi Tutor, I need to reschedule for a couple of hours later in the day, can you do (meet me at the time slot of either) A, or B, or C.’
She answered my email hours later saying ‘That Works.”
Not “A works” or “B works”.. but “That works”, leaving me quite confused. Would she communicate with clients the same the same way? Most likely.
An hour later she replies again and gives me the specific time, but by that point, it was too late.
Long ago, in my younger and more naive days, I used to think that people would change their behavior if you just explained the situation to them but for most people, that’s simply not the case. I knew that there was no point in interviewing her, and I had two options: say nothing or offer constructive feedback. I (perhaps foolishly?) chose the latter and wrote to her something along the lines of:
‘Look, clear communication is important and I can’t interview you, but please take this feedback as constructive and keep this in your mind when you’re speaking to your next potential employers.’
Did she accept my feedback with humility and an eagerness to improve? Nope – she quickly replied with a snarky, arrogant comment permanently cementing my view of her character. If I were the vindictive kind, I’d email every tutoring company that I know and relate my experience to them.
Another tutor had a successful-seeming interview. She seemed interested in the job. I explained what I need from her to get started, and even sent a follow-up email after the interview with the details.
I didn’t hear from her that week.. or a week later. She replied to my email 2 months later with some kind of nonsense excuse, asking about starting to work. Like it was perfectly normal.
Unless she had been in a coma for the majority of that time, there was no way I would offer her any kind of work.
This is the kind of person for whom other people don’t matter unless she needs something from them. That is, not someone you want on your team. I did notice a few months later that she was added to the roster of a friendly though less hard-assed competitor. Good luck to them.
Attention to detail.
All of my tutor jobs ads contain a set of questions.
Most are pretty generic (test scores, GPA, tutoring experience, etc), but a few are a bit creative and require a more personalized response. My favorite question is “what’s your favorite math puzzle” because anyone genuinely interested in math tends to have one.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of applicants don’t bother answering all the questions, opting instead to copy/paste a semi-generic response.
A person who is unable or doesn’t care to read the whole post, or is unwilling to answer all the questions demonstrates that they lack interest and attention to detail.
No matter how good their resume looks, these applicants do not proceed to the next stage.
Bad becomes worse
When screening applicants, I suggest the same stringent requirements.
In just about all relationships – even professional ones – bad behaviors and tendencies tend to get worse over time. If you have a bad feeling about the way someone communicates and you find yourself getting annoyed and frustrated at the very beginning of this process, listen to your intuition. This will only get worse.
As a tutor, keep in mind that how you communicate with your potential employees is going to reflect how they think you’ll communicate with customers. We want to see that you care (if you do) so do your best to over-communicate.
If someone asks you two questions in an email, answer both of them. Read all of your replies 2 or 3 times before hitting send. Watch for punctuation and grammar. Be verbose, and make your replies unambiguous. Brevity is not the soul of wit in professional emails.
Be prompt with your replies, and if you can’t answer something definitively right away, reply anyway and let your potential employer know that you’ll get back to them later.
Remember – we read hundreds of applications, and we can tell when you do or don’t care.
To Be Continued
Although we’ve covered quite a lot of ground, there are, believe it or not, many more ways to fail a tutoring interview. So many, in fact, that I had to split this post into two parts.
The next post will cover more strange and fascinating interview quirks and other issues including tardiness, ambivalence, (lack of) integrity, “confidence”, and a host of other one-off events and traits that I can’t quite quantify.