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What Not to Look for in a Math Tutor

By May 2, 2015September 28th, 2018About Tutoring

What sort of qualifications do people look for when choosing a math tutor?

  • Experience as a school teacher.
  • High standardized test scores and other impressive academic achievements.
  • Years of tutoring experience.

These all seem important, right? Well… they aren’t as important as you might think. Let’s take a look.

Assumptions About Teachers

Many people feel that being a teacher is an important qualification to look for in a tutor – after all, a math teacher has years of experience teaching kids and is state-licensed.

Let’s first take a look at licensing. A state license is just that – a legal document that allows you to teach in a public school (private schools have no such requirements). We’ve all had both good and bad experiences with licensed professionals – doctors, lawyers, mechanics, contractors – and teachers are no different. Many teachers are fantastic, but having a license does not guarantee that someone will be a good teacher – let alone a good tutor.

Second, teaching and tutoring use very different sets of skills. While a teacher focuses on a group, tutoring is exceptionally individualistic. A [good] tutor is less of an authority figure and more of a guide, who can help the student discover math and figure things out for themselves. You wouldn’t assume that a trained public speaker would be an equally good therapist, and you can’t assume that a teacher would be a good tutor, either.

Academic Achievements

Academic achievements always get our attention. Having an Ivy League alma mater, with a high GPA, amazing test scores, accolades, and advanced degrees all make a potential tutor stand out from the pack.

Overqualified and unlikely to understand your struggles.

Unfortunately, being great at something doesn’t mean that you can teach it.

The most accomplished teacher in my high school was a NASA physicist, a valedictorian from MIT, and an all-around genius. He was also widely considered to be the least effective teacher in the school. He managed to befuddle the smartest students at one of the top high schools in the country – no easy feat! The students always complained “he just can’t understand why we don’t understand.” Oops.


There are two circumstances when it makes sense to seek out an exceptionally academically talented tutor.

The first is when you have an overachieving, type-A kid. If your child wants to get perfect SAT scores, go to Harvard, and in general take over the world, having a tutor that matches that level of ambition will help them connect.

The second is when your child is exceptionally smart but completely unmotivated. I will talk about this more in a different article.


It’s good to select a tutor with a good amount of experience – after all, you don’t want to work with someone completely inexperienced. But what is a good amount? A year? 2 years? 5 years? 10? 20?

The most important, and effective quality that a tutor possesses, however, is not his experience, or proficiency, or professionalism, or something that can be taught at all – it’s enthusiasm.

Most new tutors are full of enthusiasm and energy, despite their lack of experience. A tutor that has been working with people for 10 or 15 years may be quite seasoned – but are they still excited to help people learn? Or has it become just another way to pay the bills?


In short – yes, you can find yourself a Yale grad with years of experience as both a teacher and a tutor, perfect SAT scores, piles of awards and accolades… but none of these qualifications will guarantee a successful tutoring experience. They will, however, guarantee a hefty hourly rate.

What we ultimately want is someone who works well with both us and our kids – a tutor who possesses those difficult-to-describe personal qualities that make things click. I’ll talk more about what to look for in a tutor, and how to find such a tutor, in an upcoming article.

Stay tuned.

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Alex Friedman
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