How to politely tell a student that he should find another tutor.
October 3, 2012 5:03 PM   Subscribe

I have a student that I tutor and I want to find a polite way to tell him that I want to stop tutoring him.

I tutor university level math. My students are around 18 - 19 years old. Many students I tutor are studious and make an effort to keep on top of their work. One particular student does not. He doesn't do any homework and he doesn't review the things we talked about in our previous meetings. During our tutoring sessions, he communicates as little as possible with me and is often on the verge of falling asleep. It's clear that he doesn't actually want to attend the tutoring sessions (his mom set them up for him). And it's very exhausting tutoring someone when they aren't making an effort to meet me halfway.

I feel like my time is best served helping students who are willing to do work and make an effort to pay attention during our sessions together. However, I am having trouble coming up with a way to politely and gracefully communicate that things are not working out and that he should find another tutor.
posted by Proginoskes to Education (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm currently reducing the number of hours I dedicate to tutoring professionally, and will unfortunately be able to continue working with you in the future. I wish you all the best with your academic pursuits!"
posted by anonnymoose at 5:08 PM on October 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

A couple of questions that would be helpful to answer:

- Are you getting paid, or is this volunteer work?
- Is this individually arranged, or are you volunteering/working through some kind of university center/tutoring company?
- What, if any, are the repercussions of dropping this student?

I think the responses on what to do will differ especially based on the first question. I, for one, think that if you are volunteering, you can say basically what you've made clear in this thread -- no reasonable person would think you are in the wrong.
posted by andrewesque at 5:09 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Billy, I'm no longer going to be available to tutor you and our last tutoring session is going to be [insert date]. I hope you found our sessions helpful.
posted by shoesietart at 5:09 PM on October 3, 2012 [15 favorites]

He's an adult, tell him what you told us. Namely, that you don't think he's getting much out of tutoring and that's mostly because he makes no effort in or out of your sessions. Tell him that you don't think that it's a good fit and that he should try to find a tutor who inspires more engagement from him. Tell him this is your last session.
posted by quince at 5:10 PM on October 3, 2012 [23 favorites]


I'm getting paid and it's individually arranged (not through the university). The only repercussions would be him having to find another tutor and me getting another student to fill his spot. But neither of those will probably be that difficult.
posted by Proginoskes at 5:13 PM on October 3, 2012

Given your update, I would just go with something neutral such as: "My schedule has changed and I won't be available to tutor you any longer. Our next session will be our last. Best of luck!" It doesn't sound like this student is going to be heartbroken over it...
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:16 PM on October 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Just tell him the score. He doesn't seem to care and you would rather work with students who do. End of story. He is an adult (despite the fact that his mother set this up for him) and to come up with some story is just patronizing him. If he is ever going to take his academics seriously somebody has to start talking straight with him and it might as well be you.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:20 PM on October 3, 2012 [19 favorites]

I think non-confrontational is the way to go here. Theoretically, the guy may have things going on that you'll never know about and that keep him from being motivated or focused (he'll almost certainly think he does, even if they're bad reasons), and it sounds like no one's asked for your assessment of his work habits. Let his instructors grade him as they will, while you just go with the Miss Manners classic "I'm afraid that won't be possible" sort of answer.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:21 PM on October 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't think there's anything to be gained by leveling with him. These are the situations for which white lies and lies of omission exist.
posted by colin_l at 5:24 PM on October 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

In this case, I wouldn't use the diplomatic approach (i.e., "I need to reduce my tutoring hours.").

I'd tell the guy that you have to pick and choose your students and that you only want to tutor students who are making an honest effort to learn, and ask him if he's prepared to put more effort into his tutoring sessions. Maybe he will buckle down rather than try to find a new tutor or explain to his mother why his tutor quit, maybe he won't, but either way he'll have to face the fact that his level of effort is substandard, rather than just being allowed to coast out of this situation.
posted by orange swan at 5:27 PM on October 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think it depends on whether or not you want to give him a second chance.
If you say something like "I can't tutor you anymore because it's obvious you don't want to be here" invites "I'm sorry I'll try harder I swear.." in response. Whether or not he means it. Which, if you believe him, will just result in prolonged agony for the both of you.

Whereas a vague "I'm sorry but I won't be able to be your tutor any more" is just is what it is and it's easier to be firm about it.

It depends on if you really are done and you're sure you want to dump him or if you want to communicate that you will be done if he doesn't step it up.
posted by bleep at 5:33 PM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

it sounds like no one's asked for your assessment of his work habits

I would say it's within a tutor's purview to give a frank assessment of work habits.

You can be frank about it without being unkind. My vote is for firm, honest, and neutral. So:

1) I've given it a lot of thought, and things are not working out with these tutoring sessions.
2) I can't help you with your math courses unless you are willing to put in effort.
3) You haven't been putting in any effort by doing homework or paying attention while I tutor you.
4) So, I wanted to let you know that this [or next week, or whatever you've already been paid for] will be our last session.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:03 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree, this is white lie territory. You have no responsibility to give anyone a pep talk. Just bow out gracefully and move on. The kid will find his own way.
posted by nanook at 6:24 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

How is his mother involved? If she set them up, (and definitely if she is paying you) it might be polite to tell her you are cancelling, as well as/instead of the student.
posted by jacalata at 7:24 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I immediately thought, "How helicopter-y is his mother if she's paying for his tutor in college?" I suspect the answer is "quite a lot." In that case, I think you're better off lying or white lying rather than being flat out honest about how he's not interested in doing the work. You don't need the mama drama that is likely to come from this situation.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:11 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had this conversation with clients. Be honest. Tell him what you observe ("You seem tired," "You don't look interested, am I reading this right?" "Looking over my notes, I see you haven't turned in your homework in three weeks," etc.) then make the connection between his outward behavior and your guesses about his feelings ("Since you look tired, maybe a different time of day would be better for you. Should we move to a different time of day?" "Since you don't look interested, let's talk about your goals: do you want to be here?" "You aren't doing the exercises I assign to you. Are they too hard? Too boring?" etc.)

You can also be honest about his behavior makes you feel: "When you look bored and hardly talk, it's hard for me to gauge your interest level in this material, and that makes it hard for me to teach you."

Of course, you're a math tutor, not a medical professional. You'd have every right to dismiss him without explanation. But maybe some of those lines of questioning will help you understand a little better what's going on.

As for "mama drama": You're a professional. Get out your data (completed 2/10 homework assignments, repeatedly appears bored or tired, hardly speaks during sessions, etc., not making progress) and tell her exactly why you're dropping him. Be firm. Offer up the possibility that he might do better with a different tutor (personalities and all that.) Don't take her attacks personally (she just wants the best for her son). You don't *have* to help him (although I totally understand that you want to). Be clear, get data, and you can make your argument.
posted by absquatulate at 8:44 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I tutor a lot. Unless you really don't need the money, go for a white lie, because you never know when you'll need a reference, or to whom he might spontaneously mention you.

Leave it be with the mom. You're not married to him. You are a hired gun. There are other tutors who need the money badly enough, or who can somehow reach him (unlikely).
posted by skbw at 8:48 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thirding that you need to manage the relationship with the mother. A lot of your gigs are via word-of-mouth, right? Make sure the mother is happy.
posted by mlis at 9:05 PM on October 3, 2012

I agree that you should give him honest feedback and also tell him that you are not sure why he's that way and you hope the feedback is useful for him in deciding how and if he wants to move forward with another tutor. By doing this, you are showing that you care about his well-being and hope that his experience with you can end on a positive and helpful note.
posted by Dansaman at 9:50 PM on October 3, 2012

First I have to say I totally commiserate- lazy math students in college are the absolute worst. They don't make any effort to study what is perhaps the toughest topic available (*cough* mathematician here *cough* ) and in the end they invariably blame the teacher for "not teaching them" well enough :-p.

Anyway, continuing with the heli-parent theme:

When you only hear the far off sounds of the rotor blades, it's hard to tell if this is a supply chopper - simply making crate drops here and there, or a news chopper - ready to report any event to the world, or a fully loaded attack chopper - providing immediate and lethal air support.

Never underestimate a parents ability to defend their child's crappy behavior no matter what, and also keep in mind that there are people out there who can and will harm your reputation without thinking too much about it.

So dishonesty is definitely The way to go, the question is really what lie works best.
You could go with the straight up "cutting back on work" people suggested here, but that could backfire since you will probably be taking on one of his classmates as a student.

My suggestion is to go the Tai Qi way - tell him that due to some temporary issue you have to move his hours, and the only available times are before 9am (this is you moving out of his path). If he is as lazy as you described, he will most likely start missing these classes (this is him lunging forward into empty space), and then you only need to make a small "honest" move to get rid of him, ie saying that you have to fill those hours (this is you giving him a minimal shove that sends him flying).

In any case good luck!
posted by Mai2k3 at 10:58 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

"I just wanted to let you know that our next session together will be our last; I won't be able to tutor you any more".

You can offer to help him find another tutor if you think that's neccessary.

If he asks why, be honest. "You don't seem to be getting much out of our sessions, and I don't feel that I'm able to help you." Is professional and polite. If he pushes back (unlikely, if he really hates going, but he might be afraid of getting in trouble at home), you can say "I'm sorry, but this isn't working for me. Your needs are beyond what I am able to handle." You could even say "you don't seem like you want to be here, so there's nothing I can do for you. I can only help people who put the effort in/ really care/ want to try/ do the work/ etc." There's nothing wrong with being honest as long as you're professional about it. He might get a little cranky about it because he's a teenage boy. Don't worry about it. Be the adult. It's not impolite to be honest unless you get mean.

Please don't do something passive-agressive like scheduling him at awkward times. It's rude, unprofessional and sort of obnoxious. I would rather have someone be honest with me than have them making my life difficult. Besides, if he knows the real problem, he might be inclined to change in the future.

If the parents hassle you, feel free to explain once what the problem is. If they get into a tizzy, just keep saying "I'm sorry, I can't tutor Joe anymore". Don't engage in the argument. Just keep repeating that sentence until you get to "I have to go. Have a nice day".
posted by windykites at 3:30 AM on October 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's delicious to be in the position to be able to fire a customer. I'm just going to sit here with my eyes closed and hang onto the feeling I like it so much.

That said, just site the lack of professional chemistry and leave it at that.

"I don't think we're a good fit, you might enjoy working with someone else and you'll get more out of it."

I think it's pretty obvious to the student that he's not working with you. If the Mom calls (and she may or may not) fall on your sword. "I don't think my methods are meshing well with Sloth."

Notice that you're not blaming, you're acknowledging that between the two of you, there's no synergy. You accept no blame, you assign no blame.

If Mom wants to read it as a failure on your part, oh well. Who would insist that they stay (or that their child stays) after the tutor has said that it's not working out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:17 AM on October 4, 2012

Please don't lie by omission or sugar coat what you tell him. He's absolutely old enough to be told that he isn't performing up to expectations. Treat him like an adult even though he's not been acting like one.

I would simply tell him that you've noticed he's not taking an active role in the sessions (don't say he "seems not to be" because there's no "seems" about it) and that you feel like you are wasting his time and yours by continuing them. This gives him the opportunity to either ask for another chance (which maybe you should give him; I would) or move on.

But, please, level with him. If the mother calls or contacts you, you simply say, "He never took an active role in the sessions and I felt like I was wasting his time and mine."
posted by cooker girl at 9:48 AM on October 4, 2012

> "I'm sorry, I can't tutor Joe anymore"
In other Askmes I see a lot of substitution of "Unfortunately..." for anything that would automatically be started with "I'm sorry..." because you're not sorry, it's not your problem, and there is no regret here. Each phrase has a purpose, and this is an "unfortunately" moment.

The Tai Qi description by Mai2k3 was beauitful.
posted by whatzit at 12:35 PM on October 4, 2012

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