How I (mostly) pay my bills during my year in the library: Private tutoring

These days, I make my income by tutoring. It’s not an impressive one by any means, but it will become less meager as school starts and as I continue to build my client base. My work is about half online, tutoring for a test prep company called PrepNow, and half at a local tutoring center in Koreatown. I’m also planning on taking online clients for more general purposes through InstaEdu. I can take on local in-person clients as well, but I only do this when the student is nearby or the pay is high enough to compensate for travel time–a rarity for a tutor working in Los Angeles in general, but particularly for one without a vehicle. I’m also supposed to be working as a lab assistant (planning/designing/prepping for science labs with the teaching staff) at a local private school, but the hiring process has been a nightmare of interviews and background checks which have started to make me feel like it’s never going to happen. If it works out, it could be a great foot in the door to K-12 education that would ultimately help me go forward into either teaching or curriculum design if I wanted to, but at the moment I’m not getting my hopes up too much. I’ll keep you posted.

It’s been an interesting ride getting into doing this, and I certainly have Thoughts about the business I have found myself in–for profit, mostly supplemental education, generally aimed more at scores and grades than genuine learning. There are parts of it I find infuriating, including the shockingly low pay and poor treatment that many such businesses can get away with offering to people with bachelors and master’s degrees  because of the glut of such people on the market in need of either full-time work or extra income. Despite being still underemployed, there are a number of agencies I have ultimately turned down work with because the last minute scheduling and/or very late cancellations were costing me more money, time, and energy than the work I did get was worth, and being treated like a completely interchangeable cog in their money-making machine that just happens to teach children was crushing my spirit.

The places I continue to work for now still pay roughly standard rates in their respective markets, but they do have reliable standards and policies for their employees and students that I can count on and they generally treat me like a human, maybe even as a professional. They also are focused enough on tailoring tutoring to the individual student that I find a little room for creativity in my teaching, and have the opportunity (with reasonably cooperative students, anyhow) to develop a degree of connection with the student and to cultivate some real learning and growth while I also happen to be training them to take tests better. I know the centers do this more for the sake of keeping parents and students happy than because they hold any high-minded ideals about education, but whatever their reasons, the fact that their systems allow for this and reward tutors for being well-liked by students and parents means that I do see some benefit from the extra effort I put in to be a genuinely good teacher.

And I’ve realized that I need at least that small degree of latitude and of recognition for my efforts to stay happy doing this work. There is no joy for me in simply seeing numerical score increases–I know for a fact that enough hours with a half-decent adaptive computerized training program can accomplish the same. But giving a student who has always feared math the reassurance and gentle, patient instruction she needs to regain some confidence in her own abilities…that happens to be reflected in a higher SAT math score? That can give me a sense of pride in my work. So can sharing tidbits of the science research world with my students as we work through the ACT science section, at the very least increasing their understanding of and appreciation for the discipline, and at best starting a conversation that helps them develop their own budding interests in science and science-related professions.

I don’t want to do this job forever, and in fact I really can’t–as a part-time independent contractor for multiple workplaces, I obviously have no benefits. This is sustainable now only because at 24 (almost 25) I am mercifully allowed to stay on my parent’s health insurance. As of later this year it may become possible to buy decent coverage as an individual at somewhat affordable rates, but right now I don’t even really make enough to afford that.  Pay/benefits aside, tutoring as a profession lends itself to strange hours for most of the year–afternoons and evenings on weekdays and weekends–that make being social with normal 9-to-5-ers difficult. And most importantly, it isn’t ENOUGH for me. I want to be doing something that reaches more people, or reaches the same number but more on my own terms. And I want to be more connected to science on a daily basis–HOW connected, I’m still trying to decide: do I need to be DOING research? Writing about it?–but I know it needs to happen. And though I’ve lost a great deal of my ambition, I still have some sense of my “wasted potential”, of the idea that I should be doing something BIGGER.

So in my free time, I am slowly investigating other things. I’m taking a free online data journalism course starting next week, and believe it or not, the science blog thing is still happening, it’s just been slower going getting started than I’d planned. I still don’t know if I’ll ultimately find my “something bigger” in education or in writing, or if I’ll someday take a sharp turn and end up back in science research in some capacity. But for now, I’m getting by well enough, and I have a plan.

I’m still struggling to be patient with myself on this, and on shitty days where a bunch of students make cancellations and leave me with little to no work (and therefore no pay) for the day, or when I go through my budget and am reminded that I’m currently making less than I did as a graduate student… I beat myself up a bit for not already having things sorted out, for not already being on to my “something bigger”, or at least for not being closer to that than I am. Today, for instance, my girlfriend went off to work first thing in the morning and I didn’t even get out of bed because my first student wasn’t until 2pm. For a little while, that kind of thing is fine. But at this point, it just makes me feel useless and lazy.

But I’m still trying to let this be my year in the library, where I am studying and practicing and sorting things out. Where I am patient with myself, and where for the first time in my life I’m trying to slow down and not deliberately constantly overwhelm myself by believing that I’m not doing ENOUGH. Where I can work towards “bigger”, but I can also make mistakes and survive the fact that I’m not there yet. It’s just a year, after all, and it’s a year of MY LIFE, which I can spend however I damn well please. Not to mention, by the time it’s been a year from when I started this, I’ll still be only 25. I have plenty of time.

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