Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pro Bono Tutoring Can Equate To Paying It Forward!

What is your time worth?  Each of us could come up with an answer if pressed for an answer.  Of course, defining the task at hand might greatly simplify the process.  What job needs to be done?  Am I qualified (eliminating question)?  Regardless, the post below gives an account of a recent interaction that I had with a student -- whom I tutored last semester 'pro bono' -- for free.  Surprisingly enough, the tutoring payed off (as you will see) by equating to paying it forward for other students in the chemistry department at Cal State University at Northridge.  I am super proud and felt compelled to spread the message.

You tutor for free?

No I do not tutor for free.  At least this was my initial thought on the matter.  I charge a small amount -- $60 per hour.  You might be thinking how is that a 'small amount'?  I thought the same thought 5 years ago when I started working at my current job.  I figured since my main job is to help students/faculty in the Department of Chemistry with instrumentation during the day that I would have no extra time to tutor anyone.  Especially since the tutoring would have to occur outside my work hours.

Then I over heard students -- two undergraduate students who recently graduated and were considering moving onto graduate school -- talking in the hall in our department one afternoon.  One of the students was charging $60 per hour and basically not even helping the student in need out at all.  I was disappointed in that student to say the least.  The other student charged an hourly rate of $40.  He would often laugh at the amount of 'clients' that he was getting.  He was surprised that the students were willing to pay for help.  Why?

The chemistry department at California State University at Northridge (CSUN) offers students groups tutoring by students who attend classes at the university.  Here is an example of a schedule available to the chemistry students in our department:

Because, more and more universities and colleges are offering 'tutoring' centers 'in house' to help students in need.  Of course these services have two caveats associated with them:

1) Students are taught by former students (upper division students -- juniors/seniors).

2) Students are offered help in a group setting. Typically, no 'one-on-one' help.

These services should suffice for most students.  In fact, the services are quite good since the students interact with other students who have taken the classes before them.  And, the students get to interact with fellow students who are enrolled in their same courses.  Of course, one of the most popular argument is that the best student in the group ends up helping other students and does not get help themselves while waiting for the tutor to help them.  That is a potential draw back and motivation to get 'private tutoring.'

Each department has a list of recommended tutors that is available on request.  I would suggest that anybody reading this post tell anyone in need who is enrolled in a college course to seek out these services (find the 'learning center' on campus or 'learning resources') before hiring a 'private tutor'.  Or at the very least, again, ask the subject department for services (chemistry, physics, biology, humanities, etc.).  Don't get ripped off for sub-standard help.

After hearing the students chatting in the hall, I decided to offer my services outside of my work hours.  I decide to charge the same amount and see what happened.  I gave my department my name to give out.  From there, I just sat back and waited for the phone to "ring off the hook" with customers --- based on what I heard from the students chatting in the hall.  What I experienced was completely different.

Lets negotiate -- can you solve this for me please?

After my first client came in, I realized that the business of charging students for help was quite different than what I had initially imagined.  Initially, I had thought that I would get all sorts of calls for help -- I did not.  Further, the calls that I did get were either one of two types: 1) could I lower my costs, and 2) could I solve homework and specific test questions.

First, yes, I can lower my fee.  The questions I usually ask in response is the following: Do you really need help?  Are you ready to work for help? This was based on experience.  I was helping a student (a female) and she was in need of tutoring for sure.  She stated that she could only afford one hour of help.  In actuality, she needed around 20 hours -- like most students.  Why am I so hard on students?

Because, I state at the outset the following rules:

1) Give me the material from your professor ahead of time.

2) State what you would like to cover -- specific information.

3) Have an open mind.

4) Keep in mind that you will want to cover way too much material.

These are typically good questions to couple with a healthy hourly fee.  Usually, students will either shy away from these rules or step up and accept the challenge.  The above rules might sound rough.  Although, if you want to learn science, you have to be willing to put in the time.  I cannot put the time in for you.  Furthermore, I cannot show up and take the test/quiz for you.  Therefore, you gotta convince yourself that you are capable of getting the job done.  Sound difficult?  Not really.

Every once in a while - A rockstar emerges!

I do not mean to sound negative in any manner.  I am actually a very positive person by nature.  Further, I love to help students and professors accomplish a given task at hand.  In this case, students need help.  The majority of students like to watch 'other people' do their homework or exam.  The idea behind this strategy is that if a student watches the solution being written out enough times, the solution will be transmitted into their heads.  Of course, this idea stems from the idea of 'the path of least resistance'.  The problem with this line of reasoning with respect to the subject of chemistry is that the strategy fails (99%) most of the time.  I promise that this does not work.  Keep trying though if you are not convinced.

When a student does come along and request your help, you feel like you have been lifted up extremely high.  I can help.  But first, see what the student's real intentions are in seeking help before offering your services.  Here is why in the form of an experience.  Remember that your time is important.

Rockstar #1: Joe

I was approached a couple of years ago by a student who I will call Joe.  Joe was interested in getting a tutor for a consistent amount of time (on a weekly basis).  At the time, I decided to help Joe out.  I met with him for an evaluation session -- to see what his intentions were.  He stated that he needed help and had no issue at all paying my rate of $60 per hour.  I agreed.  We had a deal that he would follow my two step rule of presenting the information from his course and give me the problems in advance.

Throughout our tutoring sessions, I will admit that he challenged me quite a bit -- in a great way.  Sometimes, he left a little disappointed, and other times left super happy with obtaining validation of his solutions.  Tutoring is a two-way street.  Most tutors will stick to subject material that they have mastered and can only answer a 'narrow margin' of questions.  If you were to ask them other information outside of the course material, they would literally (in some cases) shut down and walk away.

Joe did great on his first midterm -- he rocked the test with a 97%.  What Joe did not realize over the course of our sessions was that he was performing all of the work.  I held my ground and did not baby him at all.  In the end, I walked by the tutoring center and saw him helping other students out.  He just graduated and is moving onto graduate school.  That guy rocks -- he is going places.

There was only one instance of question during sessions with him.  One weekend, he needed help and was desperate.  I said that I could not make it (I like to enjoy) my weekends.  He offered to triple the pay.  No go dude.  Not here.  In the end, he did just fine.  After that, I decided to take some time off from offering my services.

Rockstar #2: Tim

The second testimonial (for the purpose of the blog post) was from a student who approached me last semester.  He was enrolled in upper division Physical Chemistry.  Not an easy course.  If anyone has ever taken a 'P-Chem' course, they know that there is definitely work involved.  I was approached by Tim and he asked whether I would help him.  I was reluctant to help -- because usually the problems take around a couple of hours just to 'set up' before solving.

The level of difficulty emerges from the process of evaluating what variables are needed in a problem and which are not.  Furthermore, assumptions can be made based on the wording of the problem.  I did not feel like charging him a lot of money for help that he might feel is not helpful in the end.  I decided to help him by clarifying his solutions or the problems being tackled.  Further, I decided not to charge him.  I took a large chance and decided that 'what the hell' I will revisit some great 'P-Chem' problems.  I am after all a Physical Chemist by training.  At that moment, I had no idea of what the future held for our sessions.

Tim was a good student.  He seemed to be on top of his studies.  Some of the concepts were difficult to comprehend.  But every physical chemist will agree to this fact.    I gave Tim a few pointers for strategic purposes when approaching a typical problem.  He took right to the information and knocked out the problems.  As with Joe, when Tim had a question I could count on really being stumped.  I had to spend more time at night thinking about how to get the concept across to both of them.  Luckily for me (I am joking) the two of them would get stumped on very difficult problems and concepts.  I grew as a result of these interactions.  Normally, tutoring is a 'one-way' street -- from the tutor to the student.


Both of these students (Tim and Joe) were able to go the distance.  The two of them have definitely 'payed it forward'.  How?  Well, as I mentioned Joe offered his services free at the tutoring center as a sincere gesture to help students.  As for Tim, a couple of weeks ago my wife approached me after work with a question.  She teaches college chemistry at CSUN and was approached by Tim.  Tim asked her to offer his services as a tutor.  She hesitated and asked him his qualifications to which he replied "Ask your husband."

I backed him up and suggested that she refer her students to him.  She wondered whether he would be charging.  I asked him this in the hallway.  He said, "no, I am on campus and have time, why not knock out some problems and pay back for the help that I received from you."  WOW.  Is that not what any tutor or teacher would like to hear.

Tutoring can be an exhilarating experience.  Sadly, some people reduce the experience to a financial transaction/expectation.  Next time that you are asked to help a friend or family member with their studies, think about this blog.  Pay it forward.  Have a great day!

1 comment:

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