Pros and Cons of Becoming a Psychoeducational Tutor

One of the exercises we teach our students to do is the Pros and Cons exercise, in which tutors and students think carefully about the advantages and disadvantages of a certain option. With that model in mind, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of applying to be a tutor.

Disadvantage: You may not get the job.

It's important to know that we do not welcome with open arms all people who are willing to help out in the cause. Our first responsibility is to the children we serve, and we want only tutors who will do an excellent job with one or more of them. We will probably make some mistakes and turn down some people who would be good tutors. But once a tutor is started with a child, and an attachment develops, we don't want to have to fire a tutor and disrupt the attachment that takes place. Thus we have no choice but to be fairly picky in whom we take on.

Disadvantage: Low Potential for Full Time Work in This Organization

Perhaps some day OPT will have a bunch of full time workers and an income stream to support them. At present there are no employees of OPT who are anywhere close to full time. If you become a tutor, you are not getting in on the ground floor of an organization that offers the potential for a lucrative full-time career, at least at present.

Disadvantage: The process of proving yourself (and our proving ourselves) can take a while.

For some jobs, you may go for some interviews and be offered the job on the spot. But this one is unusual in that we try very hard to avoid the situation where tutors either voluntarily or involuntarily terminate their work prematurely. Thus it's good for the tutor to get a very good idea of what is involved before getting the “flight wings.” Usually the process of proving yourself involves going through fairly extensive training. Training usually involves doing some role-playing, which may be embarrassing for people who aren't into role-playing.

The process of selection is a two-way street. It may take a while for you to convince yourself that our cause is one you believe in, that you feel we are going about it in the right way, that we are reasonable people to work with, and so forth. We want you to make sure that you are going to be happy doing this with us, before you start working with a child.

Disadvantage: Those Who Can't Keep Appointments Consistently Will Have a Bad Experience

In this enterprise, your statement, “I will call you at ____ pm tomorrow” is a promise. It is an appointment that is just as sacred as, “I will meet you in person at this place at this time.” Tutors who cannot keep very close to 100% of promises to call at a certain time should not think of signing on to this organization. Phone appointments, admittedly, are easier to forget than in person appointments. With in person appointments, you have to leave time to get dressed, transport yourself, and so forth. With phone appointments, it's easy to look at the time and realize to your chagrin that the time has passed. Here is a very important word to the wise: Use the alarm clock function of your cell phone! Let technology remind you 5 or 10 minutes before it's time for you to make a call. If something unexpected has come up and you're in the middle of something that can't be stopped, at least see if you can send a text before the appointed time. Please try to avoid ever having the situation where someone is waiting for your appointed telephone call and you are a “no show.” This advice also holds for job interviews or training sessions with organization staff.

Disadvantage: The Ball and Chain

By the “ball and chain” we refer to the commitment of this job, the necessity to “show up” consistently by phone. This job involves connecting with your student by phone day after day, month after month, through vacations, through exam times, perhaps through times when you fall in love and perhaps through times when you have a breakup. When someone shows up in the afternoon or evening and says, “Hey, do you want to do ____ with me right now?” you have to take into account your scheduled phone session with your student. When you sign on for tutoring, you're going to have to suppress any urge to go off and do a volunteer vacation for three months in Mongolia or to backpack through the forests of Germany. Some people value spontaneity too much to get tied down in a commitment to a child. Given cell phones, you can still be pretty free to go where you want and do what you please, as long as you can interrupt yourself when the time comes for the session. But you are definitely tied down. Although it's nothing compared to the commitment of actually having your own child, it's more than some people are ready for.

If you work at a restaurant for 3 or 4 months and then quit, it's not a big deal, and you may still get a good recommendation from your employer. If you work as a psychoeducational tutor for 3 or 4 months, form a relationship with a child, let the child become attached to you, and then quit, your name may easily be “mud” in the eyes of this organization. You will likely even need to engineer your departure very carefully and transfer the tutoring to another tutor with great planning if you finish up after the complete year.

Advantage: Doing Something Meaningful and Good

What activities really are worthwhile? What is not a waste of time? What do people spend lots of energy and effort on, that makes the world no better off, or even worse off? What activities are people not spending enough time on, that deserve much more effort? These are questions that are posed to students in one of our psychological skills exercises.

An ancient sage wrote, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit." We would not go so far as to say that all is vanity (i.e. futilty, waste) but a fair fraction of the effort people expend does seem to fit that category.

In the world of schooling: much effort involves memorizing things, regurgitating them, and then forgetting them to make room for the next. Much of the writing that people do for school gets read by one instructor, criticized or praised, graded, and thrown into the trash. Many of the sports activities that absorb much energy during schooling develop skills that are relatively useless for the conduct of life and/or pose risks of permanent injury. Many people, in our educational system, spend a very significant fraction of their productive years devoting vast amounts of effort to acquire credentials without really helping anyone.

In the world of the workplace, many brilliant people expend effort to provide goods or services that the world would really would be better off without. Gifted technicians make the next generation of “shooter games” even more addictive than the previous, and gifted business minds assure that profits will come. What if we could take the human effort that goes in one way or another toward casinos, junk food, tobacco, alcohol, violent entertainment, telemarketing, production of spam emails, unwarranted litigation, unnecessary warfare, drugs that people shouldn't be taking, and many others, and devote that effort to things that really make the world a better place?

In this job you have the chance to help a child to experience a very positive relationship, learn to read better, and learn crucial psychological skills that can have major positive impacts on the child and the people that child affects. The child can learn skills that will enhance his/her functioning literally every day for the rest of life. The process of teaching young people the most important academic and psychological skills we can come up with is one of the least time-wasting activities we can imagine.

Advantage: Thinking About the Things That Matter

How can people get along with one another in harmony and peace, without violence? How can people get over fears and aversions that constrain their lives? What factors cause happiness? What makes interaction between people pleasant? What factors make relationships good? How do people get themselves to do the things that are good for them, and avoid the temptations of things that are more pleasant? How should we go about making decisions? What constitutes psychological health? These are big questions for all human beings, and for humanity as a whole. These are the questions that are the subject matter of “psychological skills” instruction, because psychological skills are simply the patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that let people come up with good answers to these big questions. If you want to spend time dealing with such questions, and there is something within you that feels more fulfilled staying on the beam of these big questions rather than getting sidetracked too far away from them, then this tutoring may be for you.

Advantage: Getting Experience

If you are thinking of spending career time in something connected with education or mental health or human services, there are two big reasons for “getting experience.” First, you can make a more informed decision about whether you really want to do this. Second, your experience and your ability to tell about it and get recommendation letters describing what you've done in it can go a long way in convincing someone else to admit you to more schooling or to another work position. So far both the experience and the recommendations have helped a number of our tutors wind up admitted, accepted, or hired where they want to be.

It is one thing to read about positive reinforcement, the connection between thoughts and emotions and behaviors, the components of a positive emotional climate, the desirability that education take place at the correct zone of difficulty, and so forth. It is another thing to directly live these principles with your student. The combination of “book learning” through the manuals for this project, and direct experiential learning through many hours of work with your student is hard to beat.

Advantage: A Consistent Positive Relationship

Therapists and other human service workers are often warned to get their interpersonal needs met elsewhere than from their relationships with their patients/clients. The idea is that if you are trying only to gratify your own needs for friendship or being loved or admired by your clients, you will not be sufficiently professional. You will be hurt and angered by rejecting or insulting behavior from your client rather than being able to think something like, “Here's a challenge to my professional expertise. How can I handle this in a way that carries out my role most expertly?” And these warnings are wise and should be heeded. You should go into the tutoring tough enough to handle a steady diet of negativity and rejection if you have to, and to respond to it with cheerful rationality.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that all of our relationships “count” toward our total happiness – professional ones as well as others. In the tutoring, the positive relationships tend to last and the negative ones tend to end. And the vast majority of relationships so far have been pleasant for both tutor and student. There is something magic about one-to-one interaction with a child, that tends to bring out the best in a child. If you can build a very positive relationship with your student, you are hereby permitted to enjoy it and to let it contribute to your happiness!

Advantage: Connections with like-minded other tutors, if wanted

This work can be done very independently, should tutors prefer to do things that way (tutoring can be done from home, for example, with nothing more than periodic input from supervisors). But it can also be an opportunity for networking and relationship-building among tutors. The people who select themselves into this work seem to be a very special sort of person. And the tutoring offers a unique set of experiences and challenges, which can unite tutors. All tutors share the "ball and chain," for example, and can offer each other reinforcement and support.

Speaking of the ball and chain: One of the advantages of making connections with other tutors is a slight reduction in the rigidity of your obligation. If you know other tutors who can substitute for you on the day that you get married or compete in the Olympics or are a guest at the White House, you don't have to cancel these events because of the tutoring!

Advantage: Research Experience

For those interested in pursuing a career involving research in psychology or other social sciences: we are in the early stages of working to harness every data point collected in this project for usable research information. We received IRB approval for a prospective study of the effects of our tutoring. We are interested in refining the methodology of quasi-experimental research. (For interventions that last as long as these, randomized studies have major difficulties.) There are various “performance measures” of psychological skill that we're working to refine and validate. And there is research work available for people who want to go through all the ethics training, make the confidentiality pledges, do the tedium of getting the numbers entered and analyzed right, etc.

Advantage: Preparation for Other Crucial Roles

OPT tutors become expert at very important skills -- skills which also contribute to competence in the roles of:

1. Parent

2. Spouse

3. Other family member

4. Boss

5. Employee

6. Friend

What are some of those skills? The ability to listen well. The ability to choose well when to gratify another person's wishes and when to spur the other person to use self-discipline. The ability to have fun while, and from, getting work done. The ability to have good chats. The ability to see when something is too hard or too easy for another person, and to adjust the challenge level to make things “just right,” if possible. The ability to keep appointments and be dependable. The ability to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship, but also the ability to not spoil the other person. The ability to take lots of pleasure in seeing someone else grow and develop into a better and happier person. And so on!