Advice | Work Advice: Private tutor frustrated by no-shows and nosy … – The Washington Post

Reader: I am an academic professional who relies on private tutoring to make ends meet. I have two problems:

The first problem is last-minute cancellations. Despite my written policy requiring 24 hours’ notice and a $25 fee for canceled appointments, parents constantly cancel with short notice and do not pay me for canceled appointments. How do I enforce this?

The second problem is that, to maintain appropriate professional boundaries, I do not answer kids’ very personal questions about my private life, but one young person is unrelenting. How do I discuss this with the parents and enlist their help?

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Karla: Your first problem is an administrative headache you could avoid by offering your services as a contractor through a larger tutoring business that has solid billing policies and the means to enforce them. But you would probably be taking home a smaller cut of your earnings, and you might not enjoy the same flexibility and control you have over your schedule.

If you prefer to remain a solo provider, you could follow the lead of established educational institutions that charge prepaid tuition and restaurants that charge advance reservation fees, based on this principle: Customers are more likely to respect time commitments they’ve already paid for. Also, at least from the perspective of my own brain, people tend to be more amenable about paying upfront deposits for things they’re looking forward to than after-the-fact penalties for things they’ve already done.

If you start treating your $25 fee as a deposit, rather than as a penalty, you can collect it at the time the parents book their children’s sessions, and collect the remainder after the lesson is delivered. If you’re relying on your mobile phone and the honor system to book appointments and collect payments, consider investing in small-business software that automates online scheduling and billing to spare yourself the hassle of reiterating your policies every time with customers who try to haggle or beg for exceptions.

If you really want to play hardball, you can inform clients who cancel last-minute and no-shows that you will not be able to hold another tutoring session for their child until they pay the fee for the missed one. But that makes things more adversarial, and it could end up shutting off an important revenue stream if the parents refuse to return.

This sort of change is best communicated in an official policy update, distributed via email to all your clients and reiterated at everyone’s next lesson: “To accommodate as many students as possible within my limited schedule, starting next month, I am requiring that $25 of each session’s tuition be paid at the time of booking, with the remainder to be collected after the lesson is complete. I will not be able to guarantee a reservation time without that deposit. If you have to reschedule a session and give me 24 hours’ notice, I can allocate that deposit to your rescheduled date.”

You can always implement a grace policy for the rare true emergency, and you can head off predictable conflicts by contacting parents before holiday seasons to offer them the chance to reschedule without losing their deposit. In this way, you’re reminding everyone that your time is a finite commodity with a specific value.

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Your second problem is one every provider of one-on-one personal services has to deal with at some point: Setting and enforcing professional boundaries.

When it comes to handling curious inquiries into your private life, you can always deflect with a simple, “Why do you ask?” or reflect their question back to them, repeating as necessary. Talking about themselves and their interests is usually an effective distraction.

But I can’t help wondering about their motives. Maybe they’re looking for a role model or trying to figure out what a life in your field of study looks like. It may be that they’re trying to express something about themselves, but want to make sure your sessions are a safe space for that. Or they’re just trying to delay the lesson.

But if you’ve had those conversations and engaged those deflections without success, the best time to bring it up with parents is during a routine progress report. “I notice young Aloysius seems extremely curious about my private life. I hope he doesn’t think I’m being unfriendly or trying to shut him down — he’s a great kid, and I love his enthusiasm. I just prefer to keep an appropriate teacher-student boundary and keep the sessions focused on what he’s supposed to be learning. I hope he understands.” Odds are, the parents are well aware their kid’s a nosy little buttinsky, but will appreciate your treating their inquisitiveness as a friendly overture.

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