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I am a private tutor, and I'm tutoring students individually in mathematics & statistics at their place of residence.

From time to time, I feel tempted to drop students for various reasons, notably, either because the student lacks self motivation despite my repeated urging, or because his parents are difficult to get along with.

In such situations, I feel it difficult to tell a parent I wish to stop tutoring their son without sounding disrespectful or discourteous. How best should I break the news in these situations?

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    While tutoring in home is clearly quite personal, and of course this is an interpersonal skill, you may also find wisdom on the workplace stack exchange (although given the answers you received here, it seems in this case you would likely not get different answers.) Cross posting is not necessarily a bad thing if you're trying to get two different perspectives. This is clearly you trying to not sound disrespectful or discourteous. There you might ask what responses would be best for future business. Often the same, but not always. – corsiKa Jan 2 '18 at 23:45
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    The following question is very important when answering yours: How long have you been tutoring? – user2777 Jan 3 '18 at 2:06
  • @corsiKa "Cross posting is not necessarily a bad thing" It is technically forbidden by the SE rules. – Andrea Lazzarotto Jan 3 '18 at 14:38
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    @AndreaLazzarotto I'm not talking about copy-and-pasting the question into another site. For that you should pick the best site (although it's not technically forbidden; it is however discouraged in meta posts.) Rather, I'm recommending asking a different question about the same scenario. Asking "How can I do this without being disrespectful?" and "How can I handle this while salvaging my customer relationship?" are two separate questions. Invite me to a chat if you'd like to discuss it further. – corsiKa Jan 3 '18 at 15:44
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Calmly inform

Consider

Unfortunately, your child and I are not making as much progress as I hoped. As such, I no longer find it constructive to continue the tutoring sessions. If you like, I can continue through [explicit date]. Or stop sooner if you prefer. If you would like to find another tutor, consider [resource for finding tutors].

This avoids putting the blame on the child explicitly. So if the parent chooses to believe the problem is you while you believe the problem is with the child or parent, your conflicting beliefs never clash. For the same reason, this avoids giving feedback. If feedback is useful, you should have already given it while you still hoped to salvage the relationship. At this point, you should be looking to sever the relationship as smoothly as possible.

It puts the control in their hands over the exact termination of the relationship. With notice or immediately is their decision. But it puts clear limits on their options, so you aren't stuck having the same conversation again in a week or two.

The suggestion that another tutor might do better is face saving for them. Even if untrue, it leaves them their dignity. And if they get the same problem with future tutors, then perhaps they will eventually adjust. Or give up on the idea of tutoring.

Immediate feedback

Another option is to suggest breaking off the relationship when the parent is being difficult. E.g.

I'm sorry, but I can't do that. If that's what you want, perhaps you should engage a different tutor.

The exact wording should be dependent on the situation.

That may be discourteous, but the context would have them being discourteous to you at the time. In those circumstances, there is no need for feedback, as it is obvious what the problem is.

Unmotivated student

Before you get to the point of ending the tutoring relationship, you should give feedback about unmotivated students. Appeal to the parents to see if they have suggestions to engage the student further. Presumably they know their child better than you do.

If you always give immediate feedback, then there isn't a festering concern on the relationship. So if you get to the point of terminating, there should be no need for more feedback. You've already said everything that was necessary.

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    I remember that one of the high-schools students I was "tutoring" a couple years ago missed at least half the sessions. Each time his mother would have an excuse "Oh, he forgot and went to see friends", "Oh, he went to see his grandma", "Oh...". I even tried confirming sessions the day prior, and nothing changed. Sometimes parents are about unmotivated as their children :( – Matthieu M. Jan 2 '18 at 14:42
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    @MatthieuM., that type of situation is the reason why doctors and such often have contractual cancellation notifications written in. And if you don't show up for an appointment and you didn't cancel it with at least 24 hours notice, you get billed for it anyway. (Or you're billed half, or some such arrangement.) – Wildcard Jan 3 '18 at 4:12
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    @Wildcard: Yep. Of course at the time I was going through an agency, and there wasn't anything like that in the contract. I did learn my lesson though! – Matthieu M. Jan 3 '18 at 7:28
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As tempting as it may be, you should probably avoid naming the actual reason you want to stop. For instance if the reason you want to stop is because the parents are annoying you or are difficult to deal with, same with issues with their kids. You can't bank on parents being receptive about that.

But you also shouldn't make up excuses to get around having that conversation. The problem with telling them why exactly is that some parents (especially the ones whom you consider dropping for those reasons) aren't really ready to hear criticism, and what you'd be giving as reasoning would be just that - a lot of criticism. It's best to reveal little but also appear professional in the process, something like:

I'll no longer be available to tutor your {son/daughter} after {date}. Please find a new tutor by then.

Now, this might be taken as discourteous, and the parents might inquire about why that is. This is the part where you need to judge if you want to take the risk (it is one) of telling them the true reason. Otherwise you can simply insist on not telling.

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    I'd suggest dropping "Please find a new tutor by then" - commanding them to find a new tutor seems unnecessary and somewhat offensive - whether or by when they find a new tutor is entirely up to them and has nothing to do with OP. And add "unfortunately" to the first sentence. – NotThatGuy Jan 2 '18 at 9:51
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    While I agree with not giving the true reason, I think asking about the reason would be too common of a response to your suggested statement, and insisting on not telling is too rude, for me to agree with this answer. – NotThatGuy Jan 2 '18 at 9:54
  • @NotThatGuy It's an imperfect suggestion, but the alternative is to lie, which can and will come back worse. – Magisch Jan 2 '18 at 9:56
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These are my thoughts. Actual humans with social skills may think differently :-)

I would hope that you feel enough of a professional responsibility to tell your clients the truth, or at least close enough to the truth as to be viable :-)

I have actually tutored people in the past, though more in the realm of late teens and young adults. And, on those occasions where it became necessary to "drop" students, I did not lie to the responsible parties.

For your first scenario, I've always made it clear to clients that my objective was to provide the best education based on my own limited resources and that, given a choice between spending n hours shared amongst two students who commit, and that same number of hours with a single student who seems unable to commit, I have to opt for the former.

For the latter case, I would also make it clear that parents who are easier to deal with must also get preferential treatment in the case where my time has to be scaled back. Of course, it's also professional to detail their behaviour and give them a chance to correct it before making any final decision.

However I understand that, for humans with actual social skills, that may be harder to do. In that case, I would simply opt for the "I need to scale back my tutoring hours due to other commitments and, unfortunately, your child was one of those randomly selected" white lie.

Of course, for the sake of professionalism, don't cut them off cold turkey, you need to give them time to arrange another tutor/solution, no different from handing in a few weeks notice on any job.

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    I am not so sure about telling parents who are hard to deal with the details about why they are hard to deal with... your intention may be professionalism but it does not seem like it would come off that way – Jesse Jan 2 '18 at 7:12
  • @Jesse, as a professional, it would by my responsibility to make others aware as to why I'm taking a specific decision. The inability of others to handle that well should in now way affect that responsibility. Obviously, you need to be tactful but, if it all goes pear-shaped, that is not a problem - it's just one more thing a professional needs to deal with. I've had plenty of situations in my work life where I've felt it necessary to move on due to what I consider mismanagement but I'm not doing anyone any favours if I don't tell them why. – user10819 Jan 3 '18 at 0:06
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    The only problem is that we are not talking about a manager doing their job badly. We are talking about ordinary parents in their own homes who asked you to tutor their kid. They are clients not professionals and I hope that you would treat them as such – Jesse Jan 3 '18 at 0:32
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    Jesse, it makes little difference whether the clients are professionals, it is the provider of the services that should be professional. This is a business relationship, whether it's being conducted with parents in their own house is irrelevant. Your comment about treating them as clients is spot on, it's just we appear to disagree on what that means. To me, it means making it clear why certain decisions have been made. – user10819 Jan 15 '18 at 1:50
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I suggest a two-phased approach.

Phase 1

Talk to the parents about your concerns that their child may not be getting the most out of the tutoring sessions. Tell them you would like to partner with them to change that. There may be something about the child or the child's home life or culture that you don't know about; your comments may mirror those of the child's classroom teachers and help the parents deal with reality; or you may just find out that the parents don't want to hear the truth and only want to pay the money to feel they've done all they can.

If the parents are open and willing, work with them to try again. If not,

Phase 2

After you've tried to work with the parents to help their child and it's not working, politely inform them that your work/school schedule has changed and you need to scale back on tutoring for the near future.

There is no need to say anything else, you've already said it in Phase 1. You tried your best.

I applaud your concern for the student, and also for the fact that you clearly aren't in it just for the money. It is possible that a different tutor may be more effective with this particular student, which is no reflection on you, but the parents' next steps are up to them.

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This is more for the nonmotivated student than the personal conflict with parents problem.

I think it is best for the truth or verisimilitude to be used. One approach worth thinking about in addition to other strategies suggested, is to consider the tutoring from the client's point of view.

When you have to conduct the 'exit interview' let the parents realise that expending more funds is not going to result in their desired outcome, i.e. little Johnny getting at least a B+ in algebra. They would prefer to know this and have some concept of why, so that they can plan appropriately (find a tutor better aligned with little Johnny's way of learning, become home-schooling parents, push little Johnny into shop or dramatic arts etc).

Remember the client is the reason for your business and you always want to do right by them - even if they are soon to be not your client. Giving them accurate information should be part of your business approach imho.

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