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I'm doing private lessons for various programming subjects. One of my students has a tendency to send multiple messages if I don't reply at once, likes emphasizing his effort even though I tell him that mostly only results matter and noone will care enough to look at his effort. He's 25 years of age.

I've usually just shrugged it off, but a few days ago an incident occured. I was supposed to reschedule a lesson with him due to a meeting I could not reschedule, for official employment reasons. What happened was that he got into a fit, saying how he needed my help and that he's gonna fail his class without me etc. He even gave his mother his phone so she could call me, even though there was nothing he or his mother could do to help me reschedule that meeting and I made that perfectly clear, even though they offered reimbursements.

How do I make him realize I don't care about his grades and his efforts if he can't handle most of the curriculum on his own, and I'm here only on business and not to make friends, and that I don't want any further commitments beyond that?

Edit 1: as with all my other students, my tutoring was always on a one-lesson basis. I can help with a certain assignment, homework, or lesson, and we can arrange, but not necessarily, another one, may it be for the same assignment/lesson/whatever or for a completely unrelated one. I've never had any obligations outside of my work hours.

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    To be fair, I would expect a private tutor to care about my grades, as you were presumably hired to help with a particular course subject (not just learning for fun). I don't see anything in this situation about the student wanting to "make friends", it sounds rather business-oriented from his side, too, although I agree some of that behavior sounds a bit over the top. How much notice did you give for the rescheduled lesson, and was it just before a test or big assignment? – Nuclear Wang Jan 31 at 16:09
  • @NuclearWang I didn't say I strictly didn't care, I said I just don't care about his excuses about how hard he's trying when he seems to accomplish nothing. "...if he can't handle most of the curriculum on his own" meaning the stuff I tell him, not what he's taught at college. And no, that was just your ordinary run-of-the-mill lesson, nothing important coming up. If it helps, we've never met face-to-face, we've been doing Skype lessons for 2 months now I'd say. – Ivan Kukic Jan 31 at 16:12
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    Having worked as teaching assistant for 5 years, I don't see the situation as described as a case of an "overattached" student. The student complains rightly so because you couldn't reschedule a cancelled appointment. What if the student really needed your help during that missed session? When you couldn't reschedule even his pleading, the student rightly got his mother to escalate and help him get a session with you? – jcmack Jan 31 at 17:40
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    "I was supposed to reschedule ", did you actually reschedule with enough advance warning? – cdkMoose Jan 31 at 17:41
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    This question might be better fitted for academia? – Robert Dundon Jan 31 at 18:02
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The red flags you see are:

  • He sends multiple messages at once if you don't reply immediately
  • He threw a fit when you had to reschedule a lesson
  • He is 25 years old and gave the phone to his mother to try to convince you to not reschedule him

Those are all very valid points and should be your main concerns.

The things you say you want to make him understand are:

I don't care about his grades and efforts if he can't handle most of the curriculum on his own

As a teacher, it's your responsibility to adjust the curriculum in a way that he can handle. Him getting better grades is the reason he hired you at the first place.

I'm here for business and not to make friends

It doesn't look like he's trying to make friends. He's keeping the interactions at a professional level, albeit unprofessional.

I don't want any further commitments beyond that

Doesn't look like he asked for any.

So you need to shift your focus to the things that actually bothered you and that you should be talking about with him. Make it clear to him that you have a life, you have other obligations, so you can't always reply to him immediately. Bluntly put, he should give you the opportunity to take a shower, be sleeping, be driving, instead of demanding an answer right away. Other things can happen that might take priority over his own lesson, and there's not much he can do about those other things.

About the issue with his mother, this might actually be the root cause, and unfortunately there's not much you can do as a tutor. For now, try enforcing some limits on what he can and what he can't do with you. If you find him to continuously disrespect those limits, reconsider whether you want to keep working with him.

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    I'm not sure why his age or his reliance on his mother are any "red flags." It might show he is a bit immature, but you have to think he had to hire a tutor for something a lot of folks figure out on their own. So that alone should tell you the quality of what type of person you might have to deal with. – Dan Jan 31 at 17:14
  • @Dan I disagree with that assessment, hiring a tutor does not indicate a flaw in character. People have different learning styles. I would consider involving the mother in the situation to be a separate issue. – Bryan Krause Jan 31 at 18:20
  • @BryanKrause Using the same logic what does being 25 or asking your mom to talk on the phone be a indicator of flaw in character ("red flag") as stated in this answer? – Dan Jan 31 at 18:39
  • @Dan I don't think either indicates a flaw in character, I thought you were implying that ("quality of what type of person"), so my apologies if I misunderstood. I do think, however, that a 25 year old who is reliant on a parent for handling daily difficulties has some serious issues if they do not also have physical or mental disabilities/limitations. I do not think the same is true for a 25 year old who hires a tutor. – Bryan Krause Jan 31 at 18:47
  • @BryanKrause It's possible that the mother (or both parents) are the ones paying the tutor. In that case, getting the one who writes the checks on the phone may be reasonable. – David Thornley Jan 31 at 18:59
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How do I make him realize I don't care about his grades and his efforts if he can't handle most of the curriculum on his own?

If students can handle most of the curriculum on their own, then trust me, they won't hire you and they do not actually need you. Short answer: That is your job!

and I'm here only on business and not to make friends

Them or their parents calling you for help, or for rescheduling a missed meeting, or reimbursements, is not being friends. What made you think or feel that they are making friends instead of business?

So to answer your general question on how to deal with this student: Spend more time with him, help him do better in class, be there when they need you the most and get paid for it!

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    I didn't mean the curriculum as in college curriculum, I meant the stuff I spoonfeed him. He's 25, I think anyone that age should be capable of calling me himself, and it wasn't to reimburse as no payment has been made, it was actually to offer me more to do the lesson. About the friendly stuff, he always adds something from his private life to our communication, or asks about mine. It just feels like it, I'm not sure I can describe it perfectly, but I have had other students that I've not had this feeling about. – Ivan Kukic Jan 31 at 16:16
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    @IvanKukic Short discussions about your private lives aren't bad per se. If you have a wrong feeling about these discussions, sit down, take a step back, and try to find out exactly what's bothering you in them and why. It might turn out to be a non-issue, just adding up to the several red flags you're already seeing. It might turn out to be something really important. However, "it just feels like it, I'm not sure I can describe it" isn't really actionable. – V N Jan 31 at 16:29
  • @SandraK I disagree. OP has a few red flags about this student, just not the action points OP mentions. IMHO the situation can become problematic. – V N Jan 31 at 16:33
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One of my students has a tendency to send multiple messages if I don't reply at once

Just ignore those messages, and reply when convenient. Make it clear (multiple times if necessary) that you won't always be around to answer immediately, and the only thing sending multiple messages will do is slow you down further (since you have to wade through to find out what you're actually replying to.)

... [he] likes emphasizing his effort even though I tell him that mostly only results matter and noone will care enough to look at his effort.

That's kind of harsh on your part. It's true, yes, but if you're dealing with underachievers (which you're likely to be as a tutor) then I'd instead reply with something a bit more encouraging:

It's great you're putting all that effort in - it's important you keep doing that, because eventually you'll get to a point where you can solve these issues much more quickly!

As for the meeting rescheduling:

I was supposed to reschedule a lesson with him due to a meeting I could not reschedule, for official employment reasons. What happened was that he got into a fit, saying how he needed my help and that he's gonna fail his class without me etc. He even gave his mother his phone so she could call me, even though there was nothing he or his mother could do to help me reschedule that meeting and I made that perfectly clear, even though they offered reimbursements.

How much notice did you give? This sounds like it was a very last minute rescheduling to me, otherwise you could probably have found time sooner rather than later in order to give him some help before his class. If you bailed at the last hour, I can understand that reaction to an extent (it does sound over the top, but that's because he sounds rather desperate.)

How do I make him realize I don't care about his grades and his efforts if he can't handle most of the curriculum on his own

I'd say if you really don't care about his grades or efforts and you're just "in it for the money", tutoring is probably not something you should be doing. That doesn't mean you need to do it for free, or to make friends, or anything of that nature. But if you're taking on tutoring then you should be at least partly invested in your students grades, and within reason help them out & be accommodating as best you can.

  • I largely agree with you on most of the points, but the last one kinda doesn't sit right with me. Of course I professionally care about his performance as he is somewhat of a testament of my tutoring skills, but this has gone over professional level as it involves me justifying myself on a personal level. There's only so much I can do to help someone - if they are beyond my level of tutoring, I'd encourage them to hire someone else. Alas, he just doesn't want to take on someone else as he 'doesn't trust them' and I 'haven't let them down so far' – Ivan Kukic Jan 31 at 18:57
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I've usually just shrugged it off, but a few days ago an incident occured. I was supposed to reschedule a lesson with him due to a meeting I could not reschedule, for official employment reasons. What happened was that he got into a fit, saying how he needed my help and that he's gonna fail his class without me etc. He even gave his mother his phone so she could call me, even though there was nothing he or his mother could do to help me reschedule that meeting and I made that perfectly clear, even though they offered reimbursements.

It seems like there is a simple misunderstanding about your availability. I assume during the process of hiring, you made it clear to him when your availability would be? If not, I would go right ahead and make that very clear to him and tell him you cannot answer him outside of those hours as you have other students and obligations. On his side, he assumes you're available to whenever and that you would answer anything immediately. He paid money for you, after all. If not, he gets what he paid for.

It's your job as a professional to explain when you are available. If not, the person can assume anything and in this case assumed the widest possible availability.

  • I've tried reiterating my incosistent availability period to him on multiple occasions, but he always says something like "you can always reschedule those other meetings" implying I need to set him as first priority, although I have no real reason to do so. I don't think he has understanding of other people and their responsibilities. – Ivan Kukic Jan 31 at 19:00
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He even gave his mother his phone so she could call me, even though there was nothing he or his mother could do...

If you have a relationship with his Mother, like if she pays the bills, you might want to offer to give her an update on his tutoring.

Explain how things are going, and that he still doesn't seem to be able to do much on his own.
Mention that you are working on trying new approaches so this improves.

After that update is over, you might want to offer some non-tutoring advice.

Which is the whole reason for the update.
Talk to her about getting him some books about people skills and professional behavior.
Tell her he will need the soft skills when he graduates in addition to the hard skills you're helping to teach him.

You probably shouldn't give specific examples of behaviors.
(Sounds like you have a lot of them though)
I say this because he handed his phone to his Mother - I think it is more likely that she would defend him and she would miss the whole "life skills" point of the message.

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    I'd be careful about offering unsolicited advice. Often the best way to teach professionalism is by example. – P. Hopkinson Jan 31 at 17:53
  • @P.Hopkinson OP has been teaching by example. I agree you are right in general, but this 25 year old gave his phone to his mother so she could call the tutor. My hope is that the Mother will clue in on what is happening... though that is unlikely. Maybe OP will lose a client over it, but I have the impression that OP would be okay with that (maybe I'm wrong). – J. Chris Compton Jan 31 at 18:01
  • @J.ChrisCompton yes, you are absolutely correct, I am not financially dependent on the person (I do this just as an extra bit of income) and yes, I had a much more mature conversation with his mother, but she seems to be overly protective of him. I kinda think where his whole character flaw, as I see it, comes from. He's just not used to other people not being there for him at any time. – Ivan Kukic Jan 31 at 19:02
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Deal with the situation as professionally as possible. You can do this by setting reasonable expectations about the level of tutoring and interaction that will be provided and sticking to these expectations. If, for some reason, you cannot meet the expectations then explain the situation, apologise, and try to offer a solution.

For example, if you have agreed to teach a 6-lesson course and fall ill for one of those lessons then you should be reasonably flexible in trying to reschedule the lesson while also being prepared to cancel the lesson if the student would prefer. The important thing here is to try and meet your commitments to the student, within reason. If for some reason the candidate doesn't like any of the options presented then you will have to offer to cancel any remaining lessons and, again, apologise.

Similarly, if your expectations and a students expectations don't align then you should address this as soon as possible. For example, if a student were falling behind in their work then you should discuss this with them (and parents if required) so they can take action as soon as possible. In your case you could have attempted to set expectations for marking responsiveness by clearly stating the timescale that you will mark work in. It would only be worth addressing this directly if the student were clearly unhappy or if you are really bothered by the additional messages.


Just as an aside:

If you are a tutor then you should care about your students grades. However, I disagree with the other responders that it is your duty to improve his grades or make the curriculum easier. Instead, it is your responsibility to help him get the best out of the course that he can and to be honest about your ability to help.

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