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Working from home (or: Why Does My Neck Hurt?)

In April, 2020, when we realized we would all be working from home for a while while COVID-19 rearranged our lives, my husband started shopping for a desk chair…along with every other desk-based worker in America. His chair, which was adequate for internet browsing in the evening was not doing the job when he was working from home full time. All of a sudden, as everyone worked from home, having a comfortable workspace for online tutoring became essential.

Like many other people, when I started tutoring online in 2017, my setup was very temporary and makeshift. I started doing online sessions from my bedroom, sitting on the bed with my computer on a lapdesk. I had to make sure at the beginning of each session that there were no pillows or other identifiable bedroom items visible in my sessions. Not to mention I had to haul all my teaching materials in and back out for each session. Over time I’ve set up a comfortable workspace for online tutoring and I’m so much happier and more comfortable!

What do you need?

The basics

You don’t need to have everything to set up for your beginning tutoring sessions. Just having a flat surface for a laptop and a quiet workspace with strong internet will get you started. Here are some suggestions.

  • Desk or table with a comfortable chair – The dining room table is perfect, if that’s what’s available. Try to sit with your back to a wall to make sure that activity in the background doesn’t distract your student. Make sure your chair is comfortable so you aren’t shifting around or distracted by your sore back. I use a repurposed dining room table in my office, which is a terrific size.
  • Strong internet signal, preferably wired, power strip – Make sure you have plugs for your laptop and any peripherals you are using, like tablets, document cams, and lamps. Usually, my wireless signal works fine, but if the internet in the house is slow, I have a lot more difficulty on wireless than my husband has on his hardwired connection. There’s no reason you can’t tutor over wifi, but a wired connection is a bit more stable. 
  • Good lighting – Aim for a diffuse light that shines on your face from straight ahead or below. I’ve had good luck pointing a gooseneck lamp at the wall right in front of me and letting the light reflect off the wall. During the day, it’s nice to sit facing a window, as long as the sun isn’t glaring in your eyes. Overhead light alone might create shadows and be less flattering.
  • Quiet – One student I see consistently remarks whenever my neighbors (at 4:15pm on work days!) get home and hit the lock button on their car keys. It’s a noise I never noticed before but he can hear it clearly, through my head microphone! Students have also heard my children loudly protesting bedtime. For the most part, though, it works to have a closed door between my students and the rest of the household noise. Try to limit noise like traffic, music or TV from the rest of the house, and playing children during your sessions. Sometimes, that means closing the window in nice weather, but it pays off with fewer distractions for your students.
  • Storage space – Make sure that the items you use to tutor are within reach of your desk. If you tutor in a shared space, maybe you can stack everything in a storage crate or a small set of rolling drawers. If you can leave everything set up, a small bookshelf works best for me. Think about: student data and plans in binders or folders, manipulatives for phonemic awareness, dry erase board and markers, a place to take notes, and general office supplies. Also make sure you have a place to store your glasses, headphones, and lip balm, or whatever your desk necessities are.

Personalize it

Once I got a semi-permanent space carved out in the house, I started adding bits and pieces that make it more enjoyable to tutor at my desk. 

  • A candle – I never light mine but it gives the office a pleasant smell when the cover is off. 
  • Great pens – I used to use the Papermate Flair pens exclusively, but I just bought the Amazon house brand ones and they are excellent, too!
  • Sticky notes – I have small, medium and large ones for writing myself reminders, tracking student data and marking pages. 
  • Snacks – I keep a couple granola bars around, and usually some kind of candy for a quick treat between students.
  • Cough drops, lotion, lip balm – There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a tutoring session and being distracted by your dry hands or lips. Same for a nagging tickly cough. I keep these essentials on my desk at all times but they get a workout during the winter!
  • A blanket – My office gets very chilly in the winter and I tutor with a blanket wrapped around my legs and feet. The great thing about tutoring online is my students never see it!

If you want to get fancy

  • L-shaped desk – Ever since I was a kid, my desk has had piles. My filing system, outside of tutoring, is largely chronological, meaning if I got something a long time ago, it will be further down in the pile. So I’m a big fan of desktop real estate. An L-shaped desk would be my ideal for tutoring because I could face the student and the computer, then turn to the side to retrieve materials or take notes after the session without having to rearrange everything in front of me.
  • Wireless headphones – I used cheap earbuds for online tutoring for the first 3 years. They worked fine and they are still often my go-to at the end of a long day. But I invested in a pair of bluetooth headphones this winter and they have made a big difference in audio quality. Wired headphones are easier to troubleshoot (My Bluetooth microphone drops out on Zoom from time to time and I have to switch to the laptop’s internal microphone in the middle of a session.) but with the wireless ones, I can roll away from my desk to pick up a pen, or walk across the room to close the window without interrupting my student or getting tangled up. 
  • Dual monitor – Again, this is my office goal. If you have the space, a second monitor that you can connect to your computer (desktop or laptop) lets you have more stuff on the screen at once. For example, you could have the Zoom video on one screen and share the screen with a word list on the other screen. It would mean less dragging windows around and you could see more at once. Nice to have, but not a necessity.
  • Laptop stand – There are two reasons for this. First, it raises the laptop off the desk, either putting it at a more ergonomic angle for typing, or allowing you to place a wireless keyboard in front of it. Second, raising the laptop means the webcam is closer to your eye level, which makes for a more flattering camera angle. 
  • Document camera – A document camera is a great addition if you like to use physical games or paper-based materials with your students. It’s also very helpful if you like to model letter formation on paper or on a small whiteboard, or model phonemic awareness activities with physical manipulatives. It’s not something on my list right now, mostly because I have been tutoring online longer than I tutored OG in person, so my materials are mostly digital. 
  • Wacom tablet – I borrowed one of these, which is designed for drawing on a screen. It plugs into the computer with a USB cable and the stylus functions as a mouse or as a pen for writing and drawing with the Zoom annotation tools. I love the idea of it, but it takes some practice to get used to it. I would use it more if I was teaching math but as it is, I think I prefer to underline and circle text with the mouse.
  • Green screen – This was a fun and inexpensive addition to my office wall. I wanted it to do fancy video effects for some YouTube videos, but mostly I use it to display Zoom backgrounds more cleanly. And that always gives me and my students something to talk about!

Not ready for fancy stuff? Start with the basics in my guide “Online Tutoring – Day One”



Where to find it

In the section above, I linked to many of my favorite tools on Amazon. But there are plenty of other places to find stuff to make your office comfortable and functional. Not everything needs to be fancy and top of the line. Some of my favorite features of my little office are family hand-me-downs and things I scavenged from my classroom. Every year for back to school, I get so excited and stock up on sticky notes, staplers, pen cups and other tools at back to school sales. When I started working for myself as a tutor, it was time to bring lots of those things back home and use them in my business. For the bigger items, here are some ideas for where these items can be found:

  • Instead of a desk, I use a folded dining table from my grandparents’ house. My house doesn’t have an eat-in kitchen and it’s not big enough for the dining room, but it’s just right for my workspace. Next to that table, I have a smaller drop-leaf Formica topped table that I grew up with. It’s great for spreading out the pages of a project without cluttering up my whole desk.
  • Shop the Habitat for Humanity ReStore or other thrift shops for a desk, or an old dining room table that you can repurpose. As a tutor, I find I need more desktop “real estate” than I ever needed as a teacher. 
  • Ikea – good ol’ Ikea has lots of desk options, including some very simple and inexpensive options. My desk chair came from Ikea and I’m quite happy with it 2 years later.

Get comfy

If you’re going to commit to tutoring online for any length of time, it’s very important to have a comfortable, functional work space. That doesn’t mean you need an office, per se. It’s totally possible to put your desk in any quiet room in the house. I tutor in a couple of different places, depending on how cold it is and whether my kids are awake. I carry a stack of stuff from my desk to the dining room when I move there, but you might want a bag or a rolling cart if you’re moving frequently. Ultimately, the more comfortable and prepared you are, the better your lessons will be and the happier your students and their families will be. AND the more you’ll love your work! You don’t have to Supermarket Sweep the office supply store to set up your space, just be thoughtful about what you use during your work and make sure it’s at your fingertips!

What are your home office must-haves? Comment below and share your favorite finds!

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