Learning One on One
Private Tutoring Builds Self-Confidence, Knowledge, and Friendships
That Go Way Beyond the SAT
By: Dr. Emily Levy
(Published in New York Family Brooklyn Magazine, August 2008)
In even the best New York City schools, it’s not uncommon for students to needs more academic attention than they can get during school hours. If anything, between the demands of homework and the battery of special tests that students now face all along the path from grade school to college, it’s now the norm (among parents who can afford it) to enlist a private tutor to help their child raise his or her level of performance-whether their child is a struggling student or a successful one. And tutors are now available for students of all ages, from the eight-year old who needs help with her reading or writing to the high school junior looking to improve his general SAT subject test (i.e., what used to be known as “achievement” test).
But as the tutoring business has evolved into an established part of the academic life of young students, one part of the story that is often overlooked is that the choice of a tutor presents an opportunity to give children more than just a boost in their scores. In addition to their scholastic expertise, the best tutors usually have a special knack for bonding with kids, creating relationships of trust and support and familiarity that can be beneficial to the student, and really, to the whole family. In addition, even though students usually see tutors for particular tests or subjects or skills, the preparation enhances their study skills in general, and it also helps them to learn time management skills.
A parent will typically find a tutor through word of mouth or by contacting a tutoring company with a good reputation and working with them to find the right match. Usually, between their stock of experienced tutors and what the parents tell them about their child’s needs, personality and interests, it’s not hard for en established tutoring company to get it right.
“I’ll even make note of a child’s hobbies, because if I happen to have a tutor who shares that passion, that’s the kind of thing that allows them to establish an easy connection above and beyond whatever test or subject they’re working on,” says Amy Schuyler, executive director of Private Tutoring at Princeton Review. “Look, [a tutoring session] is not the most ideal way that a child wants to be spending his time-I’m sure he’d rather be with friends or playing or sports or listening to music—so the session needs to be something that he’s not going to dread, and certainly being comfortable with the tutor and knowing that there can be a real relationship and a fun element to it makes a very big difference. We want students and parents to be fully comfortable with the tutor—-and if they’re not, we’ll change the tutor.”
According to Schuyler, as well as Dr. Emily Levy, the founder and director of EBL Coaching, that uncomfortable feeling rarely happens with tutors who know what they’re doing. “Experienced tutors are often adept at working with many kinds of students, so compatibility is rarely an issue,” Levy says.
When parents first contact a tutoring company, they commonly ask about the costs, the frequency and length of sessions, the dates of the relevant tests, and the experience of the tutor. Later, the sessions themselves take place at a student’s home. If a student is open and motivated enough to work with the tutor, then progress usually comes quite quickly. Not only do the students improve academically, they may even feel a boost in self-confidence or self-esteem. There’s nothing like the focused support of a private teacher to help cement these academic and personal gains. “You’re there to just help them, and that can be empowering for students because they have an hour or two where all your focus is on helping them do something better,: says Brendan Mernin, a premier tutor with Princeton Review, “and that’s a very nice relationship for them to have.”
How to characterize that relationship? To hear tutors describe their role, they are teachers, motivators, and allies. Not surprisingly, tutors who work with students over a long stretch of time often become quite close to them. “If I’ve worked with a kid for a year and a half I may know the student better than the school counselor,” says Jonathan Arak, a premier tutor with Princeton Review.
A tutor who succeeds at helping a student usually ends up being an ally of the parents as well. “You develop strong relationships with your students, but you know what? That parents are feeling vulnerable too, because they don’t know where the kid is going to be in a year or two,” say Mernin. “So they may end up valuing your input in a big way.”
Input over what? Everything from the courses a student takes to extra curricular activities to what kinds of colleges he should be thinking about.
Given how raw emotions can be between tweens and teens and their parents, there are times when a tutor can be a kind of intermediary. “In my experience, the kids I tutor may not agree with what I have to say, but at least they’ll usually be more receptive to hearing it,” says Arak.
In addition to improved scores and a boost in self-confidence, when done well, the tutoring process has other kinds of dividends that may not be on parents’ minds when they first sign up their kids. By its very nature, tutoring usually leads to an improvement in a child’s study skills, which in turn can translate into improved grades all around.
Also, as Schulyer points out, tutoring helps students with their time management skills. “Kids are scheduled t the hilt. That’s the way it is. But they’re not necessarily skilled at balancing their priorities in a way that works with their schedule,” she says. “With a tutor, now they have someone who will help them learn to plan ahead, someone besides their parent who can say, ‘Okay, you’ve got to study for this today, so you’ll have time t prepare for that tomorrow.’ Given how busy kids are, this is a survival skill. And you see the improvement.”
Originally, the big boom in tutoring was driven by SAT prep. Now there’s tutoring for just about every subject in which a student might need help. “I feel that there’s been a tremendous increase in the writing instruction we’re doing,” Ellen Ross, director of the tutoring company Blue Tomato, notes.
Tutoring sessions are also addressing work very young students might need help in, like basic math and reading. It turns out, younger students are just as vulnerable to self-doubts and anxieties over their abilities as older kids. Likewise, they have as much to gain from a good tutor.
But Ross cautions parents against enlisting a barrage of tutoring sessions for very young children, noting that the pressure to secure one of an ever-scarcer number of school spots has led parents to load their three-year-olds with heavy amounts of test prep instruction that are “not appropriate” for their age level. “We try to talk to parents on how to appropriately prepare kids for school,” Ross says.
EBL tutor Robyn Kramer, who teaches reading and writing comprehension to pre-K through sixth grade students, notes that n increase in the child’s confidence comes from both the development of a positive relationship with his or her tutor as well as having augmented mastery of a formerly weak subject. “The biggest change is when they get a bit more confidence, and I really get to see their true personalities come out,” says Kramer. “That’s when I notice that they’re starting to understand the material; they’re giggling while we work, because they’re no struggling with it as much.”
Levy also attests that tutored students improve in more than just grades: “Typically, we see huge self-esteem boost. After the kids improve their academic skills, they start feeling better about themselves. They start to raise their hands more in class and participate more.”
Alexander the Great had the philosopher Aristotle for a private teacher. He’s no longer available anymore, but chances are that if you’re child needs a tutor, you’ll be able to find one who will help and inspire him to do better in school and feel better about himself. But you probably shouldn’t expect him to then conquer half of Europe.