Quarantine Conversations with Mom: Tutoring

The return home to quarantine has provided more time with immediate family than most college students could have imagined, me included. And if my experience is any indication, I’d venture to guess that this has been a mix of quality time and what I’ll call “not-so-quality” time. In some of those quality moments, I’ve had reflective conversations with my mom about my high school experience. 

In high school, I was an incredibly driven student looking to maximize her options in the increasingly competitive world of college admissions where a B feels like the new F. In the wake of COVID-19, it’s foreseeable that grades will carry even more weight for the class of 2021 (and beyond) as increasing numbers of colleges and universities announce test-neutral/test-optional admissions policies. In addition, with online classes setting a trend sure to limit one-on-one teacher time, the tutor talk is worth having.

Up-front disclosure: I am an alumn of Pivot Tutors--for some college prep and AP classes, ACT prep, and SAT Subject Test prep. Like my brother before me, I chose to attend Canyon Crest Academy for high school. I was drawn to its robust AP selection and fast-paced 4x4 system in which a full academic year is completed in a semester, which left time for what? In my case, more AP classes!

Until our quarantine chat, I had always assumed that the catalyst for my mom’s attitude about tutoring stemmed from my academic success (which I submit is a fair assumption given my mom was a serial Aeries user), but I was wrong. Below are of the takeaways from our conversation:

Amy Olsen & Paige Harris


Not like the Good Ol’ Days

High schools like the one I attended have become an academic and emotional pressure cooker that increases to a boiling point early in 9th grade and never lets up. For a parent, there is a constant struggle: “Do I push my child? Do I let them push themselves, even to the detriment of sleep and social development? If I focus too much on balance, will they fall behind and regret easing up on the gas when it’s time to apply to college?” And how do these questions play out in context of the universal advice college advisors give students: take the most rigorous course load possible and get A’s? 

My mom claims these internal debates were complicated by my goal to take as many AP classes as I could across disciplines; I was driven to understand, internalize, and become independently comfortable with the material. I also wanted my AP scores to be a testament to that effort. 

 Upsides of My Tutoring Experience 

I asked my mom what she perceives to have been the additive benefit of a tutor for me. Admittedly, I was expecting my mom’s answers to be tied to subject mastery or test scores, but they were (surprisingly) much broader and (not surprisingly) a bit long-winded.

Focus on Important Aspects of Parenting

Off-loading my academic support and reinforcement system to well-qualified tutors gave me confidence in my ability to work and prepare for tests independently, which freed my mom up to be my parent and not my drill sergeant. Of course, I talked with her about assignments and interesting reading (who doesn’t love David Foster Wallace and conversations about what it is to have a “true democratic spirit”), but the structure and efficiency of my tutoring sessions targeted substantive weaknesses and reinforced strengths. This empowered me to get my work done without the temptation of Instagram breaks. This gave my mom and I more time and allowed her to focus her parenting on my mental health, nutrition, and helping me manage the overall stress of high school and extracurriculars.

Potential Benefits Beyond the Classroom

Of course, my mom wanted me to do well in school, perform on standardized tests and get into a “good school.” Like me, she is competitive and wants to succeed. For parents, there is a sense of personal accomplishment that follows from children reaching their goals. In retrospect, however, my mom believes the benefits of tutoring extend well beyond the high school classroom, and she claims to be amazed by the ways in which my tutoring experience has contributed to my success in college, notwithstanding my tutoring days are long-behind me:

  • Work Ethic: Tutoring was never (and should not be) a substitute for work. My tutors expected me to review the material before my tutoring sessions to get the most out of them. To do that, I had to plan ahead and exercise time management on afternoons my mom would have otherwise found me on the couch with a snack watching Netflix. This skill has been critical to success in college; in most cases, the process is essential to the grade. Tutoring reinforced work ethic as a daily habit.

  • Communication: The ability to effectively communicate in writing is a power unto itself in any college major, job, or internship. It is a key skill underutilized by a generation that has learned to substitute emoji’s and acronyms for real words and accompanying grammar. In my case, I had not taken honors-level English in 10th grade, and I felt as if everyone in my 11th grade AP Language class already knew the mechanics of writing. My mom recalls my tutors discussing ways to make my writing more active and my word choice more effective, and this is a skill that has served me well in college (even on essays for statistics classes). Tutoring slowed down the writing process from hasty homework assignments and midnight paper writing to thoughtful drafts and revision.

Great Expectations vs. Reality

 As a parent, former educator, and now working professional, my mom often discusses with friends and colleagues their mutual quest for holy grail advice concerning the dos and don’ts of high school and college admissions. When it comes to tutoring, my mom’s view is that it’s a financial commitment that makes sense if it’s the right fit. So, I asked a follow up question: “What does that even mean?” 

Dual Effort

The first step is recognizing that a tutoring relationship is a two-way street, where expectations, mindset, and effort matter. A tutor may be an expert in their field, but if they can’t teach material in a way the student understands, are not prepared, or do not appreciate unique school demands, the tutor will likely not be a good fit. On the flipside, students who come unprepared or have a defeatist attitude will not maximize the benefits of tutoring. A student should believe they are capable of academic success. After all, the tutor is not doing the work or taking the test – you are! 

Not Miracle Workers (nor Babysitters)

Tutors are not miracle workers; they cannot single-handedly make a C student an A student nor divine motivation where none exists. If the fit is right, however, a tutor can help students earn higher grades and test scores than they otherwise would have without tutoring. What tutors cannot – or should not – do is make unrealistic guarantees. This is a complicated issue for parents, who presume (as parents tend to do) that their children are geniuses inherently driven to succeed and that paying a tutor will ensure a desired outcome. Private tutoring is a meaningful investment, financially and time-wise, and a passive student will not maximize the benefits from tutoring, no matter how good the tutor.

Mom’s Bottom Line

When I asked my mom: “Are tutors worth the investment?”, she responded: “Yes, but…” She clarified that the “but” is really a personal question that considers the type of issues we’ve been talking about for each student and their family. In my case, my mom saw that I was willing (and wanting) to put in the work, and tutoring helped me accomplish my goals in a way that worked for me, in high school and beyond.

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