The secret to improving homeschooling: Virtual tutors


Caitlin Meister, founder of the tutoring practice The Greer Meister Group, has arranged tutoring sessions for her son to help fill the gap in one-on-one learning during homeschooling. Photo: Caitlin Meister

As schools limp to the finish line of this semester, parents everywhere are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Soon there will be no more badgering kids to log into Google Classroom, no more overseeing Zoom meetings, no more guilt over the competing need to work and make sure your kids are learning. The only thing left to worry about, once schools close for summer, is the prospect of no school come September.

There are many ideas being tossed around right now to bring the kids back safely—staggered sessions, a hybrid of remote and in-person learning—but all of them represent just a half step of progress toward normalcy. Even if the kids can magically return to school en masse, infections will invariably pop up, and schools will likely close unexpectedly to sanitize every surface. It’s hard to imagine enduring another unproductive, disjointed semester. But if it happens, a number of parents, including myself, will turn to the one thing that has helped them through the first wave of homeschooling: virtual tutors. 

I have been thankful that I do not have high school juniors or seniors to guide during one of their most important/memorable school years, or toddlers who could not possibly entertain themselves. I didn’t even think to be grateful for the fact that I don’t have a child who is learning a fundamental skill. This is the situation Christine Toes Muldoon found herself in, with a kindergartener who needed help with reading before the shutdown. 

“Teaching a child how to read is not something that I know how to do!,” said Muldoon, who lives in Carroll Gardens. Overwhelmed between “trying to keep up with my own job as well as trying to keep up with everything coming at me from the school (email updates, Konstella updates, multiple pages on a school website to go to every day to try to figure out what my son was supposed to be doing for the day, etc.),” she has leaned on a virtual tutor from The Greer Meister Group once a week, “to keep me and my son on track to learning how to read.”

Caitlin Meister, the founder of the practice, also lives in Brooklyn and has a 5-year-old and a preschooler. Her company was already offering Zoom sessions to high school students whose schedules were so packed that the only way to cram in an hour of tutoring was to do it virtually. So the transition to an entirely online practice has been relatively easy. Some families dropped the sessions as soon as homeschooling began; others like Muldoon picked them up precisely because remote learning was a struggle.

For Meister, who also arranges virtual tutoring sessions for her son, the point isn’t so much to get him ahead of grade level or make sure he doesn’t fall behind. It’s about building a positive relationship to school in the absence of one.

“For our youngest learners—the preschoolers, the kindergartners, the first graders, the second graders—they’re currently building their foundational relationship with formalized learning and going to school…that is going to carry them through the next 15 to 20 years of their life. And if your child learns from this experience to disconnect from formalized learning, to dislike school, to feel overlooked or as if their voice is not heard…then this experience will be way more damaging than just ‘My child is a couple of months behind academically from where I expected her to be.’”

Already there are signs that remote learning has been a big fail. A recent New York Times article cited a study of nearly 500 school districts that found that “by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms.” It also revealed that parents in this study, regardless of socioeconomic background, were spending on average 13 hours a week on homeschooling. 13 hours! Even if I were to clear out my calendar and devote this amount of time to my children’s homeschooling, it would likely ruin our relationship. I excel at accommodating dietary preferences and explaining why you cannot keep touching someone who asks you to stop. What I cannot do, is cajole people into drawing ancient Greek clothing or listing the characteristics of a blizzard without it turning into an argument. So rather than interrupt my workday to fight with my kids over their homework, I have opted to take the path of least resistance, and spend not 13 hours a week on homeschooling, but somewhere between 0 and 1. 

For parents in similar circumstances and with similar means, a tutor can pick up the slack and take the friction out of homeschooling. It can also provide that valuable one-on-one time that so many students have been lacking. “A big part of what my tutors and I are focused on is making sure that the children feel heard and respected,” Meister explained.

She is careful not to fault teachers who have had to learn how to teach at a distance on a moment’s notice and cannot provide the same level of attentiveness to each and every student. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for classroom teachers,” she said. “What classroom teachers are being asked to do right now is insane. So I mean no disrespect to my colleagues who work in school settings, but their priorities have to be different than ours just by necessity of what they do.”

Meister’s priorities—providing individualized attention and expertise—have a price, of course. Her tutors’ rates begin at $150 an hour. She also offered drop-in classes like “Lego Math” designed for groups of four students at a more affordable $40 per class. In a freefalling economy, or even in normal times, this might feel like an extravagance, so Meister offered pay-what-you-can options for her drop-in classes, even free classes for frontline workers. “That seemed like one tiny way that I could improve the life of those people’s children.” She is considering offering classes again this summer.

Another friendly face in the apartment

Parents have appreciated the continuity of Common Denominator tutoring sessions in quarantine. Photo: Common Denominator

On the other end of the tutoring universe sits Common Denominator. Dedicated to under-resourced families in New York whose kids need help meeting grade-level benchmarks in math, it’s entirely free to New York City middle school students, and is volunteer-run. (They are seeking new volunteer tutors in anticipation of the fall, for those who are interested.)

In typical years, roughly 200 children come to one of their three physical locations for afterschool sessions that target the math skills middle school students should master before graduation. Beyond teaching fundamentals, they also focus on mentorship: Only one tutor is assigned to a child for the entire school year. When Common Denominator tutors had to go virtual and begin teaching via Zoom, that dedicated approach was a blessing for families in lockdown.

“I don’t think there’s been one parent who has not been overly grateful,” said Julia Kang, Common Denominator’s Executive Director. “A lot of them work—they can’t be around to monitor [homeschooling or tutoring]. They’re appreciative of the continuity and the fact that it’s another friendly face that they’re not stuck in an apartment with 24/7.”

At the same time, she acknowledged the limitations of this new style of learning. “There is some concern from parents that their kids are not absorbing as much. Our families often live in small apartments, often smaller than your ideal set up. Kids are being tutored in bathrooms,” she said, and in tight settings where noise and interruptions are unavoidable. Even without any distractions, some students, especially those with ADHD, find it hard to focus in a virtual setting at all. Still, she said, “By far the reaction has been one of gratefulness. Parents are so grateful for the emotional support of just being in the student’s life.”

From worksheets to Zoom calls

Carlos Saavedra on one of his Monday rides through Brooklyn to drop off Kumon worksheets for his students. Photo: Kumon Center of Prospect Heights

For Carlos Saavedra, who runs a Kumon center in Prospect Heights, the transition to online tutoring hasn’t been as easy. Kumon’s core goal is to teach students to work above their grade level, using a personalized curriculum tailored to each child—all of which is expressed through worksheets, in tandem with in-person instruction. This paper-and-pencil approach has meant that Saavedra has to get these physical worksheets into the hands of his students even in quarantine. Some parents pick them up at the center, but many rely on home delivery, so every other Monday he spends two hours biking from his home in Prospect Lefferts Gardens to Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy and East New York to deliver these packets. “That’s been my workout,” he said. 

He estimates that roughly 40% of his enrollment is down, either because families now have limited resources following a furlough or unemployment, or because they simply couldn’t manage coordinating another online class. 

But he has had new enrollments from parents who fear their kids are falling behind. “I think some parents are feeling their students are falling by the wayside because there’s a limited amount of individualized evaluation [from the teacher].”

The challenge for him is getting kids excited about yet another virtual class.

“I know that when a parent leaves their child in the bedroom, the child’s focus might not always be with me,” he said. “It just forces me to be more engaging with the student— it forces me to be a better instructor.”

An Americorps for homeschooled students

Unlike some schools that have migrated exclusively to live Zoom lessons throughout the day, my children’s school takes place entirely over Google Classroom, where one navigates a myriad of online worksheets, videos and powerpoints to complete. Very little live teaching is sprinkled in. My 8-year-old son needs the most handholding, while my 11-year-old daughter is mostly self-sufficient. Or so I thought until she admitted, through tears, that she was behind in all her subjects.

So I reached out to the high school employment office in my district (I live north of the city in Hastings-on-Hudson), and asked for tutors who would not be graduating in case I needed to call upon them next year. The result has been nothing short of magical. My son and daughter do as much work as they can manage independently, and four days a week they save between 30 to 40 minutes of work for their sophomore or junior tutor who can work with them on assignments over a video call.

For the last four weeks of the school year, spending $25 an hour for outside instructional help has been a deal both for my mental health and my relationship with my children, especially my son. (I’m sure their education is slightly benefiting from the exchange as well.) But it would be wonderful if I did not have to pay for this. 

Americorps provides school credit, tuition reimbursement, and valuable experience for the college kids they employ to teach in underserved communities. Going forward, why can’t high schools adopt a similar model, and encourage students to volunteer as homeschool tutors in exchange for similar credits and recognition?

A few towns over from me in Bronxville, NY, two high school students, Avery Widen and Liam Heraty, have already pioneered one such program. They met with their district’s middle school principal the last week of April to coordinate Zoom tutoring sessions twice a week. Each week just 5 to 10 middle schoolers have been signing up to meet with a high schooler for 30 minutes to go over homework or get help studying for a test. 

Said Widen by email, “If online schooling continues through the fall we will definitely continue this tutoring program and I would expect that we would see a greater number of students coming for help.”

Even if school does return to normal this fall, these kids will have a lot of catching up to do. Volunteer tutors could help with that, too

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