Working Parent 411: Tutoring - support for students, relief for parents

In our newest video series, Amanda and Sarah share short interviews- 15-20 minutes - designed to help you feel more confident at work and home.

Today Sarah talks with Jennifer Mack, Independent Academic Tutor, about the ways that working with a tutor can help build students' confidence while easing parents' stress. Come learn all about tutoring - what to expect and how it can help support your students.

Connect with Jennifer Mack via Facebook or Instagram


Sarah: Welcome to our parenting 411 interview series where we’re bringing you conversations with experts that we think are very helpful to the lives of working parents. Today I’m talking with Jennifer Mack. She’s an independent academic tutor. She has her Masters in elementary education and is a certified Massachusetts Elementary School teacher with over 17 years of experience in the classroom. She's worked in the classroom with children in grades K through 5, and she has tutoring experience with individuals aged 3 to 18. I'm so excited, Jen, to have you on today. I think there is so much that we are going to be able to talk about that is going to be really helpful to working parents. So, welcome.

Jen: Thank you, thank you so much for having me. This is great.

Sarah: I just want to jump right in here because I feel like many parents are really interested in supporting their kids’ education and, for parents that work full-time, being able to contribute to that can be a real challenge time-wise. Parents are struggling with trying to figure out how they can support their students when time is really short. So talk me through a little bit about what you do and how your services help fill that gap for parents.

Jen: Typically I offer tutoring services for kids that may be struggling in a particular area in school. Sometimes it might even just be struggling with time management and how to organize their work. Before all of this (the pandemic), I was going to homes and tutoring, and now it’s online, but it's still actually been really beneficial even over the computer.

Basically I take what concepts they are learning in that grade and if they’re having a difficult time with something I come up with different lessons, maybe try to teach it in different ways so if they're not understanding something in school, it's not clicking, maybe they just need to have it explained in a different way. I work with the students and I assess them. I talk with their teachers - because it's really important to speak with someone who is with them every day, and probably off the top of their head understands what areas they are struggling with. I can be an extension of their teacher and focus on those difficult things.

The big piece, I think, is looping in the parents because things are taught in such a different way from when we were growing up that it can be really frustrating. You might know how to do long division, but the way they’re teaching kids to do long division is completely different. They think you're teaching it wrong and it causes a lot of friction. I'll help give a little lesson to the parents: this is the way they’re teaching it now, it’s essentially the same thing, and this is why. I feel like once parents understand their students are just learning it in a different way, they (the parents) feel ready to be able to help. It can help ease a lot of that stress.

I like to pose tutoring as the teachers, the parents, me, the child, we’re all on the same team. We’re all there to help the student in whatever way is going to work.

Sarah: I love that. I think too often we get stuck in this mindset of “us” versus “them” or that we’re somehow afraid to reach out and make those communication connections to say “hey we need something”.

Jen: Right, and probably both sides feel that way. Parents are like “I don't want to be that parent” and the teacher is like “I would do more if I could, but I'm strapped for time”. Really, we’re all working toward the same goal. If you can remember that, if someone - a parent calls and says “I’m just struggling”, or the teacher says they’re struggling with something, if you work together, it’s amazing what you can do.

Sarah: So you work as that bridge and also as that translation service - like here’s how we’re teaching math these days. I know, I have three kids and they come home (with homework) and I go “I don't know what we're talking about..” We're talking about basic addition and carrying like the way we would have learned it and they're like “No, mom.”

Jen: Yeah, “it’s not called this anymore” or whatever.

Sarah: Exactly. I need a translator.

Jen: Yes, absolutely.

Sarah: I think that’s a perfect skill to offer.

Jen: Even when I first started teaching - I didn’t have kids at the time - even then I was reading the manual before I was teaching, going “what??”. So I had to figure it out and all I could think was “These poor parents. They just have no idea what's coming home.” I would try to write up little directions for them before sending it home, but with 20 kids in the classroom, it was a little hard to get all that done. I'd like to try to help bridge that if I can.

Sarah: Absolutely. Knowing that every family comes to you is going to have a student that needs different supports or has a different school structure or a different family structure what sort of basic overview can you give of what families can expect from working with you. What does a tutoring session look like? How does this all come together from the first time a family would reach out to you?

Jen: Usually, we just have a conversation. I start by saying “What’s going on? What are you seeing?”. And I can kind of evaluate if it sounds like it's maybe an organization piece they might need to work as a family, how can we make this work so we actually have time. I struggle with it too. I can say “I tried this. This didn’t work for my family, but it might work for yours.” If they decide they want me to come in and work with their child because they know that their child is definitely struggling and they're not sure how to handle it, oftentimes I'll gather information from the parent. I’ll ask them to connect me with their teacher. I usually have a meet and greet first just to make sure the child meets me, can ask me questions, just so they know what's coming because it's nerve-racking meeting somebody new, especially online.

And then when we start working together, usually I’ll do some assessments and gather all the information, and figure out what particular skills they need to work on to help build them to move further. I’ll usually do some sort of mini-lesson, little games or activities that we do together.

It all depends on what the parent is looking for. Sometimes there are parents that are like “I just don’t have the time. I need to know that my student is taken care of, that they’re being taught what they need. We really can’t do much more than that.” And some parents will say “Yes, give me something to do because I just don’t know where to start.” It all depends on what the parent really is looking for.

Typically I’ll give them books that they can read in between sessions or games to play with the family that reinforces the skill that we’ve learned, wherever it’s math or reading. Especially with the younger grades, a lot of it is math and reading, which then ties into writing with everything.

If I don’t chat with the parent after the session - in person it's a little easier because they're there and you can give them a little update - I usually send a little summary about what we did, here are some materials you can print out (or if they live close enough I can drop them off). The more you practice with them the better they'll get. Your student will still learn if you do it week by week, but if you play the games in between or if you read the books, they’ll get it that much faster.

Sarah: So you're augmenting what's happening in the classroom and then the parents can augment what you’re doing with their students.

Jen: Right, right. At school, you (the teacher) have your lessons for a certain amount of time but obviously, you have to keep moving, and sometimes kids just need that extra exposure. Sometimes that's all that they need, and sometimes it might go farther than that. Because I’ve been in the classroom I kind of have an eye for if they're not grasping something, let's talk to the teacher.

I might help a parent to know how to talk to the teacher - like to say “Do you see this in the classroom because we're seeing this as home” and how to just all stay on the same page.

Sarah: I love that. For families that are working with you, do you tend to work with students once a week, a couple of times a week, what does a common structure look like? I know it all depends on what the student needs, but what's common?

Jen: It tends to be once or twice a week. During the school year, it’s more likely to be once a week, which makes sense as students have a lot going on unless I’m specifically helping with something from school. Usually, I’m more of an extension of what they’re getting in school. In the summertime, it’s more likely to be twice a week, especially if they’re younger. There’s the fear of regression - they work so hard, and to not be exposed to these concepts for two to three months, it’s unbelievable how far backward they can slide and have to learn it all again. Even once a week is better than none because they’re still being exposed to it and pulling it back into their memory rather than having a couple of months off.

Sarah: That’s a great segway to my next question. Let’s talk more about the reality we’re living in - with schools being closed, with remote learning being a “thing”, with parents really being challenged to help support their kids’ education - and more than just support, but manage it - and we’re trying to figure out “how do we do this?” This is a crazy, crazy experience for all of us! With school closed, and with summer coming, and with the fall still feeling very, very unclear as to what school is going to look like in September, what should parents be thinking about now? What kind of strategies would you recommend for families so that all of that work these kids have done up to this point really isn't lost?

Jen: The first thing that I always suggest is to reach out to your kid’s teacher because they know where your student is going to be starting in September, where they are now, and what needs to happen in between. A lot of times, teachers will give you a summer pack or summer reading list or things like that.

I feel like at the minimum I would definitely have your child still read - or even be exposed to books. There are a lot of general questions that you can find online or reach out to your teacher, but I would keep them talking about what they’re reading.

And some sort of math concepts, just to keep it fresh in there. But it can be tricky because if you’re not in education you don’t know when they learn various math skills. “Should I push it if they’re not getting it, or is it just that they’re not ready to get it.” Definitely asking the teacher can be a really big help.

I know there is a lot out there - online - and it can get overwhelming. I always tell people just to reach out to me. On my Facebook page, I will often post ideas for home - I have a summer calendar that at a minimum has one activity a day. They probably only take a couple of minutes to do, but you can make them what you want them to be. Do your one activity a day just to keep your brain in that cycle of thinking.

Sarah: You're absolutely spot-on. There are so many resources out there. Yes, parents can absolutely go out and find something, but there are almost too many resources. Sifting through all of this to figure out what the good ones are and what the age and grade-appropriate ones are is a big challenge. I love that you’re providing parents with a place to go on your Facebook page. We’ll link that to this video so that parents can hop right over and see some ideas of what they should be doing.

Jen: I just think even conversations, like being social is super huge. I know especially now, having not been in school, that’s a really big piece that’s been missing for kids. I know a lot of our rules have had to change. We have our screen time rules, but now if one of my kids can play with a friend on the video game, I’m like “You can have extra time because you’re talking.” It’s like they’re playing together - because that’s as good as it gets right now.

So you might have to be flexible with what gets done. There’s going to be days that they don’t read, and that’s ok. You just don’t want it to stretch for two straight months. There are going to be days where it’s going to be a battle, and you just have to decide “Is this something I want to fight, or can I drop it today?” You know your kids best.

Sarah: I love the reminder that learning doesn't have formulaic. It doesn't have to be worksheets. It can be reading a recipe. It can be more of those life skills in a much more home-based environment, and not like “we're going to read about the African Savanna today!”

Jen: It's funny how many parents - and I probably would have too, had I not become a teacher - think that's school needs to be at the kitchen table. You can't have anything around you. I find that a lot when I'm tutoring that it's okay if they have to move around. If they're interacting with me or they're still answering my questions but they have to skip or sit on a ball, that's what their bodies need. That's okay. We have this picture of what school should be or what studying should be. If it’s having conversations about a movie you watched and how it compares to another movie you saw, that’s critically thinking! Things like that we tend to discount. We don’t think how valuable that is.

Sarah: I think that’s honoring the holistic student, right? It’s much more inclusive of all of those life experiences.

Jen: Yeah. It really is.

Sarah: As we close out today, what is it that you want parents to remember about tutoring and how best to support students when parents are short on time?

Jen: I think a lot of it is like I said, be flexible and be patient. You don’t want your relationship with your child to - I mean, of course, there are going to be strained moments. That’s part of being a parent, - but if you really start to notice a rift, that might be worth talking to somebody about, either having someone help you and your child work together to come up with a system that will work, something that you can agree on that is coming from an outside source.

I’ve experienced this even my son. When I was teaching first grade in the classroom, he was learning to read. I was excited because I finally knew what to do. And he was like “I’m not reading with you.”. And I was like “But I know what I’m doing!” Sometimes it really does help to have someone else step in or even say “try these things and we’ll check in in a month.”

If your child is really struggling, I think the biggest thing to watch for is their self-esteem and their confidence. If you’re noticing that they are really frustrated to the point where they feel like they can’t do it, or they’re having thoughts of being just “not smart enough” you really want to intervene - whether it’s you or some outside source - to help build that confidence. I really feel like if they don’t have self-confidence or feel that they can trust themselves to learn something, they’re not going to be accessible to learning anything. But if you can help them see what they do know and help them build on that, that’s what I try to do when I do take on clients. We start off with a lot of what they do know because they need to see that they are smart learners, and they can learn new things and they’re capable. As we start to build in harder things, they feel safer trying them. That’s a huge piece, especially if they do go back to school in the fall or it’s at home or whatever, keep an eye on them and what you feel as their parent they really need.

Sarah: Pay attention and don’t be afraid to open up those lines of communication.

Jen: Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah: Such an important take-home message. So we’re going to be linking all of your contact information to this video so that parents can be able to reach out to you directly if they have any questions. I really want to thank you for your time today. This was wonderful.

Jen: Thank you so much. I am more than happy to chat. Sometimes parents will just call and say “I don’t know if I even need you, but here’s what’s going on…” Call me. I love to talk through things with people and say “Here, try these few things. If they don’t work, call me back.” And we start slow. I’m more than happy to help brainstorm.

Sarah: You’re really meeting families where they are. Thanks so much, Jen!

Jen: Alright, thank you so much!