Confessions of a High School Tutor
Any given week, I’m probably seeing ten or 12 students all over Los Angeles. I’ve worked with everyone from L.A. royalty to people for whom tutoring is a considerable family investment. I started by doing just standardized-test preparation — both SAT and ACT. I now specialize in helping high school students with English and history and writing.
These companies that I work for profit off of anxiety — both student anxiety and parent anxiety. There are so many emotions wrapped up in it, fragile emotions. It’s a weird business model.
A student I worked with last year on admissions essay writing — the parents kept telling me, “Well, he’s not one of those students who does it all. He’s not one of those students who has a long résumé. He’s not one of those students who is going to really stick out to a college admissions officer.” Sometimes they would say things like this in front of him.
He was a very low-energy kid. It took a lot for me to pull things out of him that he had any real emotional investment in to write about, but, on the other hand, he had a lot to say. He had a lot of interests. He was very funny. He was very dry. It ended up being a joy to help him with his writing.
There’s another kid, whom I only work with online, whose mom does all the communication. She sends the assignments and talks about the work that he has or hasn’t done and when it’s due. It’s almost like she’s his assistant, like she’s organizing his academic life. I’ll get on the line with him, and it’s clear that she knows the assignment better than he does.
She also feels the need to justify why the tutoring is happening. She’ll say things like, “He’s such a smart kid. He’s never needed help in blank before, but I think he’s just, you know, he’s just getting senioritis.” It’s such a study in contradictions. She’s, at once, completely micromanaging his life and also seems to be embarrassed that he’s not taking responsibility for his life.
I have another student I tutor online. I don’t interact with his parents very much, but I can feel the anxiety and the pressure of his senior year through the screen when I’m working with him. I think he is going to take the SAT three times by the time he is done. He set these bars for himself, and they’re pretty arbitrary, but they’re also not arbitrary. For instance, he got a 1390 on the total. He said, “I can’t really explain it, but the difference between a 1380 and a 1390 — there’s no difference. But the difference between a 1390 and a 1400 is huge.”
Here’s a kid who has family and sibling connections to the school he wants to go to. He’s going to do early decision and is already totally within the median score range for the school. I’m like, “Dude, I think you’re pretty good. I think you’re going to get in here.”
These kids have so much going on in their lives and so many things pulling at their attention — it’s like they actually want somebody to tell them to do something, to set the deadline, to draw the line in the sand. Otherwise, they won’t do it. They just won’t do it. I think that’s probably an outgrowth of overload — life overload, school overload, social overload.
One student I have, whose family is from another country, whose parents don’t speak English that well, is very proficient in the language but is definitely still learning to read and write in it well. I feel as though what I’m there for is just to be like, “You can do this. You can be an American high schooler. You got it. You’re smart.”
A lot of what I do is positive conditioning. When a kid will sort something through and get the right answer, I’ll go, “Good. Nice.” A lot of kids don’t want to go out on a limb because you become vulnerable. You can look not cool, or you can look dumb. “I don’t know if this is right. Is it B?”
It’s helpful to tell the kids that they’re right and smart first and then ask them how they got there. When they know they’ve gotten the right answer, then they’ll be more confident, more forthcoming, about how they worked through it. That’s definitely a psychological thing.
I was just reading a novel with a kid, and one character does something very gruesome, and I asked, “So why do you think he would do something like that?” He goes, “Just that kind of guy, I guess,” and he closes the book. I can’t argue with that, but it also has absolutely no deeper thought or reflection. So there’s that.
This one kid who goes to a really high-powered private school — he just has an insane amount of homework. Some nights, he’ll have five-and-a-half hours. It’s like he’s a professional student. I was originally brought in because his mom was concerned that he was staying up until midnight doing homework. He just had so much work that he was getting paralyzed. After three hours of working, you’re not going to read super efficiently. That happens to anyone. He would get to 9, 10 at night, and his pace would just plummet.
Now what happens, I see him a couple of times a week. I really am there to be a companion. I think it’s just a comfort or a soothing thing that he’s not up in his room alone. It frees him up to be really focused, to really get a lot done.
It is a strange type of work that I do. I’m being paid for my presence. But it’s not just him. It’s the academic environment he’s in. It is totally mismatched for a brain that age.