Psst — ever wonder what your students say about your class after school? Ever question if what you’re teaching has stuck? Wish you knew if they had everything they needed?
Well, I’ll let you in on a few secrets. But first, allow me to show you an example…
Imagine that a teenager in your class, whom we will call Sam, bursts into the public library, eyes scanning until he sees me sitting at one of the tables. Sam practically falls into the chair opposite mine, wearing a hoodie and smelling like a mix of Axe spray and basketball practice. I reassure him that he’s only a minute late, and his shoulders relax a bit.
First, we take a few minutes to let Sam vent. He whines about homework, sports, and his recent breakup. Next, we chat briefly about how school and his college applications are going.
Only after he has sufficiently made mental space for it, we begin our actual tutoring agenda — ACT review — or else he won’t qualify for the scholarship that is his only hope. (No pressure.)
Most of the high school students I tutor are like Sam: well-intentioned, exhausted, and trying desperately to not only tread water but be competitive with their peers.
So what do our students REALLY need? And what can you steal from my tutoring into your classroom?
I’m both a full-time teacher of middle school students and a part-time tutor of high school ones. Since my work day straddles grade levels, I get a unique perspective about what local students need before they go on to high school or apply to college.
Tutoring students has, without question, made me a better teacher. It has forced me to learn patience with knowledge gaps, have empathy with students and the overcommited lives they lead, and break down a topic to a student’s level in a personal way.
It has also helped me to refine the teaching skills that I use in the daytime. If you think teaching and engaging teens at 7:30 a.m. is hard, try tutoring them at 7:30 p.m. after more than 12 hours of school and sports!
Based on my dual life, here are the three secrets that I wish I could shout from the rooftops…
Secret #1: We need to reteach more than we think.
Our kids are under pressure to be perfect at everything, and even our most capable students struggle to maintain information from all classes over several years. By the time students come to me for help, they’ve lost a lot of content and need serious review.
It’s not uncommon for me to use the same worksheet with a 12th grader at night that I did with an 8th grader that morning.
- During tutoring: I’m shocked to hear that Sam doesn’t remember basics, but I try to have serenity with knowledge gaps and paraphrase topics in different ways until it makes sense. I can choose to get mad that he doesn’t know how to keep slang out of his writing, or I can make a lesson to break down what formal writing is.
- During teaching: Teaching with metaphors and mnemonic devices helps rules and details to stick over time. For example, I made a lesson explaining why conclusion paragraphs are like dessert for a tutoring student and expanded that into a lesson series that I used with my entire class. I kept using that strategy with middle schoolers to explain why citations are like brand labels and why revision is like a makeover.
I also try to convert my materials into keepsakes and reference tools that students can keep and take to NEXT year’s class — like my analysis how-to booklets — to make sure my teaching lasts longer than their memories do.
Secret #2: “Big Kids” still need to escape and exhale.
Teens need to get a little TLC for their mental and emotional health, or they won’t focus, let alone thrive enough to be competitive. So, I let them escape and exhale:
- During tutoring: Sam fights exhaustion while he tries to pay attention. I have to keep him awake enough to teach the content AND shift those punctuation rules into his long-term memory.
- During teaching: In addition to using visual aids and letting them move, we…
Escape: Deviate between units with a lesson they don’t expect or a topic they really want. We celebrate holidays when we can, do mad lib-style poetry, and argue about a topic we ALL care about in Ohio: snow days. They pick choice novels in independent reading and enter writing contests to try to get published.
Exhale: Vent opinions in surveys, play Simon Says to stretch mid-lesson, revise writing when it doesn’t go well the first time, get reading time, and have student-teacher conferences during work time to air out confusion.
Secret #3: They need our help to get admitted…
…even more than they realize. Standardized tests and college admissions essays have SUCH specific expectations that we can’t just assume our students will transfer info from our classes to high-stakes situations.
- During tutoring: Sam didn’t seek my tutoring because I’m saying anything revolutionary or because he lacked smarts — he just wasn’t getting certain information anywhere else. His stakeholder adults assumed that he could independently read a thick college prep book from the store and be fine. (…?!) So, I took everything I know about college essays and put it into one lesson, and I offer to proofread all of my tutoring students’ essays for free before they push the submit button.
- During teaching: Don’t feel guilt for any lesson that even remotely “teaches to a test.” Students need to take the skills you teach and use them for more than just your final exam. Your teens are going to be fine no matter what — but they will be great if we help them apply their classes to the gateway test that blocks their futures.
What I’ve learned is that our students really are listening to us. In my seven years of tutoring, I’ve never once heard a student say, “She talked about that in class, but I forget what she said.” Instead, they say that “We haven’t talked about that since freshman year.”
Our kids need our help to learn, maintain, and apply information over time. I’m going to keep working in the trenches to help support what you’re doing, and so will other tutors around the world, but yours is the voice that students care about the most. They’re listening — so be proud of the legacy you’re creating in every child.
Secondary Sara is a teacher and tutor in Columbus, Ohio. She has a Master’s of Education in English Language Arts for grades 7-12 from The Ohio State University. Sara first worked for a test prep company before teaching high school, and she currently teaches 7th and 8th grade. She blogs with her golden retriever and her hubby by her side at secondarysara.blogspot.com and on Facebook.