Test Prep Tutors: Practice, Privilege, and Pursuing the Aha Moment

May 3, 2017

Standardized tests. Whether you love them or hate them, the college application process is paved with partially shaded bubbles and hastily reasoned essays, so you’re going to have to get familiar. The unsung heroes of these tests are the tutors, whose willingness to sit with teenagers all day talking about oxford commas, trigonometry, and time management is honorable, but also very questionable.

To students, these tutors are spiritual guides. They are the guardians who instill in students the tools necessary to slay the dragon of standardized testing and unlock the admission gates of top universities.

Jai Flicker has been a test prep tutor for 17 years. A graduate of Drake High School, he was working at Good Earth Natural Foods when he answered a phone call intended for his roommate, a part-time tutor.

The call, which implored for an emergency substitute tutor, contained a five-word job interview: “Are you good at math?”

Photo courtesy of Jai Flicker. He says math had always been a strong subject for him, although he wasn’t planning to involve it in his career.

His answer was a confident yet cautious “yes,” and he thoroughly enjoyed working with the kids. Even though he had no prior experience with it, Flicker says tutoring felt like “a natural fit” because he had always liked explaining things. Since then, Flicker has not looked back, and he is now the CEO of LifeWorks Learning Center.

Caroline Hanssen has been a test prep tutor for 15 years. A former Dominican University Teacher of the Year, she has 20 years of experience teaching English at the college level. A year ago, Hanssen made the decision to focus exclusively on tutoring, and she now helps students with writing, organizational and study skills, college essays, and test preparation.

Jon Muchin has been a test prep tutor for six years. For him, tutoring was originally a second stream of income to help pay off his student loans, but he now works full-time as a Senior Associate Tutor for Swell Education Group.

Dating back to his first tutoring gig in Boston, Muchin has particularly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know students outside of test taking. “It’s nice to know what high schoolers are studying and thinking about, and your collective engagement with school and life gives me hope for the future.”

Muchin, who’s been teaching guitar since 2007, says he’s learned the importance of familiarizing himself with the kids he works with, “Many students are reluctant to tell me when something isn’t clicking. That’s counterproductive…Getting to know students helps break down that barrier and allows them to see that I’m another ally trying to get them the best possible results.”

Only once this sense of trust has been built between the tutor and tutee is it possible to achieve the holy grail of test prep: the ‘Aha Moment.’

This can only occur within the mind of a student, and it represents the capacity to master standardized testing. It is the point in time when confusion and stress turn into relief and confidence. When a student takes power over the test and recognizes their ability to ace it. It is often the product of countless hours of practice and a painstaking number of tutoring sessions.

For tutors, getting to experience this moment alongside students is the most valuable part of the job.

“It’s really rewarding to see students understand something that 20 minutes prior they were convinced was beyond their grasp” Muchin remarks.

“Seeing them gain that hold on the test so that they can do better is obviously very rewarding for everyone involved,” Hanssen proudly states. With an expertise in English, her strategy for arriving at the aha moment involves an in-depth analysis of the questions at hand. She focuses on helping students “understand the way questions are made and what they mean with their wording so that students don’t feel buffaloed by the content.” Hanssen takes a surgical approach to the verbiage of standardized tests, teaching students how to dissect questions while simultaneously keeping their misgivings at bay.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Hanssen. Demystifying the tests to students is an important part of her strategy.

While Hanssen focuses on extracting the unnecessary confusion that stands in the way of the aha moment, Flicker targets the paralyzing effects of student held anxiety.

“I’ve seen many students unable to answer questions that I knew they were intellectually capable of because they weren’t even able to process the information. They couldn’t even read the problem clearly because they were so worked up in their own minds. So what I started seeing was that if I helped them take a few deep breaths, get more centered, and calm their nervous systems, all the sudden the processing center of their brain came back online.”

When the tutors were describing the familiar scenario of a student conquering their frustration and gaining newfound confidence, it did not feel like they were talking about another person. When the tutors explained this phenomenon, it sounded like they were recalling a gratifying personal triumph.

I presented this observation to Flicker, and he understood completely. “Most educators, and especially most good educators, are very empathetic people. Speaking for myself, when I sit down with a student and they’re really confused and struggling I feel very clearly their sense of struggle, their sense of anxiety, their sense of confusion. So when educators are able to help students get that ‘aha moment’ we go through that experience with them.” He went on to further illustrate the vicarious sense of relief that he feels when a student reaches the aha moment, and as he did this, the splendor of this majestic event grew infinitely greater in my mind.

Just because test prep tutors don’t seem to mind reliving what many characterize as the most stressful part of high school, don’t assume they have any affinity for the SAT or ACT. Almost all of their job satisfaction comes from interacting with students, not from obsessing over the unambiguous symbolism endemic to ACT ‘prose fiction’ sections. In fact, they mostly just seem perpetually irritated at the prospect of standardized test taking. Just like the rest of us.

“I think that we definitely have an overemphasis on these standardized tests,” Hanssen immediately retorts after I ask her opinion of the tests. “I think the best thing that could happen would be if colleges and universities just downgraded their reliance on the SAT and the ACT and I think that’s where we’re moving.”

Hanssen’s opinion is clearly not an isolated one, nor is her hope for the tests unusual.

“Both tests are flawed,” Muchin discloses. Although he did say he understands the appeal of a universal measure of comparison, he wanted to stress that he doesn’t think the SAT or ACT should be the “end-all and be-all of tests or metrics to determine college admission.”

Jon Muchin pointed out that a student’s approach to test prep can often be more telling than their scores. He believes that “diligence is a skill just as much as pre-calculus, and it’s much harder to teach.”

While many students will probably find themselves in emphatic agreement with the statements from Hanssen and Muchin, these tutors have developed their opinions based on years of experience with the injustice of the standardized testing system, not just a few disgruntled Saturday mornings

Oftentimes, the most important factor behind a good test score is not just intelligence but also privilege. Money affords students and families the ability to get a tutor. This tutor will help prepare students for the ACT or SAT by utilizing their proficiency with the test and their years of experience instructing kids with a similar academic background. They acquaint the student with the style of the test and disclose to them countless crucial pieces of insight that they would never otherwise pick up on.

Additionally, both the ACT and SAT have been found to be extremely biased in favor of native Standard American English Speakers, or SAEs. “There’s bias in the questions,” Hanssen notes. “Every once in awhile I’ll stumble upon a question that takes for granted that somebody has a certain cultural understanding, as a mainstream American, for example.” Unfortunately, questions that basically require a student to be an SAE (i.e. understanding insist on versus insist at) to know the answer are common in both tests.

Muchin diagnoses this problem perfectly while laying out his desire for test reform: “I wish the system actually put everyone on equal footing. Well-off kids on aggregate start with so many advantages over poor kids — present parents, books in the house, better schools, etc — and still get an advantage even on a mechanism that purports to treat every student equally. I can’t blame well off parents for wanting to give their kids a better chance, especially because the caliber of college is a big deal, but I wish tests were harder to game.”

Prompted by the same empathy that led them to this profession in the first place, these tutors are not afraid to voice their objections about the testing industry. While they are happy to help students do better on standardized tests, they understand the inherently unfair nature of the system.

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