Do I NEED a Tutor? Dropping Grades Edition

Deciding if you need a tutor can be a tricky thing. Will a tutor be able to help my child? Will a tutor make my life easier? Will I be wasting my money? Is there something *free* I could do instead? Will my child learn to self-advocate if they have a tutor?

Each family is trying to make a decision based on a unique set of priorities, so there is never a one-size-fits-all answer, but I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned over the past 15 years of tutoring.

Today’s focus: Dropping Grades

Sometimes a student goes from getting consistently good grades (however you define “good” grades), and then suddenly or gradually their grades slide downward. There may be a triggering event, such as missing one or many class sessions, or it may not be clear what caused the change. Whatever the cause, a drop in grades can lead to a loss of self-confidence in math ability, which can then snowball into a broader loss of confidence or disengagement from school.

How can we stop (and melt) the snowball?

Let’s deal with two cases: Missing Knowledge and Lost Interest

Missing Knowledge:

One frustrating part of math study is that, in general, each topic builds upon earlier knowledge. This is why missed classes in math can be so hard to recover from. Ideally a student gets notes from a friend or their teacher for any missed classes, but if the student isn’t able to get a solid understanding of the material from the notes, they will be trying to build future topics on a shaky foundation. Missing material can also be the result of mis-matched curricula – the current course assumes mastery of knowledge that the student hasn’t seen.

Two efficient ways of stabilizing the foundation: meet with the teacher or meet with a tutor. If the gap is small and recent, it can be usually be remedied quickly with one or two meetings. The teacher, if they are available, can fill this gap most efficiently. If the gap has persisted, it may take more time to first fill the gap and then check that the structures built on that newly-strong foundation are solid. In this case a tutor may be the better choice; major re-teaching asks quite a lot of the teacher’s time and energy and may take time away from other students.

Lost Interest:

It can be frustrating and confusing when a student transforms from an enthusiastic and passionate learner into a a student who is disengaged and apathetic. If this transformation is sudden and mid-year, make sure you are supportively checking in with the student and trying to find the trigger for the change. Sudden behavior changes are always concerning and should be carefully looked into. In this case the culprit is less likely to be the curriculum and more likely to be social or emotional.

However, if the change is gradual, the student might not ‘click’ with their current teacher, or, after years of math coming easily, it suddenly is challenging. It’s always helpful to espouse a growth mindset: ability is developed through hard work; brains and talent are just the beginning.

A teacher needs to aim broadly, attempting to interest an entire class. In contrast, the one-on-one nature of tutoring sessions allows a tutor to engage directly with the student. Tutors can use that direct connection to tailor examples to the student’s interests, and can responsively alter explanations based on how well ideas are understood. This personalized teaching helps the student gain confidence with the material. A tutor’s enthusiasm for her subject can be contagious, hopefully transforming into student (re-)engagement with math.

A tutor can help.

(This is a tutoring blog; you probably predicted that conclusion!)

Students learn best when they are excited about the subject and feel confident that they will (eventually) understand it. It might be difficult to for you imagine being excited about quadratic equations, but a good tutor’s knowledge about and enthusiasm for her subject can be the nudge that brings a student’s enthusiasm back.

Many of us can think back to a teacher we had that we worked extra hard for, even if it wasn’t in a subject we particularly loved. If this year’s teacher isn’t inspiring that kind of enthusiasm in your child, perhaps a tutor can.

Who was that inspiring teacher for you? I’d love if you share that story in the comments, or even better, if you reach out to that teacher and let them know what they meant to you!

For me, Ms Zeigler taught me to love learning in 2nd grade, Mr Havlin reminded me that I loved learning in 4th grade, Ms Chason turned me on to math (and teaching!) in the 7th grade, and I actually *tried* in 12th grade history due to Ms Patterson’s endless enthusiasm for the subject.


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