Another way out / by Rish Basu

It’s the middle of the second trimester, and then-freshman Henry Kistler is struggling.

He’s not confident anymore. His self-esteem is at an all-time low. And he feels it’s almost impossible to get back on track. After starting out the school year with satisfactory grades— a few B’s here and there, sometimes a C, sometimes an A –– Kistler’s grades start to slip.

65. 72. 58.

These were the kinds of grades Kistler did not want to start his high school career with. So, something needed to change.

And fast.

Kistler started to see his teachers before and after school for extra help in his subjects, but to no avail.

“To a certain extent, the teachers helped, but just not enough.”

But at the time, Kistler doesn’t know what else he can do. Test after test, quiz after quiz, the material is flying over Kistler’s head. And even though his parents continue advising him to consult his highly qualified teachers, nothing seems to be working.

There’s only one other option for Kistler and his parents. An option many students, not just Kistler, at the school have relied on. An option that elicits questions as to what students should do when they are struggling in a class — private tutoring.

For Kistler and many other students, the decision between a private tutor and seeking help from one of the school’s teachers has seemed to be an easy decision. 

Although the school’s policy states, “when a boy is having academic difficulty, his first recourse should be to seek assistance from his teacher,” a majority of students who have sought help in their subjects have done so with a private tutor. So, at a school with qualified instructors, the discussion remains between teachers, students and parents as to what the proper course of action is for a student who is experiencing academic difficulty.

Math Department chair Joe Milliet, who has had many years of experience with students seeking help within his department, believes private tutors must be certified before the school’s students utilize them.

“If I recommend a tutor to a parent or student, I have to use tutors from a list of approved tutors that have been vetted by the school for ability,” Milliet said. “If additional time with the classroom teacher outside of class is not sufficient to overcome the issues that the student has, then perhaps, the student might consider working with a qualified tutor from the approved list. Some tutors out in the public arena are just plain awful.”

Similar to the school’s policy on tutorial support, Milliet considers private tutoring to be a last resort for a struggling student.

“When a student is having trouble with content in a class, the first resource should be the classroom teacher,” Milliet said. “Meeting with the person one-on-one outside of class who will write the assessments, grade the papers, evaluate the skills, review the lab report, is always the best place from which a student should get the information and assistance.”

Math instructor J.T. Sutcliffe, who formerly chaired the math section committee of the SAT questions, believes there are certain benefits and disadvantages in the teacher versus tutor discussion. Like Milliet, Sutcliffe concurs with the school policy, hoping there is some sort of communication between the classroom teacher and private tutor.

“If they [the students] feel that outside help is beneficial to them, I have nothing against that,” Sutcliffe said. “I would love for them to let me know that they’re doing that so I can be in contact with their tutor. If I were really confused about something and my teacher had tried explaining it, and it was still not clear, I would want to go to somebody else.”

In addition to help in academic subjects, the school’s students also seek help in the SAT and ACT tests. Given that Sutcliffe writes SAT math questions, she acknowledges the risk in helping students in that area.

“When I did agree with the direction the SAT was going,” Sutcliffe said, “I had to be very careful about tutoring while I was on the committee because it could seem that I was feeding that student information that I shouldn’t be.

Junior Matthew Fornaro, who has utilized the Scholastic Success tutoring program, issomone who has experienced success owing to private tutoring.

Fornaro enjoys the more personalized approach to private tutoring compared to his experience at the school.

“The tutor is kind of more personal, and he’s more focused on me, whereas a teacher has a lot of things to worry about,” Fornaro said. “Teachers are focused on you, but there’s a balance that they need to keep.”

For Fornaro, there are extra advantages to private tutoring that facilitate his life and workload at school.

“There’s definitely an organizational part to it, because you don’t really want to go up to a teacher and be like ‘hey, how should I organize this for your class,” Fornaro said. “You could ask them for that, but it just feels easier to work with a tutor on that kind of stuff.”

Adrian Ibarra, an employee of Scholastic Success and Fornaro’s private tutor, has been a private tutor of high school students for five months. Ibarra acknowledges the school’s competitive, educational environment and how it relates to tutoring as a whole.

“It’s a very competitive school, and their parents want them to do well,” Ibarra said. “If they aren’t doing well, it’s their parents looking for a tutor, and then, them going out and seeking it themselves.” 

However, Ibarra still believes consulting one’s teacher could be the proper course of action.

“A benefit of having a tutor is personalized help,” Ibarra said. “They’re going to be working with you every day, rather than a teacher who has to work with multiple students. But at a school like St. Mark’s, the teachers should always be a first resort,  just because they are exerting more effort and they are always there.”

Nevertheless, Ibarra believes private tutoring should be used efficiently rather than a scapegoat for students.

“Our job isn’t to come in and teach someone the material, because the student’s job is to learn in class,” Ibarra said. “If they can’t make sense of it, my job is to help them make sense of it. I don’t consider myself to be a replacement for a teacher, I just consider myself to be a supplement.  If you’re struggling because you don’t understand the material, I would get a tutor, but if you’re struggling because of time management and stuff like that, I don’t think a tutor is a useful allocation of your time.”

English instructor Martin Stegemoeller, who has tutoring experience in English, math and leadership, sees a major part of tutoring with some students as enabling them to succeed.

“A decent number of kids, like they haven’t had success in something, so they’ve allowed themselves to be convinced that they can’t do it,” Stegemoeller said, “and so they just think ‘I’m dumb in math’ or ‘I’m dumb in English,’ and part of the coaching is getting them past that, like showing them that if you work at this you’re going to get better.”

Christine Nicolette-Gonzalez, a former English instructor at ESD and now a tutor for many students here, recognizes that a tutor does not replace a teacher, but rather is a part of a collaborative effort.

“I consider myself to be a part of the village that helps bring my students success,” Nicolette-Gonzalez said. “Often it takes so much more than teachers and parents to do this. When I take on a student, I consider myself to be a member of the village. I consider my primary job to be teaching skills; rather than give my students fish, I teach them to fish, because I really wantthem to learn the skills that will enable them to become life-long, independent learners.”

Additionally she sees supporting a student in as many aspects as possible as one of her most important roles as a tutor.

“I really try to help my students throughout their lives,” Nicolette-Gonzalez said.” In addition to helping them with their English skills, I also assist them with their college applications and essays, and when I put on my career counselor hat, I even help them select a college major that might be best suited to them. I try to be their cheerleader and help them be all they are meant to be.”

For one thing, Foreign Language Department Chair Nancy Marmion has noticed a shift in the circumstances for which students are tutored.

“When I came to St. Mark’s, I don’t think you would have had kids being tutored to make a B or make an A in a class,” Marmion said. “They might be getting tutored so they can make a C in the class. But my sense is there are more kids here now that are getting tutored so they can make honors or high honors grades.”

Ultimately, Nicolette-Gonzalez wants to see the school’s students gain enough confidence to achieve success in their academic careers.

“When I tutor I try to give encouragement, build self-confidence and teach skills,” Nicolette-Gonzalez said. “I try to make sure that my students have the life skills so they can fly.”