I have the weirdest job in the world. That’s definitely overstating it, but its the kind of thing that situates itself between salesperson (a job of infinite reproducibility) and a rockstar (a job of unique specificity), where I’m the thing I’m selling with limited infrastructure surrounding me. I feel sometimes like a weed guy, sort of off the grid, getting people their hookup, and like a con artist who cynically doubts the effective value of their work. I’m a tutor. I know no one like me. I have no collaborators, I have no coworkers. On a daily basis I am engaged in growing young minds, and on a daily basis I learn from my students, I learn from myself, I learn from what happens when we are working together, I learn from parental and educational systems that encase my students, I learn and learn and learn. I have a lot to say, but I do not know the order in which it will come out. So this is a beginning, a start, at least, at unraveling those lessons.
This is also a declaration to all parents, a desperate plea for ears, and it stems from a recurring frustration at breaking the cycles of control that work to traumatize and manipulate all of us, but that start in our homes and schools. We can unwork this damage, we can heal, we can move forward, we can change our educational system into something that aspires to a greater purpose than producing the future working class and elite, we can make changes. It is never too late. We can unwork the problems I want to describe in every interaction we have in a day, because they affect all of us, they were the first spaces in which came into an understanding of our worth – many of us may already be doing this in some way. But it starts with us, we are responsible for our own healing.
Our education system, our whole cultural mentality around education is toxic, broken, traumatizing, and obsolete to boot – a cultural artifact of the industrial revolution. I intend to write out things I’ve observed in my students over the last six years. I have worked with hundreds of students from different backgrounds and with different abilities and desires, though largely from families with a good degree of privilege, and every session is an experimental space in which I test pedagogic techniques I’ve been honing, and try out new ones, and learn from the results of my experiments. What I have to say here and in future posts is a consequence of conclusions I’ve drawn about the evidence I’ve noticed in my work. It’s also based on my experiences teaching in classrooms at multiple community colleges, and teaching at a high school in a teacher-tutor hybrid role. This can all be taken as my analysis of my experiments, not meant to relate to any other writing on the subject, nor meant to prove a thesis of some kind, these are observations and beliefs about what those observations mean, most likely flawed in their conception in some way throughout, but I can tell that few have the vantage point I have, and it seems worth writing about for that reason alone. So this will be the first of likely several (3-4) posts worth of lessons from tutoring.
So I tutor primarily high school and college students to prepare them for standardized tests. This would be my area of expertise, perhaps now above all things except cinema (and even there, it gives it a run for its money). I’ve worked with students on the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT and some of their minor forms (in addition to more generalized help on specific subjects). I assist sometimes with the application process as a whole, helping students plan and edit their essays for admission, their resumes, their search for colleges in the first place.
I had a parent ask me recently – “What’s your opinion: should we sign the student up for an extra test in December? I was talking to other parent and they were talking about how the seniors don’t take it then because its too late, so it’ll be a less packed place to take the test, and that could be helpful, right? Every little bit counts!” There’s a lot in here that is harmful and widespread. Let’s talk about a few things.
Lesson #1: The test is never a neutral space for a child. The test determines their value, it places a number on it, and that number is designed to place them relative to their peers in a relationship of better vs worse. This is instilled in us from such a young age that my framing it in this way will feel radical to most people, because they have internalized the mechanism of the test themselves, or view it as a natural/necessary part of the world’s functioning. In what way could you imagine an education that isn’t dependent on viewing yourself or your friend as “worse”?
Lesson #2: Does a test evaluate knowledge? Not especially, I would argue. There are more effective ways to evaluate knowledge, because there are lots of different kinds of knowledge. Some kids know how to do a thing while they are doing it with their body, but can’t find the words to explain it. In most cases, however, I find the question is one of access to knowledge, not possession of knowledge. Most of my students are extremely anxious kiddos. I’ve worked with them on material when they are in a calmer state and the information they seek comes readily. When they feel they are being judged or evaluated (precisely the phenomenon of the test), their anxiety shoots up and they blank and can’t remember a thing. I would say most teachers know there are other ways of evaluating students, as they have plenty of kids who don’t seem to do well on tests but are great in class. In truth, I’d say we need a multiplicity of ways to do this and work to give students more consent over their education.
Lesson #3: We need to try to keep the test, and the expressions of value from the school, from entering the home. Urgently. Listen to your kids, folks. Take their side. The school isn’t evil in some sociopathic way, but it is an institution of control whose evil is in its banality. We cannot be taking what is said there for granted. Teachers may act of their own accord relative to engagements with a parent, so teachers are worth trusting, but most people at a school are just not invested in your kid the way you are.
Something that was specifically frustrating in the example I’m expounding upon was the sense that “every little bit counts” – this is a most harmful expression. It’s not based in any reality, but spurs action and does so blindly. This parent was concerned with getting their student from a 29 to maybe a 30 or 31 or 32 on the ACT. This is of course the goal of any attempt at retaking the test, increasing the score. But this expresses in the home, from the parental models, the idea that the student’s performance was not good enough. In my sessions, regardless of how many questions are answered or missed, I always remind the students that they’ve done good work for the day, because they have. They’ve done mental gymnastics, they’ve tried to solve puzzles. Taking tests is hard work. Getting any score above a certain amount is a reason to celebrate, not cause to consider if they should run an extra marathon. It also reproduces the work of the test – which is compressed valuation – and normalizes its description. The test measures the test, this is all folks. We gotta stop repeating its truth at home, and that might go for grades too.
Lesson #4: As hinted at above – the test is a physical endeavor. The brain is a muscle, and we feel physically exhausted after doing lots of thinking. People do not need to spend all of their waking days in preparation for a marathon that they did not choose to run. But this is the regime of test prep, and it is widespread practice at this point for parents to have their students take these marathon tests up to 5 times. For the parent, the work done is clicking yes, and signing a check, and believing they’ve done the right thing for their child. It’s an endorphin rush, its the same kind of thing we get when we click Buy Now on Amazon or Like on Facebook… we register our kids for college and these tests through a deeply marketed space of competing advertisers, but we don’t see them that way because of the normalization of it all. The child, though, has to sit down and take the test approximately five times in practice for every time they take it in reality.
Taking the test is no small matter – it structures our sense of self worth while exhausting us and demanding we display our knowledge in a very contorted specific way (that doesn’t even resemble how we might deploy it in the real world).
My sense is that psychologically this is true across the board – the test I’m referring to here is all tests, though it is worse among standardized tests. Preparing for them is a closed loop, one learns skills for taking the test that are irrelevant elsewhere.
Lesson #5: Parents’ worst enemy is each other, the community of parents that they mark as their parental community. Oftentimes this is connected through the school – these are the relationships that are least well grounded, as they are expressed primarily through the scholastic relationship between the students, and so they carry forward in their dynamics the measuring that the school imposes on the two students, making the parents at least potentially competitive in ways that are harmful to their kids. This competitiveness can be of the form that they take the same side, and are both gonna make sure their kids get into top colleges (unlike the other kids), or it can make them competitive against each other, which is more transparently petty.
I have had to argue with as many parents not in the room as parents in the room about whats best for their child – too many will try to do something harmful, or pressure their kid into bad scenarios because they’ve heard from another parent about what “works.”
Lesson #6: “What Works” or “The Answer” — These are problematic constructions sometimes. When we typically talk about finding what works, its usually from a thing we’ve done a bunch, like cooking a steak or making rice, or putting up wallpaper – we know what works from trial and error. Boy oh boy does that meaning dissipate when it comes to future/college/education based anxieties for folks. They often seek a solution that works without being engaged in producing it, so they borrow the solutions of their neighbors in the hopes that it will work for them, when this is futile at it’s core. This is based, I believe, out of an inherited sense of the value of specific answers to questions. We need to have The Answer, because if we don’t have The Answer to a Question, then we become Wrong. The way I’m writing is a kind of parody of Freud, but I see it as a kind of primal scene for one of our own relationships to our minds. We experience the trauma of being marked as wrong over and over again, each test tells us all of the ways in which we are wrong. If we can internalize that, what it shifts in us is a desire for the right answer over the right pathway. If you hit a child for lying they don’t stop lying, they become better liars. We are all of us the children hit by wrong answers, and eventually we learned how to pretend we knew things, instead of working through them for ourselves. This is maybe the hidden goal of our broken system: it desires to produce individuals who know without thinking, who have so many answers they never start asking questions, because they can point at the answers and call it knowledge. Increasingly, what we refer to when we refer to “what works” isn’t based on our own experience or the experiences of people around us, but our fears, and the fears of those around us, masquerading as answers.
This deserves more unpacking in future posts, but these are the lessons for today.