Category: Tutoring

Inspired by this post by LennoxTutoring

The issue of whether or not it is acceptable to make mistakes in front of students, and how we expect or allow them to respond, has always been an awkward one for me. I have had no small number of peers and supervisors insist that I should never admit to any mistake I make in front of my students. Supposedly it’s unprofessional and will seriously damage their faith in me as an instructor. I have found exactly the opposite to be true – their respect for me and faith in me only grows when I am willing to be seen as human and fallible.

None of us is perfect. A perfection culture that suggests it is even possible sets the stage for children to experience errors as some sign that they must not be smart enough, good enough, or hard enough workers. It also contributes to the formation of a lousy work ethic in adulthood. How much more efficient would most businesses be if people stopped burying their mistakes and just dealt with them directly and promptly?

Associating mistakes with feelings of embarassment and inadequacy discourages children from asking questions in class. Thank your students for asking questions. Make sure they know that other people undoubtedly need to know the answer too. You may think that’s so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But the self-conscious teenager sitting in your classroom does NOT always know that. They may be sitting there genuinely concerned that they are the only person in the class who didn’t ‘get it’ the first time around.

Appropriately questioning authority is a GOOD skill for children to learn. My standard has always been that any student who is being civil and reasonable can point out a potential mistake I may have made, or disagree with a position I hold. This has been depicted to me by other teachers as allowing or condoning ‘dangerous backtalk’. To my kids who ‘backtalked’ to me about something by politely presenting a rational case for their point of view – I love you, I am proud of you and if the only thing you learned from me was to approach disagreements this way, then I did the most important part of my job correctly.

Being honest about where my limits are builds a deeper trust with my students. They know I am willing to double-check my answers, to admit to mistakes, to acknowledge when I am out of my depth and can only offer an educated guess or no answer at all. The result is that they have a tremendous amount of faith that what I do tell them can be trusted.

Laughing is good. When I make a mistake, my students and I laugh together at it.

– Seeing me occasionally make certain types of mistakes reinforces the message to students to really watch out for those slips. For example, I sometimes do lose track of a negative sign. The fact that I am still capable of making such an error reminds them to pay extra attention to those darned negative signs!

– Seeing how and when I figure out that I have made a mistake, and how I determine whether I only need to back up a few steps, or need to restart the entire problem, teaches vital lessons to my students. They learn how to tell early on when something has gone wrong, and how they can effectively decide to fix it.

Finally, please understand that the most frequent source of my minor slips is the fact that unlike most teachers, I do the work cold every time and walk the kids through the steps. I don’t have the answer key in front of me and I don’t pre-write how to do it so I have something to slyly eyeball as I proceed. I talk with them as I work it through and help them really understand the entire process. That isn’t just for them; that is also for ME. It keeps my mind razor-sharp because I ‘exercise’ those math muscles intensely every single day. I can’t convince them to love math if I am not willing to show them that I love it, enough to tumble into it madly every day with enough enthusiasm that I just might make a mistake.

How Doth the Little Crocodile

How doth the little crocodile Improve his shining tail, And pour the waters of the Nile On every golden scale! How cheerfully he seems to grin, How neatly spreads his claws, And welcomes little fishes in With gently smiling jaws! – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

There are tips for selecting an individual tutor here. However, so many people still had questions about selecting a large company, that it seems to merit its own entry.


Places that do not use real SAT tests to measure your child’s initial scores and improvement. Anyone who doesn’t take a baseline isn’t really willing to measure your child’s improvement. Anyone who uses their own tests to measure improvement can easily mislead you. Think about it – I could write a subtly harder test for your kid’s first one, and then write an easier one to ‘measure their progress’ – wow, they went up! πŸ™„ Also, make sure your kid times themself on each section – shortchanging a kid on time (or giving them extra for a progress test) is another sleazy way to inflate improvements.

Places that make jaw-dropping claims like ‘We can get any kid to a 2400’ or ‘Our average student score is 2300’ or ‘Our average score gain is over 300 points!’. Noone is THAT good with every single student and even if they were, not every student can get that much out of tutoring. I could easily claim to have an average of 300 points gained. I could LIE. Or I could choose not to include students who didn’t ‘complete their program’ and then just not do the last session with any kid I don’t think will make 300 (that way I don’t have to include them in the average). I could walk them through the exact test I plan to use to ‘measure their progress’, getting them a 300 point gain based on the fact that we JUST went over that whole test together. I could also just turn down any kid I don’t think can get a 300 point gain (and thereby turn down a ton of kids who really need help).

Places that are not willing to refund any of your remaining money if you bought a package and then decide to discontinue tutoring. Again, noone is right for every student. Honest people and companies know that, and will refund some of your money if you decide to opt out. Please note, this is not about getting a refund on tutoring you received; it is about getting ‘unused’ money back on a package deal you chose not to complete. Likewise, rule out any place with a ridiculously long advance notice clause for calling out (over 48 hours).

Places that put a heavy emphasis on ‘tips and tricks’, especially those claiming that every student should always answer every question, that there are predictably easier and harder test dates, or that all colleges superscore . There certainly are tips and tricks to test prep, but a place that is pushing that element is essentially saying to you “I can’t help your kid learn much about how to actually do the problems, but I can say some cool-sounding things that will falsely inflate their confidence!”. And all of the specific ones listed are untrue – any company that is serious about test prep knows that and will not mislead yoru child just to create a false feeling of knowing some inside secret.

I RECOMMEND (meaning there may well be exceptions to some of these):

One on one tutoring over any group or class situation. That said, if you are going for a class, save yourself a ton of money and check out classes at your local library or community colleges. They are almost as good as “big name” classes at a fraction of the cost. If you read that and think ‘it’s worth much more money to me to get even a slightly better result’ then just get the 1 on 1 tutoring, which offers the best possible results. Big name + group setting = not worth it.

Asking for specific details on how the program might be fine-tuned to make it especially useful for your child as an individual.

Consistency in tutors – you want your child to be dealing consistently with a few people, not meeting someone new every session.


Your child is increasingly uninterested in going. I don’t care how much they hate the added burden of test prep, you should be seeing some signs that they are getting used to it and getting something out of it.

Your child has taken a few progress tests and the scores aren’t going up.

Your child says ‘I don’t understand (or can’t do it) the way my teacher explained it and they told me there is no other way.’ There is NOTHING on those tests that can’t be handled in different ways and a quality tutor will be able to deliver.

Your child has a tutor they don’t get along with, and you are being told there is noone else for them to be placed with. A large company should have a decent staff size and be able to provide you with other options. My one caveat to this is ACT Science – this is an area almost all test prep companies are chronically short-staffed on and there may really be only one qualified instructor per location.

You are being told that your child’s lack of progress is because they aren’t doing their homework. Sure, doing the HW will get an even greater improvement BUT the bulk of your kid’s improvement should be coming from their direct instruction. Places that are promoting themselves offering classes to ‘debug’ your kid’s self-completed work are usually very over-priced for what you are getting from them and often quite ready to blame your kid if there isn’t a lot of progress.


Don’t expect anyone to make an outright guarantee. We know you want one. But there are a lot of variables that go into the final results and we aren’t psychic. As for places that do offer guarantees, that almost always boils down to one of three things – your provider will offer more free classes if the goal isn’t met (more of whatever failed probably won’t have much value to you and your kid is probably running out of time), your provider has clauses that will put the blame on the student to avoid making good on the guarantee (don’t put your kid through this) or your online provider is taking advantage of the fact that you will not be able to track them down or force any sort of accountability. A solid smile and a hearty promise may feel better than an explanation about being realistic but believe me, you want the company whose director is willing to be honest and risk losing your business rather than lying to get you in the door.

Don’t immediately panic if an *early* progress test doesn’t show much change. Many kids focus so hard on trying to get one area or strategy right that they slip a little elsewhere. Once those kids get the hang on doing the right things more naturally and combining it with the skills they already have, they often really explode into a great score gain.

Don’t reject information about how your child is not performing the needed work during the session, or is not applying what they’ve learned to their progress tests.

Don’t balk at a reasonable advance notice clause for calling out (48 hours or less). That person or company already lost the ability to put another student in that time slot, and in situations with little or no notice, the tutor may well have made a long commute, only to find out they’ve come in for nothing. It is absolutely reasonable to be charged a call-out fee.

Don’t insist your child only ever have one tutor. Most places have different teachers who excel in different areas, so that rotation may mean they want your kid with the best possible reading tutor, math tutor and writing tutor on different days. Tutors who truly excel at all areas of both tests are few and far between 😎

These are good tips for choosing a tutor, but I cannot guarantee you will get a winner using them, or that you won’t pass on someone who would have been great. Looking for tips on choosing a tutoring company? Check out my How doth the little crocodile blog entry.


  • Do they offer a free diagnostic test from a previous actual SAT test? If you happen to have an existing PSAT or SAT score you are comfortable with using as a baseline that’s fine. But if they don’t offer to help you get a real baseline score first, don’t even meet them. Noone can tell you how much your child has improved without a reasonably accurate idea where they are starting from.

  • Are they willing to explain some problems to you directly, or to your child with you present? If the answer is no, don’t even meet them. Saying “I don’t want to hand out hours of free tutoring or special approaches I use” is fair. Saying “I cannot think of *anything* I can demonstrate to you for free isn’t/

  • Are they trying to convince you they can guarantee a massive increase in a few hours of tutoring, or that they can get any student to a perfect score if you purchase enough hours? Don’t even meet them. Test prep doesn’t work well in just a few hours – you’ll either be disappointed, or discover you are being set up for a ‘oh, I guess we need to do more’ routine. Score gains depend on a lot of factors – noone can get every student a perfect score. Both of these scams usually involve putting the blame on your kids for either not ‘getting it fast enough’ or ‘not trying hard enough’. Don’t put your child through a guilt trip just because someone didn’t want to be upfront about what it would cost and what to expect.

  • Is there any suggestion that you can’t back out once you’ve paid a set program fee? Don’t meet even them. NOONE is the right tutor for every child, and the only ethical thing to do in that situation is refund the remainder of your money.

  • Are they claiming that all students should always answer every question, that they know the secret to which test dates are supposedly easier, or that all colleges superscore? Don’t meet even them. None of those is true and any tutor who doesn’t know that isn’t even trying to stay informed. They just want flashy simplifications that will create a feeling of insider knowledge and magic trick.

Ok, you’ve found one promising enough to meet. SHOULD YOU HIRE THEM?

  • After hearing them explain a few things, ask yourself two questions. Do I believe this person understands the material? And, do I believe they can explain it clearly to my child? We have all had teachers who were clueless and we have all had teachers who were very knowledgable, but didn’t have the ability to communicate effectively with their students. You want someone who can deliver on all levels, non-negotiable. If they don’t make you feel that way, don’t hire.

  • Can they explain what materials they intend to use and why? If not, don’t hire (and frankly, I’d be leery of anyone who isn’t using The Official SAT Study Guide or The Real ACT Prep Guide as a major resource for practice material).

  • Can they explain how they will adapt the tutoring to your child as an individual? Bear in mind, the details will change as they get to know your child better. But they should be able to give you something more specific than “Oh, I always gear it toward the student.” If they can’t, don’t hire.

Great! You’ve found someone who comfortably meets all these criteria. The tutoring seems to be going well, and you feel confident it is helping. But you’re wondering what to look out for along the way, signs that things are even better than you had hoped, that you’ve hit the tutor jackpot. SHOULD YOU BE JUMPING FOR JOY?

  • Does your child enjoy their sessions? No, I am not kidding. If they have had 2-3 sessions and you aren’t seeing any signs that your child is enjoying it at least a little bit, you may want to reconsider your choice in tutors.

  • Does your child seem less nervous about the prospect of taking the real test?You should be seeing their confidence increase.

  • Is your child sharing things with you about the sessions that they think are interesting or showing other signs of deep processing? Did they talk about a great tip they learned? Something interesting in a passage they read? Maybe it’s not even something they mention; you just start to notice they are using a higher level of vocabulary naturally or that their other grades are improving.

These, my friend, are excellent signs that your child is getting a great deal out of their test prep tutoring!


Welcome to Gotham Tutoring’s SAT blog πŸ˜€

I will be using this blog primarily to discuss specific SAT and ACT issues. If you are looking for general advice, it’s out there in abundance and I don’t intend to rewrite all of it. If you find a lot of conflicting information on something, please let me know and I will try to help you sort it out. Blogging is a new venture for me and I’ll be editing a lot. I would appreciate it if you didn’t link to any articles until you know from me that they are ready.