After a dozen years as a classroom teacher and private tutor, I know the routine well. Like clockwork, October and March bring new report cards and parents start to get nervous. “An F in chemistry? I’m afraid I can’t help you there; let’s find you a good chemistry tutor.” This is the kind of dialog I imagine taking place in many households around this time. And chemistry is just an example – “insert subject here” and the reaction is the same.
But that low letter grade on a report card can indicate many things – maybe the teacher is bonkers; maybe one major assignment was weighted too heavily; maybe the student can’t see the board and is afraid to say anything; maybe that particular class is a source of social anxiety; etc. And let’s be honest – in most high school classrooms, students are essentially graded on their ability to keep track of, complete, and submit paperwork (i.e. homework), instead of their mastery of the material. (Not a good state of affairs, but it’s a topic for another day!)
No, in my experience the actual subject itself is not the problem. I’m convinced that most struggling students need help with something far more fundamental: They don’t know how to read. Okay, of course they can read. But they don’t know how to read. Most students can read just fine and at the appropriate level; but they don’t know how to read for comprehension, how to separate details from main ideas, how to skim effectively, how to notice subtleties and shades of meaning. There are ways to teach these things, and a skillful tutor can make a big difference for the student.
Obviously, reading is fundamental, but there are other base issues an experienced tutor can address. Many students just need help learning to manage their time, especially if they are busy with extracurricular activities. Some students need a mindset recalibration, an understanding that their struggles are not because they are stupid, but because they do not yet understand what it takes to succeed in that class (see Mindset by Carol Dweck).
And the class in question may require a specific skill set. Some classes are heavy on memorization and regurgitation – that’s fine, but there are particular skills needed for a class like this, and they can be taught. Writing is another essential skill that may be the main reason for a low grade. Or maybe your visual learner is being bombarded with auditory notes in class, and needs strategies for translating that information into visual form.
This is why you should invest in an experienced educator who can identify these needs. In my early days as a private tutor, it took me months before I realized some students were failing simply because they were not writing down their homework assignments in a planner. After years of research and one-on-one consultations with struggling students, these days I can isolate a student’s main learning need in just a session or two.
In short, every child is unique, as is every class and every teacher. That means a child’s academic performance is a complicated thing. So simply throwing money at a subject tutor is too simplistic a solution; in fact it’s rarely a solution at all. Take some time and find an experienced educator, someone who understands the myriad skills required for academic success and is able to address them with your child. And there’s great news – your child will not just be improving his chemistry grade; he’ll also walk away with skills he’ll use for the rest of his life.