After two consecutive COVID-disrupted academic years, schools desperately need tutors to help students catch up to their grade level. Districts flush with federal money are ramping up tutoring programs, even relaxing some certification and training requirements.
Retirees who fill the void say tutoring helps them connect with younger generations, contribute to a stronger community, and even earn some extra money. “Nothing is more rewarding than children wanting you,” says Linda Burgin, 78, a tutor in Potomac, Md., who notes that because classrooms are so full, many students rarely get the one-on-one attention tutoring can provide. “Their faces light up when you show up. You’re able to focus on them and give them a sense of caring, a sense of success.”
To be sure, education has changed a lot since your childhood, so if you want to become a tutor, experts recommend that you do your homework, commit to training, find the role that’s right for you, and bring a sense of curiosity about your students.
A Range of Opportunities
Finding a tutoring role can be as easy as calling up your neighborhood school and asking if they need tutors for reading or math, the subjects generally most in demand. Or you could apply for a job with a private tutoring program such as Kumon, which accepts students as young as three, or Kaplan and Princeton Review, which are best known for helping high school students prepare for their SATs.
But think more broadly because many nonprofit organizations work with communities that have tutoring programs outside of schools for students and adults of all ages and backgrounds. Many of these organizations not only place tutors but also train and support them, experts say. AARP’s Experience Corps, for example, runs tutoring programs in 22 locations around the U.S., with more than 700 volunteers serving 2,100 students over the past year. “We help students succeed, we help older adults thrive, and in doing so we help communities grow stronger,” says Mioshi Moses, vice president of Experience Corps at the AARP Foundation. All tutors attend at least 25 hours of annual training covering technology, literacy basics, and social-emotional learning markers. The program has an 80% return rate for volunteers.
Other tutoring programs can be found through the AmeriCorps initiatives for reading, math and early learning; Reading Partners; Volunteer Match; and the AmeriCorps retired senior and volunteer program. “There are so many roles you can play to support a school and community,” says Eunice Lin Nichols, co-chief executive officer of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization that brings together change-makers of all ages. “Most of them are desperate for help and they need people who are available during the day.”
You don’t need to commit a lot of time. It’s not a 9 to 5 job, says Jennifer Boller, director of quality assurance for Tutor.com., an online tutoring company that lets tutors set their own availability. It’s more important to be consistent and show up when you say you will.
Positions may be voluntary or paid. Rates for tutoring vary depending on the age of the student and subject, ranging from $10 per hour to $100 per hour or more. The average hourly pay for a tutor in the U.S. is $24.74, according to Indeed.com. Private companies and schools pay more than a nonprofit program such as AmeriCorps. “Depending on how much you’re interested in tutoring, it can help bridge that financial gap before you qualify for Social Security,” Boller says.
There are other payoffs too because of the relationships formed between tutors and students. Often those relationships span not just generations but cultures, with learning a two-way street. “In a lot of the relationships that are developing, you get this cross-cultural sharing,” Boller says, such as one non-Hispanic tutor who watched the movie “Encanto” so he could better connect with the Hispanic girl he was tutoring.
In fact, teaching students, especially older pupils, inevitably opens a window onto a world that many older adults aren’t always familiar with. Martha Koushel Raskin, 68, a retired certified public accountant in Richmond, Texas, volunteers as an adult literacy teacher and coach. Her students taught her how to use WhatsApp and introduced her to home remedies from their countries of origin. “I learn a lot from them,” Raskin says. Similarly, Erica Eisdorfer, 64, a retired bookseller in Carrboro, N.C, stays current on world events because her adult literacy and U.S. citizenship students range from Afghan refugees to Uyghurs. “It takes you out of your own small bubble, and that’s one of the reasons I really like it,” Eisdorfer says. “Each word that they learn makes their lives easier. You can really make a difference.”
In schools, tutors may be surrounded by students, teachers and volunteers of all ages, with everyone learning from each other. For tutors, sometimes those lessons are about the harsh realities of other people’s lives, especially children’s. “Most older adults learn for the first time about redlining and food insecurity,” Nichols says.
Tutoring also helps retirees stay connected. “When individuals retire or leave the workforce, they often lose their strongest social connections,” says Moses. Reducing that isolation through teaching helps boost an older adult’s mental and physical health. The AmeriCorps Seniors program found that 84% of volunteers report stable or better health after one year of service, and 88% of those who were lonely experienced less isolation after volunteering. “Tutoring students can really give you a purpose that may be missing from your life,” says Boller. “You’re staying busy, you’re challenging yourself, and that can stave off medical conditions by keeping your brain stimulated.”
A Brave New World of Teaching
As with any role, it may take some experimenting to find the right fit, and you will need to adapt to new ways of teaching. Be prepared for schools to look and feel different than when you were a student. Instead of rows of desks with a teacher lecturing at the front, you’re likely to find clusters of desks, a cozy corner with beanbags, and alternate seating like Adirondack chairs, rocking chairs, motion stools and wiggle cushions. “Some kids can’t sit still,” Moses says. “They may need to move around the room or walk while reading.”
Some subjects, like math, are taught very differently today, so consider how much re-learning you want to tackle. Make sure you have a textbook or similar resource materials. “At the end of the day, you don’t have to be the subject expert,” Nichols says. “Most students just need someone to walk them through what the teacher provided them.”
Resist giving students the answer and instead help them overcome a learning hurdle. “Ask, ‘Have you tried this before?’ or ‘Show me which step might be causing you trouble.’ Boller says. “We want to be thoughtful about involving and engaging instead of just doing it for them.”
Burgin, the Maryland tutor, likes to be creative and adapt the tutoring sessions to what the student needs. She tutors through Oasis, an organization that works with school districts to pair older volunteer tutors with young children from kindergarten to the third grade. For example, she might bring in games to engage a new-to-reading student with visuals that connect to words, or cut up a magazine together to create a vocabulary booklet out of pictures.
Consider what age you’re best suited to teach. Some people who are brilliant at higher education can really struggle to connect with young students. Other tutors love the impact they have from spending just a few hours a week helping a child learn to read or grasp numbers. “It’s amazing that feeling when the students get it and you know you’re part of that,” Boller says.
Young children are also different today. Many are familiar with complex concepts such as identity, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and injustice. “The sophistication of language and thought and what kids are experiencing on a day to day is different,” Nichols says. “If you’re an older adult walking into that situation, know you’re going to learn a lot.” In fact, bring a sense of humility, she says. “What young people want is somebody who will be a good listener, who is willing to learn, who isn’t going to lecture or assume that because they’ve lived a long life, they know everything.”
Burgin agrees: “If you go into tutoring like you’re the brilliant person and they’re the needy one, it’s not going to work. It’s like dealing with anybody, child or adult. You have to meet them where they are.” K Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist, speaker and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, Medium, Mother Jones, The New York Times, Parents, Slate, USA Today, The Washington Post and Working Mother, among others. She's been an EWA Education Reporting Fellow, Fund for Investigative Journalism fellow and Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. Residencies include the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Ragdale. A Harvard physics graduate, Katherine previously worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse and Bloomberg News, covering everything from financial and media policy to the White House.
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