Hello, I’m back in blog-land!
I was out of the country for about two weeks, and then as soon as I got back I was scrambling to finish a long-term freelance writing job (non-academic & paid!) that was due yesterday.
I’ve also been getting into the swing of my new tutoring job. In June I applied to work at an SAT prep company. I was really excited when I heard back the day after submitting my application. It turned out to be just a screening call, so they could make sure I sounded like someone they wanted to interview, but I passed. The next day I got a call from someone else to schedule the interview for the following week. There were three parts: first I had to actually answer about a dozen SAT questions, then I had to give a mini teaching demonstration, and then there was a proper interview. I did fine on the test, felt a little nervous during the teaching demo, and I know I could have done a bit better on some of the interview questions. But I was offered the job at the end of the interview.
There was a two-day training session the next week. I and about a dozen other tutors were taught the company’s curriculum and test prep philosophies. All of us tutors seemed to be in more or less the same demographic: 20-somethings who already had other jobs or were in grad school and looking for extra part-time work. The employees doing the training were all very nice and knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the company and its mission. After the training, we were each required to meet with one of the regular employees and do a sample lesson to make sure we were on the right track. And then we were on our own. In terms of how well it prepared me, it really wasn’t that different from TA training at my university. (Which is to say, it helped a little, but I was mostly on my own.) Except that this work is far less regular. I barely had any jobs until the second half of August, but now it’s really picked up and will continue to do so up to October 6, one of the two most popular SAT test dates.
So this is the job description: I go to individual students’ houses and, during each 90-minute session, teach them the techniques that are supposed to help them improve their test scores. There’s a particular strategy for answering each type of question, for deciding which questions to skip, and for knowing when to guess. We practice by working through sample tests, and then I assign them homework.
As far as how I like the work, it’s complicated. First, and probably most importantly, I genuinely like most of my students. If they are bright, I like them because that makes my job easier. And if they have a good personality, I like them because that makes my job more enjoyable. If they have both, then they are my favorites. However, and this is point number two, I am really cynical about the work itself. I am not there to help students engage with the subject matter, to show them new ways of thinking about things, or to help them grow anything in the gardens of their minds. I am there to teach them cut-and-dry techniques for approaching tricky, unrewarding material. It is the reduction of test-taking to exactly the opposite of what it should be. And it’s not that I think that standardization is wrong or that the SAT is a bad test. It’s just that when I step back and think about what exactly I’m doing, it’s not the kind of work that makes me feel all happy and fulfilled. Another thing that doesn’t make me feel all happy and fulfilled is that–point number three–I feel like hiring a test prep tutor screams wealth, privilege, and entitlement. I am much more interested in helping disadvantaged kids reach a level playing field than in helping the ones who already have everything going for them bump their test scores another 50 points. And I, as a test prep tutor, am just the tip of the privilege iceberg. This weekend I was trying, and failing, to schedule my next lesson with a student because her after-school schedule is packed with another test prep tutor, another academic tutor, and a college application tutor. A college application tutor? I didn’t even know there was such a thing, except for sketchy overseas operations where college admissions officers get paid to help international students write their essays.
I feel like I’ve just picked up a rock and exposed a rotten, filthy underside that I sort of knew was going to be there but didn’t know the full extent of. Of course I was aware of, and have very strong opinions about, the fact that it is disproportionately rich kids who are getting accepted to and getting to attend the colleges of their choice. But I hadn’t really thought about the intricacies of how that happens. It’s not just because their alumni parents aren’t applying for financial aid. It’s also because they are getting targeted, customized help with every last detail of their college application materials. How is anyone with less access to such resources supposed to compete?
On a purely economic level, I don’t know how sustainable this work will be for me. Scheduling is tricky since the only way to get to most of these homes is by car, but I don’t own one. I borrow my partner’s, which means I need to fit my work around his schedule. At the training they made it sound like it was super easy to schedule a bunch of lessons in the same area on the same day. But in practice that’s turning out to be more difficult. “Trixie really just prefers to play her tuba every day after school, so that rules out weekdays.” “Nancy has tae kwon do practice every weekday, so her tutoring will have to be Saturday afternoons.” “We like to make sure George has plenty of downtime, so we really can’t do weekends.” Et cetera. So I’m expected to bend over backwards and do whatever it takes to fit my life around various whims and preferences. To be fair, I would probably expect the same if I were paying what that they are. But I doubt they have any idea how small my cut of that fee is. Granted, my hourly tutoring rate works out to be about three times the local minimum wage. And I get paid for any prep work I do, at a rate slightly above minimum wage. I also get reimbursed for gas and tolls. Sounds great. But wait, there’s more: I don’t get reimbursed for the hours I spend driving all over the state, working out impossible schedules with inflexible parents, emailing back and forth with my supervisors, or writing up the progress reports required after every lesson. On Monday, for example, I left home at 12:30 and returned at 6:00. Of those five and a half hours, three were spent tutoring. The other two and a half were spent in the car. And then I spent at least another half hour writing up my reports from those lessons. If you spread that out, the pay rate stops looking so impressive and makes me start to rethink the whole thing. It’s not that much better than what I would be making at, say, an office job, which, as an added bonus, wouldn’t require all the footwork around scheduling.
I plan to stick with it through the end of the year, but in the meantime, I might also apply to a temp agency….