Connecting Students To Tutors That Families Can Afford!
hen I was in middle school, I was a struggling student. I attended a charter school with high academic standards, and I was barely keeping up. Every time we had a new assignment to do, or a new test to study for, my frustration would grow. I eventually fell so far behind that I was in a constant game of catch-up, never ready for the new topic that the teacher would present. Finally, I stopped trying altogether. It was complete apathy, brought on by the hopelessness of knowing that, no matter how hard I tried, the class would always be two or three steps beyond my reach. My family took the brunt of my frustrations. Home was the only safe place to blow steam. This was a very difficult time in my growing years.
My academic career began to change in the ninth grade. A new student had become my best friend. She was funny, she was kind, and she was also the smartest girl in the whole class. She was the one who taught me that there was no such thing as being “gifted”… just that some students had better studying techniques than others, and that no specific technique was right for every individual. After class, we would sit together on the picnic benches outside of school and do our homework together, but it didn’t feel like how homework used to feel. She was my friend and a hard-working student. She knew how to empathize with my frustrations and showed me tricks that helped me to get over those frustrations. Soon, I was enjoying the hard work of studying. I will never forget the day that the teacher held up a graded history test, announced that it was the only perfect score in the entire class, and then handed it to me. It was the greatest moment of pride I’d ever experienced in school to that day! I had my own hard work and my best friend’s guidance to thank for that.
After graduating as a straight A student and starting a career in college as an honor’s student, I decided that it was time to share my wisdom with some other struggling students. A family friend had a son who was really struggling in his Latin class, so I volunteered to tutor him in the subject.
“I remember absolutely hating Lain,” I told him on our first day. “All that useless stuff to memorize! It made me feel like my brain was turning into a hamburger.”
He looked at me with with surprise and laughed. I don’t think he expected a tutor to empathize with his frustration. That was the first step. He knew then that I was a peer, not a superior. As we shared stories of our struggles through conjugations and ablative absolutes, he eventually began to relax as he approached the subject. We started from the point where he first fell off of the tracks, and I taught him tricks to help with memorizing Latin vocabulary. I remembered all the pointers given to be by my best friend in high school, and I even made up a few new strategies right there on the spot. He liked being part of the creative process, and he eventually no longer needed my help. He had become completely self-motivated. He tackled his Latin homework like he would a crossword puzzle. It was hard, but the accomplishment of completion with the correct answers was it’s own reward.
My own personal pride was elevated with my students’ success. I started to advertise on Craigslist. Soon, I had students all over the city. Every day, after my college courses, I was meeting up with my students at their homes, at libraries, and even at coffee shops. After I graduated, I started a full time job with regular 9am to 5pm hours, but I was determined to keep up with the tutoring. I thought I could make it work, but eventually the time that I spent driving from student to student began to cut into my available tutoring hours. I wasn’t sure I could financially afford to keep tutoring.
I found some relief when two of my students, a brother and sister, had to move out of the state. The parents were so pleased with my work with their children, that they asked me if I would be willing to continue tutoring then using Skype(TM). What a revolutionary idea! I had been using Skype to talk face-to-face with my out-of-state friends for years. It was free, easy to use, and I wouldn’t have to sped forty minutes driving to their home every Monday and Wednesday.
We gave tutoring through Skype(TM) a try, and it worked! It was such a success that I encouraged my other students to try it as well. Because I didn’t have to drive anymore, I was able to lower my rates and add more students. It was a win-win for both sides!
I started to do some research a year ago. I wanted to see what other online tutoring options were out there. I couldn’t believe that most of the options out there did not offer face-to-face tutoring with some sort of medium like Skype(TM). Being able to see and hear my students, and for them to be able to do the same with me, was so important. With my method of tutoring, it was as if we were right next to each other, looking through a little window (the computer monitor). I could see my students and tell, just by looking at them, if they had a tough day at school. I could hear in their voices if they were confident in their responses or if they were just guessing. It just didn’t seem right!
For a moment, I thought that I might have been mistaken about the techniques of online tutoring. Maybe there was something more to the faceless whiteboard and voiceless message box. I tried a free session with one of the more popular online tutoring websites. To my amazement, the responses I was getting through the messaging box were blatantly automated. My full time day job happens to be working for an educational software company, so I knew what to look for. I was chatting with a machine! There might have been some human being at a desk that was monitoring my session (or maybe several students’ sessions), but it was plain as day that these were automated responses and tutorials from a computer. How can a computer teach a child who is struggling to learn because they are too frustrated to try?! How can a computer figure out those personal details about a student that make so much of a difference? I was further surprised that they dared to charge the same rates that a real life in-person tutor would charge to come directly to the student’s home.
This simply didn’t seem right. There had to be some option out there that offered online face-to-face tutoring. After quite a bit of digging through google searches, I finally found one. I will not mention the name, but I will tell you that my jaw just about hit the floor when I saw how much they were charging–$80 per hour–and this was only if a 40 hour package was purchased. That came to over $3,000. What kind of average family could afford that?! It didn’t seem fair. I knew what had to be done. There needed to be an online face-to-face tutoring option that was not only flexible, but that covered all subjects at all levels and was affordable enough for the the average family. Thus, Homepage Tutors was born.
I personally like to think of Homepage Tutors as an online network of students and tutors. In my research, I found that most families looked for in-home tutors using one of the three following methods: through their school; through a family or friend; or through Craigslist. I wanted to create something that expanded the market of tutors (offering more subjects and more available hours) and made it easy for busy parents to stay consistent with (keeping it affordable, portable, and adaptable).
I started my search for tutors with my alma mater and contacted Shaun McGonigle, who was not only a successful tutor for the university, but who I had worked beside as a coach for one of the university sports teams–the fencing team (yes, fencing, the Olympic sport). After discussing it thoroughly, I explained that it would be easiest to maintain affordable rates by first recruiting college students as the tutors, and later expanding to include professors and teachers in the professional world of teaching.
There were several criteria that I created for the kinds of tutors I would recruit. First of all, I wanted to make sure that the tutors would be good students, themselves. Some of the best tutors I ever knew were fellow classmates who understood the material better than I did. Then, I wanted to make sure that they had already demonstrated the ability to teach. There was no better place for me to start than with the fencers I had once coached. There were many among them who were seasoned tutors, and most of the entire fencing club consisted of high-scoring college students. I spread the word among the fencers, detailing the specifics of Homepage Tutors. Once I had a handful of well-qualified tutors, got them all trained up and ready for online tutoring, we were ready to begin.
The first test runs took place over the summer of 2012, and were a huge success. Though we are still in our developing phase, I believe that most of the kinks in our system have been worked out. My goal for Homepage Tutors is to turn it into the easiest online tutor finder in the country, and to eventually expand overseas. Right now, we are starting with my home state, and will hopefully be in a constant state of growth.
I hope that this little history has informed and entertained you. Please be sure to check on us regularly to see what our progress is, and definitely feel free to send me an email and let me know how you think we can improve ourselves.
Amber Nichols, Tutor and Founder of Homepage Tutors