Some Tutors Are Shouldering a Wider Load

Some Tutors Are Shouldering a Wider Load

Published: December 14, 2012

KATERINA BARNES was two weeks into her freshman year at New York University when she began to feel anxious and overwhelmed. There was so much to do: navigate a new city, register for classes, find classrooms, buy books.

So she called her mother, Melanie, who got in touch with Becky Fliss, her daughter’s tutor of six years. “I knew she’d be able to handle it,” said Ms. Barnes, the chief executive of Texas Climate and Carbon Exchange in Austin, Tex.

Ms. Fliss, who runs the Austin Learning Center, a tutoring agency, immediately tracked down Tessa Borbridge of Big Apple Tutoring in Manhattan. Ms. Borbridge spent about 30 hours helping Ms. Barnes manage her schedule, pick classes and generally feel more comfortable in her new life.

“Tessa’s been a huge help all around,” said the younger Ms. Barnes, 18, a media, culture and communications major who’s also on the varsity volleyball team. “Not only have I been able to talk with her about academics, but also any issues I’m having with social stuff, teachers or family. It’s really comforting that I can go to her for anything.” They are in touch daily by phone or e-mail, and work together in person anywhere from 15 to 22 hours a week.

Ms. Barnes is one of a growing number of young people for whom the tutor is no longer only study buddy or homework helper, but also a source of general life support. In households where money is not an issue, the tutor’s role is expanding beyond academics to counselor, mentor and personal cheerleader, as well as liaison among students, parents and schools. Think Maria von Trapp, without the singing.

“I feel like he’s bridging the gap between a therapist and a personal assistant,” said Isaac Burg, 15, a second-year student from Brooklyn at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, who sees his tutor about 20 hours a week for help with everything from math to Chinese.

“The tutor is not just a tutor anymore,” said Dr. Sandi Ayaz, the executive director of the National Tutoring Association in Lakeland, Fla., which certifies tutors. “We’re certifying more and more academic coaches. They dig deeper with goal-setting, more critical thinking, with cultural awareness and the emotional intelligence of the student. They help the student look at careers and write essays. They’re dealing with the entire life of the student.”

Some tutoring agencies have psychologists on staff to help determine the best ways to help students. “The psychologist helps us to become more aware of each student’s learning style, teaches us how to motivate him or her to learn best, and instructs us how to most effectively apply our learning techniques and strategies under testing conditions,” said Phillip Ernst, the founder of Ernst Tutors in Manhattan, adding that about half the families he works with request an appointment with the psychologist.

According to Ms. Ayaz, tutoring is a $50 billion to $70 billion industry, with anywhere from 30 million to 50 million tutors worldwide. She estimates that the industry has more than doubled from a decade ago, attributing the boom to the rise of dual-income households, as well as increased pressure to get into a top-notch college.

Daniel C. Levine, 40, a Broadway actor, started Big Apple Tutoring as a side project in 1997, offering help with organic chemistry, physics and calculus. Today, he charges from $100 to $150 an hour.

In the beginning, “It was a mom calling and saying, ‘My sophomore needs help with chemistry,’ ‘My 7-year-old really needs help with reading,’ ” Mr. Levine said. Within a few years, however, he noticed that parents weren’t requesting tutoring in one area, but seeking someone who could oversee a range of subjects, in addition to SATs and college essay preparation.

That tutor became a constant in the student’s life, a trusted elder and guide, and “an integral part of the family,” said Suzanne Rheault, the founder and chief executive of Aristotle Circle in Manhattan. “They are part of any discussion with parents, teachers and students to help a student reach academic milestones and feel good about themselves in the process.”

Ms. Rheault believes any stigma associated with tutors has pretty much disappeared, since they are no longer just for the academically challenged but also for those who simply want “enrichment,” as she put it.

Hannah Speer, 19, who attended St. Andrews, a private school in Boca Raton, Fla., never hid the fact that she had a tutor, partly because “you were lucky if you had one,” she said, and partly because many of her friends shared the same one.

Some families use tutors as often as five days a week, saying it reduces stress while smoothing the educational trajectory of their children. “I stopped having to say: ‘Did you write that paper? Did you do your math homework? Why not?’ ” Melanie Barnes said. “It takes that piece out of it, and then mom can be like, ‘Oh, honey, you’re tired? I made cookies, have one.’ ”

Frances Evans, a retired registered nurse, also knows about this. Ms. Evans decided to home-school her 12-year-old-son, Elliott, who dances with the American Ballet Theater. But instead of doing it herself, she enlisted the help of Kevin Rosenberg, who works with Big Apple, because “I didn’t want that headache,” she said. Big Apple devised a curriculum for her son that was approved by the New York Department of Education’s home-school division. Mr. Rosenberg spends four to five days a week with Elliott, in addition to five other clients, one as young as 4.

“Kevin is very nurturing, hands on,” Ms. Evans said. “He directs Elliott. He keeps it structured. Kevin is part of the family. He’s like an uncle.”

Mr. Rosenberg, 32, said that he takes such responsibility seriously. In the two years since he has been tutoring, he has helped a 13-year-old student who came out as gay cope with severe bullying at school. He has also unofficially counseled two children whose parents were going through a vicious divorce.

The children, a 14-year-old who was his student, and his 8-year-old brother, “would absolutely talk to me about it all the time,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “I would be there every day for two or three hours, so you’re a part of their lives. If one parent were screaming at the other parent on the phone, we’d all hear it. My student might say, ‘God, this is awful.’ My parents got divorced when I was the same age, so there was a lot of sharing. I made sure he knew it wasn’t about him and not something he could control. It felt like a mentorship.”

The lines between trusted mentor and family member can be murky. Mr. Levine has received requests for tutors to travel with families. He also has two tutors who are on call to “manage the entire college career” of the scions of two high-profile families. “The students were very used to having a tutor and assistants throughout their entire life,” he said, “and the family was very nervous about sending the kid to college without help.” The tutors make sure the students are awake in the morning, help them with papers and update their parents on their academic progress.

Elan Naveh, the director of programs at Bespoke Education, which has offices in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, and charges from $150 to $295 an hour for tutoring, spent six weeks living with a family in the Hamptons last summer. But while his official job was to tutor an eighth-grade student in reading and SAT preparation a few hours a day, “I was also his driver and his chaperon in many instances,” said Mr. Naveh.

He did get to drive a Mercedes S500, and lived in a two-bedroom pool house, but the role was confusing. “I wasn’t really part of the family,” he said. “There was still that distinction between family members and friends and the hired help. But when the mom wanted to go out with her friends, I would hang out with the kids, I would take him to a movie, I would hang out with his friends. And then I would also work with him.”

Not every tutoring agency believes that it’s wise to give charges so much attention.

“You have to think about what this kid actually needs,” said Joshua Brown, the chief executive of Brownstone Tutors, whose services range from $200 to $400 an hour. “There are certain kids for whom that constant mentoring and presence is a great thing. But if you have a pretty competent kid who may not be getting all A’s but who is capable and doesn’t hate school, then you want to think twice before you pile up on tutoring.”

Mr. Brown believes a tutor who comes once or twice a week can be more effective than a live-in one, because it makes each session an event.

“Ultimately, the goal of all education is to prepare someone to be an adult and handle the world on their own,” Mr. Brown said. “You can help someone all you want, but if you create a dependence, then you’ve done the kid a disservice, because it’s going to be that much harder for them to navigate the world on their own. I see the job of a tutor is to make themselves unnecessary, like any therapist or helping person.”

Mr. Levine stresses that he runs a tutoring agency and “not a nanny agency.” But, he said: ”When a tutor e-mails mom and dad at 11:30 at night because the student’s mom called frantically, ‘I don’t remember if the report is due tomorrow,’ it’s a fine line. When a teacher calls the tutor rather than the parents because they know that’s the first line of communication, it’s a fine line. But this is what’s happening.”

For Katerina Barnes at N.Y.U., though, having Ms. Borbridge is only a benefit. “I’m just so much more comfortable knowing she’s there,” she said, adding that Ms. Borbridge was the first person who texted her after Hurricane Sandy. “Everyone should have someone like her in their life.”



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