By Dr. Thomas Haferd, Managing Partner
Many years of experience in education have taught me to hire staff for Stellar Learning Center based on the principle that learning is a very personal activity. It is best supported through connections made in the moment, and with the support of skilled and caring instructors who know their content well but also have great interpersonal skills.
For example, our Summer Intensive Language Immersion classes meet for three hour sessions, five days a week (four days a week for high school students). This intensive and immersive program requires that students are challenged by their instructor to push themselves daily and to take risks as they learn to communicate in a foreign tongue and then return the next day ready for another challenge.
The Peace Corps language trainers identified common traits that lead to effective language learners:
- Ambiguity: Successful language learners can live with a lot of ambiguity in everyday situations.
- Trust: Effective language learners believe and trust the people around them; they trust that those people will help them understand and become a part of what is going on.
- No definite answers: Successful language learners are comfortable with many shades of gray. They realize that what is right or wrong, linguistically or culturally, is often determined by the situation, not by an ironclad rule.
- Community involvement: Effective language learners participate in the community and interact in the language as much as possible.
Our instructors are selected based upon their ability to create an environment that fosters those traits: a place where children can have fun and be challenged to take risks. Taking risks is not easy. Children need to feel safe and supported while they stretch their comfort zone and explore the unknown so that they can advance in proficiency more rapidly. We seek out instructors who display the ability to provide exceptional energy to every situation, stay safe, have fun and gently push, redirect, encourage and guide students to learning that they own and treasure.
We value similar skills in our selection of math tutors. Math is a language that families know is critical to academic success in college and careers. If you ask a student what they want to do during the summer or after school, likely responses do not include doing math. However, it is precisely the ability to make math fun and accessible that distinguishes our math tutors from others.
We focus on mathematical habits of mind that are useful in many areas of life, but are essential to achieve success in math. Children find that success at math is really enjoyable. Math habits of mind do not fit easily onto worksheets, nor are they easy to demonstrate in step-by-step methods. They require the same ambiguity, trust, no definite answers and community involvement required of learning a foreign language. These habits of mind can be learned if fostered by a skilled tutor, one with a sense of humor who also knows the satisfaction of completing a difficult task and is patient with the inevitable up and down progress that is characteristic of learning.
The tutor pays attention to three productive activities while students are engaged with challenging math content:
- Consistent modeling of mathematical thinking
- Giving well-timed pointers to students that help them shift or expand their thinking, or that help them pay attention to what is important
- Making it a habit to ask a variety of questions aimed at helping students organize their thinking and respond to mathematical prompts
Great math tutors pay attention to two valuable aspects of questioning. They pay attention to the intention of their questions as a pathway to developing mathematical understanding. They pay attention the mathematical context in which the question is asked, especially attentive to the precision of the language they use when asking the question. Therefore, we hire tutors who are gifted mathematicians who are also able to communicate clearly and precisely, using language that is easily understood by their students.
A typical way this is done is by reversing a routine calculating task to challenge students to undo the calculation as well as to do it: “Now that you have a good handle on using a factor tree, answer this: What whole numbers have three factors, including the factor of 1?” Or, by asking “what if” questions from which tutors extend beyond a single context to a more general situation.
We expect that our students develop organizational skills as well as academic skills. We value a clean, safe, organized class atmosphere, work space and course materials. Our staff ensures full compliance with all Center rules and regulations at all times. This reinforces the sense that students are safe and well protected. It also reinforces high expectations for the students.
Finally, we seek out staff who are masters of recording systems and online technologies so that families can be kept abreast of student progress. We truly appreciate that learning is a team effort, and that what happens in the tutoring session is just one piece of the whole.