How Team Tutors helps students succeed academically from home

The widespread coronavirus has forced schools around the world to close classrooms early, throwing a wrench in the educational trajectory for teachers and students. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries have been affected by school closures caused by the pandemic. Many have pivoted to remote learning and online courses, often taught by teachers who have had to quickly shift their entire curriculum and teaching materials to a digital platform.

“It’s been a challenge for both me and the students,” says Sydnie Ho, a Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school teacher. “It’s impossible to tend to students’ needs when there are technological disparities, and it’s hard because I can’t be there to support them. Many of my students don’t have adequate access to internet services, or even devices that would allow them to be present without glitches during the online class, which is primarily through Zoom.” Ho adds that most of her time is spent showing students and parents alike how to transition to the new digital platforms and access learning materials. The issue is often exacerbated when the parents do not speak English.

New research estimates that by September, most students would have fallen behind by many months, with some students even losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains. Parents who have been quarantining in the house with their children have struggled to engage with them academically and have turned to tutoring services, mom blogs and even social media influencers to find creative and mentally stimulating ways to keep their children active.

“I think that every school, every teacher and every student has probably tried their best in moving quickly to online learning, but some students haven’t been able to transition very successfully, especially the younger ones,” says Nathalie Kunin, founder and CEO of Team Tutors, a tutoring service for students in kindergarten up to 12th grade.

Tutoring as an essential early-childhood learning tool

Team Tutors was founded in 2000 by Kunin, who was then a fourth-grade teacher. “During my time as a teacher, I realized that there was a market in Los Angeles for tutoring and test prep,” she says. “Leaving the classroom was sad, but starting my own business enabled me to further take my expertise in education, strength in talking to parents, and hone in on targeted teaching in a way that I wasn’t able to do in the classroom. This opportunity really brought all of my strengths together.” Now in her twentieth year of running a tutoring business and growing the company to 75 staff members and educators, Kunin believes that tutoring is more crucial now than ever.

“We’ve seen an uptick in tutoring demands, and I’d say that 95 percent of our tutoring is now happening online,” says Kunin. “One of the areas where we’ve seen a lot of growth is the demand for homeschooling. We’re hearing a lot of parents saying that they don’t feel comfortable yet sending their kids back to school in the fall.” With the biggest clientele age range spanning from kindergarten to sixth grade, Kunin understands that asking for social distancing from children is a tall order.

In addition to this shift, many parents are looking at tutoring to provide daily structure for their children. “Our peak was around spring break, when the stay-at-home orders meant that no one could leave the house,” says Kunin, although there has also been a spike in public interest for Team Tutors’ services for the summer months. “It was around that time when we launched about 15 different mini-classes on Zoom, and our most immediate and largest sign-up was for our ‘interior decorating’ class, where children could sign up with friends and virtually redecorate their bedrooms. We literally had gaggles of little girls who wanted to take this class, and it was so cute. I really got a kick out of the fact that this was our most popular class during peak quarantine because it was something fun and provided some of that social interaction that kids were missing.”

Will e-learning replace classrooms?

“There [are] a lot of resources available online, in terms of instructional materials and communication platforms, but that can be overwhelming and frustrating because most of my time as a teacher is spent on researching what’s best to serve the student,” says Ho. “In short, I don’t think distance learning will replace classrooms.”

Kunin agrees: “Especially for young children, kindergarten through sixth grade, nothing compares to classroom learning.” But she does believe that virtual tutoring services will continue to play an important supplemental role. “I think that for students at a high school level, it’s really convenient to be able to schedule tutoring sessions online because they just have so many extracurricular activities,” Kunin says. For areas such as test prep and AP courses, the virtual method seems to work best.

“We actually invested a lot of money into the virtual test prep aspect,” says Kunin, “and having invested early in this technology and platform allowed us to be the leaders when COVID-19 struck, because many companies weren’t able to offer their courses virtually right away.”

Test prep for the SAT and ACT, to more niche tests like the ISEE that’s required to enroll in private schools, have all seen a jump. “We had already done the lion’s share of the work; our materials were all set up for virtual test prep when the virus hit, and all of the materials are accessible online,” says Kunin. “I don’t think that’s going to change for us, and I think this method of learning will only get more popular.”

Pivoting with the PPP loan

When COVID-19 initially struck, Kunin and her team of tutors also had to find ways to pivot quickly and move everything online. “Everything had to move fast, and we did some really targeted retraining for our tutors,” says Kunin. “The part that was really difficult was scheduling all of the new and different time slots for virtual tutoring, because now more children were available at different times and most of these children had distance learning taking place at different times with their schools, too.”

Given the abrupt change, Team Tutors looked at the most effective ways to fill in any gaps that students might face during their time outside of school. “We actually made a lot of changes logistically, invested heavily in virtual platforms, and learned about the changing financial landscapes for some of our clients, as well,” says Kunin.

She wanted to retain her team and saw a possibility. “We decided to take a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, which enabled us to keep things under control and focus on the areas that could help families and students the most without having to worry too much about the payroll side,” Kunin states.

When she initially applied for the PPP loan, however, Kunin never heard back from her bank. “It’s like our application vanished into cyber space. We didn’t even get a confirmation number, we didn’t receive any updates and we didn’t get to speak to a live person,” she shares.

When the federal government issued a second round of PPP funding, Kunin decided to work with Agnes Lew, senior vice president and director of private banking at East West Bank. “She came in right away, and we worked with her team all weekend long, and by Monday afternoon, we received our PPP loan,” says Kunin. “Thanks to East West Bank and the PPP loan, we didn’t have to furlough anyone, we didn’t have to let anyone go, no one had to take a reduction in salary, and all the tutors that wanted to stay with us were able to do so.”

Advice for parents with children who may be struggling with remote learning

Being highly observant of your child’s behavior is key in identifying red flags, especially for those in their early years. “The early foundational years from kindergarten through sixth grade is a significant piece of what sets students up for success,” says Kunin. To best support a positive learning environment, Kunin suggests looking at these three pillars:

  1. Social belonging, where a student feels a part of the school community and engages regularly with peers and teachers alike.
  2. Academic rigor, where a student feels like he or she can demonstrate critical thinking and feel like they’re being challenged with engaging courses.
  3. Emotional stability, where a student feels good about learning and is generally happy to be mentally stimulated.

One of the key things that Kunin has seen among children with the onset of COVID-19 is the increase in anxiety levels. “Even before the pandemic, students face a lot of pressure in a competitive world,” she says. “Everyone’s working hard to be successful, and I think that many children today are struggling with anxiety over schoolwork.”

For many children who are unable to confide in someone, they simply shut down. “If you notice your child’s anxiety levels growing because they’re comparing themselves to other children at school or because they’re struggling with their studies, reach out to a specialist,” says Kunin. “Anxiety and confidence are like two sides of a scale. When anxiety is up, confidence is down, and when anxiety is low, confidence is high. And one of the key indicators of a successful student and a happy learner is their confidence.”