Teacher Preparation

These Preparation Programs Are Creating a ‘Tutor to Teacher’ Pipeline

By Olina Banerji — May 14, 2024 8 min read
Photograph of an adult Black woman helping a female student with an assignment.
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Nicolle Echeverria, a political science major from the California State University, was sure about a career in law. But things took a turn in 2022, when her friend told her about Ignite, an intensive tutoring program for K-12 schools aimed at closing learning gaps.

Now, Echeverria teaches 3rd and 4th grade in the same Los Angeles school she once attended.

“Ignite’s tagline is that they have a deep belief in the potential of every student. That resonated with me. My own education was impacted by a lack of resources at my school. I knew how tutoring could help,” Echeverria said.

Teacher-prep programs and apprenticeships are increasingly leveraging this fresh pool of candidates—tutors—to strengthen their pipelines and give aspiring teachers an early taste of teaching.

Since 2020, when Ignite launched, over 200 college students have transitioned from tutoring to teaching full-time in Teach For America, which created Ignite. Echeverria plans to complete a master’s in education once she’s finished her teaching credential. (TFA recruits typically earn their credentials while on the job.)

Looking back, Echeverria credits her tutoring experience for the skills and confidence she now has as a full-time teacher. “I was much better prepared than others in my cohort,” she said.

Tackling two problems at once

The tutor-to-teacher phenomenon promises to help address two core problems facing the profession: a pipeline that has recently shrunk, and preparation that often doesn’t fully equip teaching candidates for the difficult realities of the job.

First-time teachers have a tough hill to climb—they are often overwhelmed when faced with an unruly class or unfamiliar curriculum. Schools struggle to retain new teachers, even though they tend to be most enthusiastic in the early years.

Tutoring can give them a window in what the job is really like. American University, located in the District of Columbia, has made 40 hours of tutoring mandatory in one of its teacher-preparation courses.

“We get our students into classrooms much earlier than their student-teacher period. They go through training and learn how to interact with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds to build trust with them,” said Ocheze Joseph, American University’s director of undergraduate learning. “It’s good prep, but it’s also a reality check for some students who realize they don’t want to teach.”

The Ignite fellowship has found that tutoring can also be an effective on-ramp to the profession.

Katie Tennessen Hooten, Ignite’s founder and senior vice president, said that the relationship between school students and young adults has a catalyzing power, and can funnel more people into teaching. Of the 108 college students who signed up for Ignite in its first year, 60 became full-time teachers for TFA.

“Our focus when we first started was to cope with the learning loss [due to the pandemic] and to foster a sense of belonging in students. But we also knew that tutoring would be a great way for college students to get proximate with teaching,” Tenneseen Hooten said.

Tutoring’s moment to shine

Every semester, Joseph takes 20 to 22 AU students through the tutoring experience. The university focuses on schools the District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education has identified as high-priority. AU’s student tutors also receive an orientation to the schools where they’ll tutor before they start.

“The challenge is to match the school’s schedules with the tutors,” Joseph said.

The tutor-to-teacher pipeline wasn’t always obvious, or thriving, said Cat Peretti, the executive director of CityTutor DC, a nonprofit that has helped coordinate tutoring efforts in the District.

Tutors were a fractured bunch—some would apply to schools through job boards or take up after-school tutoring for select students. The pandemic has forced organizations like hers to play a stronger, centralizing role.

“We can be the central force to funnel more tutors into teacher-apprenticeship programs,” Peretti said.

So far, 16 states have created their own teacher apprenticeship programs, and OSSE has announced its own program for the 2024-25 school year.

At Bowling Green State University in Ohio, tutoring was always a part of the curriculum for select teaching courses. The pandemic, however, brought money and opportunity into the mix and allowed the university to launch its own tutoring program, Academic Enrichment Camps.

“Historically, we’ve taught and thought of tutoring as separate from teaching. But the pandemic has made it clear that we need a more personalized approach to teaching,” said Dawn Marie Shinew, dean at Bowling Green’s college of education. “Prepping teacher candidates to be tutors is integral to their training. That’s a big shift in my own thinking.”

Shinew now manages the enrichment camps that run both in the summer and in school during the semester. So far, these camps have trained 186 tutors over three years who have provided 7,500 hours of tutoring to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students in reading and math. These tutors are also oriented with the schools they tutor in, and meet frequently with classroom teachers to go over their students’ progress and help tutors align better with their curriculum.

Best practices are emerging, too. For one thing, the tutor-to-teacher university pipelines need definite commitments by the schools to which they send tutors.

“We ask the principals in our partnering schools to sign up for 10 weeks each semester, and not rotate the kids out before the time is up. They pick the number of days and the time commitment. But we push for in-school tutoring because after-school interventions become more limited,” said Nicole McNeil, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame, and the founder of TutorND, a in-house tutor training program McNeil set up as part of her Cognition Learning and Development Lab.

As part of TutorND, college students receive at least an hour a week of training with instructional coaches.

In the current school year, McNeil said 233 students from the university have signed up to tutor, and 40 of them have shown interest in entering teaching.

Before the pandemic, her lab only did limited outreach to potential tutors and schools. “After it, though, the initiative got super-charged. We had more school principals asking for our tutors,” said McNeil.

McNeil’s lab attracts all kinds of undergraduates—from education to math and neuroscience majors. Tutoring helps all of them, McNeil claimed, because it trains them in how students learn.

“As future scientists, school leaders, even parents, it’s helpful to know what you’re signing up for,” McNeil said.

Tutoring skills are a key to teaching well

Most tutoring deals with small group intervention. An advantage for aspiring teachers is that this setup requires them to work with data to target students’ needs, a key instructional strategy.

“Part of the process is to know students at an individual level, try different instructional strategies and then test to see what’s working,” said Shinew of Bowling Green. “Tutors can ask things like, ‘Help me understand how you got this answer.’ That helps them explain it differently for different types of learners.”

And tutoring is also good training on building individual relationships with students who come from different racial and economic backgrounds, and how they can help solve problems like truancy, said Peretti of CityTutor DC. Tutors in Washington help teachersmake calls or text families when students are absent. “It goes back to building good relationships with students from the start,” said Peretti.

For Echeverria, the tutor-turned-teacher from Teach For America, these relationships were critical to her decision to teach full time.

Echeverria said she taught reading to English learners, who weren’t confident about reading in English. “They were initially quiet and would mumble their answers … some of them had arrived [in the United States] recently,” she said. “I told them how as a kid, I was also embarrassed to read out loud. They saw that I understood them. I was on their team.”

Echeverria has carried her tutoring skills into much larger classrooms, which she mostly manages on her own. Now she uses tools like online surveys with her students at the beginning of her class to check how they’re feeling.

“I get to know if they need my attention. Even in a bigger classroom, these skills are useful,” she said.

Financing the pathway

For all the benefits of the tutor-to-teacher pipeline, it needs to be sustained financially to make sense for tutors.

Most tutoring programs pay their tutors a stipend. If coupled with an apprenticeship program, tutors can earn and learn at the same time. Some programs are now tapping federal work study dollars to sustain college students in tutoring long enough to make the shift to full-time teaching roles.

Step Up Tutoring, an online tutoring nonprofit initiative that was created for the Los Angeles Unified school system, has partnered with 25 higher educational institutions that are approved federal work-study partners.

“The work-study dollars have been a great unlock. It’s an opportunity to get to college students before they’ve decided [their careers],” said Sam Olivieri, Step Up’s CEO.

Olivieri said more can be done to increase the number of college students who tutor. Universities can increase the threshold for how much they contribute to work-study programs, devoting more to tutoring as a job.

And credentialing pathways and teacher-prep programs could also recognize tutoring as relevant field experience.

Joseph of AU said she’s working on leveraging work-study dollars, which currently apply to student-teachers but not tutors in general. At Bowling Green, Shinew has relied on federal work-study dollars, a state grant, and a $1 million philanthropic grant to train and send tutors into schools. “Our local school partners need more access to tutors than we’re able to provide. It would be good to have a specific work-study type program to pay aspiring teachers as tutors as an employment opportunity.”

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