Sheltering parents are shelling out for virtual tutors

by Myelle Lansat
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Sheltering parents are shelling out for virtual tutors

Sheltering in place can be difficult if you’re balancing your own work and your child’s schoolwork. To help, many parents are signing their children up for additional virtual courses to build on their school work and occupy their kids’ time.

Juliet Travis enrolled her 12-year-old son, Dash Schmunis, in courses from the educational platform Outschool three weeks into Oregon’s statewide shelter-in-place orders.

At first, Schmunis was reluctant to take virtual courses. “When [my mom] first signed me up for classes, I thought it would be things I wasn't into. But then I saw the classes and it was cool — [my mom] incorporated things I enjoyed doing like Dungeons and Dragons,” Schmunis said.

There’s been an increase in demand for virtual tutors in wake of the coronavirus, said Tammy Wenhame, a certified elementary education instructor through the American Board, a nonprofit providing online teacher certifications. For the past 16 months, she has been teaching Pokemon-themed writing courses on Outschool, an educational platform offering live classes to children ranging in age from kindergarten to high school.

Wenhame has altered her homeschooling and work schedule to help address the demand for virtual tutoring. As a result, she has already doubled the amount she earned in 2019 in the past five months alone.

Students enjoy taking classes they’ve chosen

Outschool offers a variety of classes, ranging from shoe tying 101 to AP physics and can cost anywhere from $5 to $100 or more. Similar to Outschool, sites like Chegg, The Princeton Review and SpecialEdTutoring.com offer virtual resources, tutors and courses.

It’s rare for students to pick out their own courses until their last few years of high school, but students can have autonomy over their virtual courses, with their parents’ permission.

The Dungeons and Dragons-themed math course Schumis is taking on Outschool has him solve math problems before he can make moves in the game.

“It’s enjoyable because it fits my hobbies,” he said. “I’m doing school stuff that I need to learn and it’s really fun.”

Wenhame says classes like hers can be a way to focus on something aside from the pandemic. When statewide shelter-in-place orders started, Wenhame said her writing students would say things like, “I’ve been stuck here for two or three weeks,” and she would respond by asking: “Who’s your favorite Pokemon?”

“You have to acknowledge it, but move on because, you know, we're going to have fun,” she said.

How virtual courses work

Virtual lessons are additional coursework that your child can engage with to further their academics. Wenhame teaches Pokemon-themed writing classes that follow the common core standards or homeschool standards for writing, depending on the course curriculum. Her classes are less than an hour and accommodate fewer than eight students per lesson, so she can help each student individually. She holds live classes five times per weekday and pre-recorded classes on weekend nights for students in Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

Wenhame said the only way to engage students in additional schooling is gripping the child’s interest. She uses Pokemon as a springboard to teach creative writing, descriptive writing, narrative writing, and lessons on comparing and contrasting.

“It could be Minecraft, it could be Pokemon, it could be Star Wars — but when they're engaged in the topic, when they know something about the topic, they feel they're there and their writer self confidence explodes,” she said.

Virtual courses can complement traditional schoolwork

When a student has command over the knowledge, instead of searching for it, they can dive right into the lesson, said Wenhame. With a Pokemon-themed writing class, the students can write about what they know. She said this method builds student’s confidence as writers. Wenhame may not have access to her student’s outside schoolwork, but parents tell her taking her course helped their child express their ideas on paper.

“When [students] can release the ability to express themselves and that confidence grows, that translates into other courses they're taking in Outschool, or in their charter school, homeschool, public or private school, because it's unlocking the confidence — so that is what they leave my class with,” she said.

How parents can help their kids stay on track

Travis never considered herself a “helicopter parent” until she started sheltering in place with her family. When her son was at school, Travis knew he was completing his lessons during the day, eating lunch and exercising. Now that he’s home, she quickly learned that a schedule was the only way to ensure all three. She sets weekly schedules every Sunday, after his teachers email the upcoming week’s coursework. A typical day will include class times, mealtimes and exercise blocks. To help stay on track, Schmunis emails his teachers to make sure he’s up to date with his coursework and copies his parents, so the entire family is looped in.

Wenhame follows a similar schedule model for virtual tutoring and homeschooling her children, Just like adults, kids need a routine, she said. “We have a schedule and we follow it.”

If you’re looking to incorporate additional virtual lessons into your child’s schedule, Wenhame suggests being flexible. You can focus on two hours in the day or two days out of the week that fit your and your kid’s schedule without feeling overwhelming.

Wenhame suggests getting ahead of your student’s schoolwork — and inevitable questions — by reviewing their work ahead of time. “The biggest struggle I see is parents are really not in tune to what their students are doing in school,” said Wenhame. “[You] can become the expert for your child and review their work or assignments before they start them. So when they come up to you with a question, you don’t have to say ‘wait a minute, let me look that up’ — you already have a general understanding and don’t have to waste time looking something up.”

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