When is it time to get a tutor?

One of the best resources for a homeschool parent is kids who were homeschooled and are now grown up and hated it. It’s kind of like knowing your personal weaknesses so you can avoid them. It’s always important to hear the negative opinions.

The most common complaint I hear is that kids were sheltered from scientific basics, like evolution, and they blame their parents for keeping them in the dark in the name of religion. That’s a good complaint for me to hear, because I’ll never do that to my kids so it makes me feel safe.

The second most common complaint is that the parents were incompetent at teaching math and science so they let the kids fend for themselves. There’s a good chance that I am guilty of this neglect as well.

I was in my son’s room while he was learning metric conversions, for example, and he didn’t realize that you actually need to memorize the conversions. He thought somehow he’d just figure it out by getting problems wrong and then seeing the right answer. And, actually, he would eventually figure it out, but I think he’d also figure out that he would learn math much faster if someone were helping him.

Then we took a trip to Seattle. (For music camp, of course. It’s always music camp.) My son brought his biology textbook. It’s the type of textbook that I used in high school. Or actually, didn’t use in high school. It’s so heavy that I stopped taking it home with me which means I pretty much stopped doing homework. My high school had a rule that you couldn’t graduate without a science class. But they didn’t have a rule against getting d-minuses, a loophole my teachers mercifully understood.

So anyway, at the airport we had to move the textbook into a different suitcase because it was ten pounds too heavy.

At the camp, which is at a university, we slept on bunk beds in dorms. My cousin slept in the bottom bunk his freshman year of college and his roommate rolled off the top bunk and spent freshman year in traction. I told the kids this story while they complained that I was putting the top bunk mattress on the floor.

Next day. Imagine me, on the mattress on the floor in the midday sun. The textbook is in between me and my son on top of rumpled sheets and he is taking the end-of-chapter comprehension test. I try to think, in hindsight, what in God’s name made me think I could help him with this task. And I think it was the cross stitch project by Alicia Watkins. It is biology, but it speaks to me. Each microbe is quaint and tidy and beautifully envisioned with perfect little x’s. I like needlepoint, even if I’m not great at it, and then I like the Whooping Cough one.


So I thought, I guess, that I like biology.

Now imagine me going through the chapter trying to find the part about hierarchical taxonomy. I try to tell my son what we are looking for. “We are skimming,” I say, as the impatient corner-cutter talking to my rule-following son. I cannot tell him what we are looking for, though, because I cannot pronounce the word taxonomy.

Have I ever heard someone use this word? I don’t think so. I have no idea what it means, but it reminds me of the IRS, which is, after all, very hierarchical.

My son realizes I have skimmed the chapter twice to no avail. He puts his head in his hands. He says, “This is never going to work.” He says, “We can’t do this test.” He says, “This is taking so long.”

I must have post-traumatic stress from the three years it took my son to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin, the hours of arguing and crying and me telling myself, “I can’t give up. It will be worth it.” I tell him, “We are not doing this again. You are not throwing a fit. I’m not listening to complaining every day for the rest of my life.”

He says, “Mom. I’m dying. I can’t do this. It’s too slow. It’s not working.” He whines with that learning-Twinkle whine.

I skim, telling myself just look for an x. Not many words have an x. But it turns out, in biology, lots of them do.

He says, “Mmmmmoooooooommmmmm.”

And I tackle him.

That’s right. Tackle.

I have a rule in my head. An unbreakable rule: I cannot hit my kids. But tackling somehow seemed okay. I sort of jumped off the mattress enough to get on top of his head. I wrapped my arms around his head, pulled him close and took him down like a football player, and said, “No! We are not doing this again! Stop complaining! I’m just trying to help you! Shut up!”

Then I got up. He was crying.

I told him to go outside and take a walk.

I sat alone, on the mattress, with the biology book. And realized it’s time to get at tutor.



32 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    Personally I find that if there’s a serious goal you can’t achieve on your own and through the available resources then get help. The good worthwhile help.

    I hear your son complaining about how slow and excruciating the process is. Not about how bad or ridiculous the subject is.

    And I think this is such a great thing to learn. When you’re stuck figure out why and find a way out. Find the solution to the problem. Get a shortcut. Or remove the delay.

    This is probably one of the best things to learn because it’s applicable in any stage of life all throughout.

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    From my own personal experience with learning on a difficult subject or topic, I don’t like struggling through the work with someone who is on the same level. It’s so much easier having someone who knows it well, explaining it to you so you can move on quickly to what you are trying to achieve.

    Like when I was taking finance math and had this problem to solve: An investment of $3,000 is made at an annual simple interest rate of 5%. How much additional money must be invested at an annual simple interest rate of 9% so that the total annual interest earned is 7.5% of the total investment?

    I spent a lot of time “whining” my way through these problems, thought I figured it out, but in the end I really didn’t. Then when I found someone who was an expert to explain it to me, instead of working with people at the same level, I got it and moved on.

    I have found grown homeschoolers myself who experienced selective science from their parents and were left to fend for themselves with math, they are anti-homeschool… or at least they were until I told them about tutors.

    Geez, I love this post for so many reasons. I love hearing about music camp, the stitching photos, and your links to OLD posts with cute chubby-cheeked kiddos, but the best is that you are someone who is willing to take a different route and still tweak it to satisfy your needs. I love having a tutor, it makes me so happy because then I can focus on math and science, and the tutor can do the other stuff I don’t like…

  3. redrock
    redrock says:

    I never really understood why it is perfectly fine and readily apparent that a music teacher has to be hired to teach an instrument but the very same thing does not occur to most people for learning science. As if you could learn science by osmosis (something for your son to check out :-) )

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I was thinking the same thing but refrained from making the comment because I figured that it had already occurred to her.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I can see the argument too, but at the same time, both my brothers taught themselves guitar… from a book. And they were both in a rock band and totally amazing.

      I try not to over-simplify, but I know that in some cases it’s needed to make the argument. I didn’t need a teacher to learn how to be on a computer, the internet, or video games… but I admit that some people’s minds work completely in a different way than mine works. It’s hard to understand, for me, but I try not to have high expectations of other people. Thus… why I think it’s ok to over-simplify a scenario.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        It was more a remark as to what is generally done and accepted. I personally think it is perfectly fine to have a teacher for any science one fancies and for any instrument one desires to learn. Teachers can help to accelerate advancement and to avoid common pitfalls in comprehension – being able to discuss what appears to be counterintuitive on first sight with a teacher can be very enlightening. That does not mean you can not learn on your own – different paths for different things depending on once own preference.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I realized that… experts make things so much easier to learn. There are those rare people that become experts all on their own… I envy them.

  4. Stormclouds321
    Stormclouds321 says:

    My kids really want across stitch disease kit now. Is there any way to find a parts of the cell and stuff like that? You have perhaps found the one thing to make science pleasant for my oldest! Thanks!

  5. Jennifer B.
    Jennifer B. says:

    That science business is really going to come back to bite Christians and homeschoolers both. :-(

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Homeschooler here, and I guarantee you that won’t happen in my home. My office looks like a science lab. My husband is an engineer and he sends sh!t to space. We are both inventing something as we speak. So don’t tell me that my kids are being set up to fail in science… that. wont. happen. period. I can’t speak on the other group you lumped me with.

      • Jennifer B.
        Jennifer B. says:

        I am also a homeschooler — and a Christian — so when I speak I do so as a member of both groups. I did not lump anyone with anyone — actually, I deliberately mentioned the two groups separately, since I know many Christians who are not homeschoolers, but who do teach their children an exclusive literal interpretation of Genesis — nor did I use the words “set up to fail,” but I can tell you with assurance that it is not happening in my home either.

        I say that it will come back to bite Christians because their children, when they find out their parents were so far wrong, and so willfully wrong, on this subject, they will likely reject what their parents taught them on other things, too — in particular, since the subjects are linked, on faith. And I say it will come back to bite homeschoolers because if homeschoolers develop a reputation for sending students to college ill-prepared, it hurts all homeschoolers, not to mention giving ammunition to the opponents of homeschooling who would like to see it regulated out of existence.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Ah… well that was a better explanation. Your original statement, lumped homeschools AND Christians as a group of people who are ill-equipped to teach science. I’ve never met so many scientists (outside of my husbands employment and schooling) until I started homeschooling and reaching out to other homeschool moms, who just happened to be engineers and scientists. Our geography probably plays a big role in this… I’m not sure where you are, but L.A. is pretty big and open. There are many co-ops and science museums that cater to homeschoolers to teach science… I can only empathize on a limited basis because my own experience is different.

          • Jennifer B.
            Jennifer B. says:

            I’m in Alabama. As luck would have it, I was at a really nice science museum today (the McWane Center in Birmingham) looking at a replica mosasaur skeleton. Alabama also has it’s own unique variant of a T. Rex (Appalachisaurus?). So there are good resources here too, fortunately.

    • Alicia
      Alicia says:

      The “science business” is coming back to bite Americans, period http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090312115133.htm. Yep, some HSers are screwed with regard to science knowledge, but that really is just a drop in the bucket compared to general science knowledge rates. Not that we shouldn’t express concern, but let’s fry that bigger fish first before we get to the catfish nuggets (though, I love me some catfish nuggets, especially with a side of hot sauce).

      • Jennifer B.
        Jennifer B. says:

        You’re absolutely right, and that’s why I keep recommending Hazen and Trefil’s book (Science Matters; I’ve mentioned it here before) to anyone who reads. Unfortunately that’s not going to help the vast majority who don’t read, but I’m laboring in that field, too.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Hey, I got that book last week. It’s really good. It sounds like you are gonna have an uphill battle, teaching selective science is not teaching science. If you aren’t teaching evolution because it doesn’t fit your narrative… then you aren’t teaching science. I would rather spend my time with like-minded people, it has become increasingly difficult for me to make any sort of emotional bond with someone who believes in a literal 6000 year creation narrative… I wish I didn’t have to have those conversations, it would be easier, but because I homeschool… most of the moms I meet homeschool and it comes up in conversation. Keep trying though!

          • Jennifer B.
            Jennifer B. says:

            I’m glad you like the book! What I’m finding is that I’m not all that unusual in rejecting the literal Genesis, it’s just that people are afraid to speak up because there are some powerful people who clamp down hard on dissent (witness Ken Ham’s full frontal assault against the Christian singer who spoke openly about the subject, just today) . Like I said, it’s going to come back and bite them.

  6. Alicia
    Alicia says:


    I love that you are postings. I don’t always agree, and I vacillate between thinking, she’s nuts/no she’s brilliant. Isn’t that what they say about all the great thinkers? I do have to say, that when I saw the title “When Is It Time to Get a Tutor?” and the cross-stitch photos I thought, “It’s time to get a tutor when you’ve convinced yourself that cross-stitch as a highly effective pedagogical tool for retaining science knowledge…” ;-) Keep posting — and if cross-stitch is your thing, great — but hopefully just as a nice hobby! As for me, I hope I know when to stay away from the cross-stitch and call the tutor instead. I wonder what the “cross-stitch” is in my homeschooling plans. Is there anything I need to shore up this year by getting outside help? I think that will always be the question that homeschoolers should ask themselves from time to time, though, like other posters, I don’t think you can pre-judge what that might be until the time comes — and tutoring in a given area may only need be temporary to get your student over a hump before they might be better off with self-study or another method.

    • Heather Bathon
      Heather Bathon says:

      This is the curriculum we’ve been using for 2 years; first for chemistry and then biology. Some of the mnemonics are a wee bit corny and the graphics look home-made, but the content is first rate, easy to follow and thorough. I highly recommend it.


      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Oh, neat! Thanks for that feedback. My daughter is starting the chemistry and then we will do biology 2. I really like the curriculum and it’s better than I could have come up with on my own and I think we can still unschool even if someone else is designing the curriculum for us.

  7. MBL
    MBL says:

    Interesting. I just happened across a link from a homeschooling site’s (homeschooldiner) click-o-matic what is your homeschooling style. The link was to a tutoring service in India (tutorvista). I have no experience with it, but, apparently you can get unlimited 24/7 access to live tutor’s on various subjects. The cost is $99-$149 a month depending upon whether or not you add voice or term length. Could be interesting. Homeschoolers could put a major hitch in their projected hrs/month usage. :D

  8. Courtney Ostaff
    Courtney Ostaff says:

    FWIW, I’m teaching history for the Well Trained Mind Academy (classical homeschool education), and they’re offering biology (with and without lab) this fall. Might want to look into it.

  9. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    Penelope, this story is ridiculous. You are a blogger. Your kids use their computers all the time. It never occurs to either of you to type the word “taxonomy” into the search field of a browser? (Google: “about 92,800,000 results”)

    Have you learned nothing from your years of internet use? If you haven’t taught your kids to do that, what have you taught them?

  10. redrock
    redrock says:

    and the conversions between metric and english units don’t just fall from the sky – they are deeply rooted in how the two systems developed: the first one from a desire to find a measure independent of the dimensions of the human body and a system which allowed to trade easily between countries – a foot was defined differently in each country, sometime even differed in magnitude between cities making trade really difficult. The english system developed historically and is due to its odd multipliers (8, 12 anyone?) much harder to use in a scientific or trade context than the decimal metric system. And there are only three countries who still adhere to the english unit system in US, Myanmar and Liberia. And another interesting tidbit: check out “Mars Climate Orbiter ” for conversion mistakes, really expensive ones.

  11. MBL
    MBL says:

    Hey, if cross stitch isn’t your thing, perhaps Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane might be.
    (will this fly without the w’s?) math.cornell.edu/~dwh/papers/crochet/crochet.html

    From a Guardian article on the recent (first female) Fields medal winner.
    “Most of the problems Mirzakhani works on involve geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations. She has a particular interest in hyperbolic planes, which can look like the edges of curly kale leaves, but may be easier to crochet than explain.”

    The article is worth a read. As a child growing up in Tehran she went from wanting to be a writer to a mathematician. theguardian.com/science/2014/aug/13/fields-medal-mathematics-prize-woman-maryam-mirzakhani?CMP=fb_gu

  12. Jen
    Jen says:

    it’s “tax-ON-o-MEE”

    Try the Khan Academy videos. Watch them together–they’re not bad, and you can learn alongside.

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