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51: How to Help Our Kids Excel in School | Alexis Peterson

Summary:

Alexis Peterson is a Stanford- and Harvard-educated private tutor with over 19 years of professional tutoring experience. She scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT as a junior in high school and has amassed an extensive resume of perfect and 99th percentile test scores since. Alexis shares tips and tricks to help your kids actually ENJOY learning and test prep: a goal that’s more achievable than one might think!

Quotes:
  • “It’s virtually impossible to tailor a lesson to every student’s learning style.” – Alexis Peterson
  • “The difference between a tutor and a parent is that a tutor, we’re not intervening with any of the judgement that perhaps if a student tells their parent, I got a 50 on this exam and I got a 50 because I honestly didn’t do any of the reading, and also I forgot I had an exam that day. The parent tends to react as a parent first, whereas as a tutor, my reaction is not one of disciplinary action. Mine is, okay, that is a reasonable reason to get a 50 on an exam. To me, what I’m hearing is it’s probably not a conceptual issue, but maybe more of an organizational issue.” – Alexis Peterson
  • “I have always appreciated compliments more when I was complimented on something that I had to choose to do or something that I had to put in effort to achieve.” – Alexis Peterson
  • “You can be working toward ever greater accomplishments and not seeing those grades change very much.” – Alexis Peterson
  • “Rewarding that time and effort and investment in the process and being fully engaged is just so important.” – Emily Melious
Highlights:
  • 1:17 – How can our kids enjoy tutoring and test prep
  • 3:16 – Problems in the education system
  • 6:37 – The solution to a one size fits all approach
  • 8:05 – How to help tailor your kids’ education to their needs
  • 12:23 – Achieving a 1600 on the SAT
  • 17:54 – Imposter syndrome and maintaining a reputation
  • 24:16 – Strategies to help your kids improve their grades and test scores
  • 26:37 – Get in touch with Alexis
View Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Mothers of Misfits: Welcome to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Join me for conversations about how to advocate for our kids in a one size fits all world. Be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode.

[00:00:14] Emily Melious: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Mothers of Misfits podcast. I’m really excited for this conversation because frankly, I just love talking to Alexis, and I think she’s awesome and does such great work with families and students. So let me tell you a little bit more about her. Alexis Peterson is a Stanford and Harvard educated private tutor, with over 19 years of professional tutoring experience. Get this, she scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT as a junior in high school and has amassed an extensive resume of perfect and 99th percentile test scores since. Alexis founded Alexis Prep in 2016 in order to help as many students as possible actually enjoy tutoring.

[00:01:02] What an interesting two sets of words that don’t normally go together. And test prep, a goal that has proven more achievable than one might think. Alexis, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

[00:01:15] Alexis Peterson: Thank you so much for having me.

[00:01:17] Emily Melious: I feel like enjoy, and tutoring, and test prep are like saying jumbo shrimp. Most people feel like that’s an oxymoron. Is that really possible? Is this really something, Alexis, that our kids can come to enjoy?

[00:01:32] Alexis Peterson: I would say absolutely yes. One of our subspecialties has become, students who have previously worked with a tutor, and did not enjoy that experience at all. First of all, I think the reason that tutoring can be super fun for students is that one-on-one attention. Which, is unfortunately, it really is lacking in a typical educational setting, through no fault of anyone’s, but just as a direct result of how many students are in a typical class.

[00:02:00] And so having someone, an adult, that knows exactly what you’re learning, and is fully in your corner. I think that’s a really, actually unique and exciting experience for a lot of children. So there’s that aspect. And then the other aspect is, I always say my goal is to be kind of the cool nerd.   We’re a team of about 15 now, actually. And so everyone who is on the team has been hand selected, because they are a person that I would love to spend an hour with a week, or an hour with twice a week. And so, if the student likes the tutor, then they look forward to tutoring. And yeah, we’re covering subject matter that maybe isn’t the most enthralling for the student, but it really is a fun time for the student.

[00:02:46] Emily Melious: So you touched on it a little bit, in that there are some things that are broken with any system, but education included. We were talking just before we recorded that, it’s hard to provide that kind of individualized attention. Teachers are already feeling overwhelmed and in the conditions now with COVID and virtual learning,  so many things are different and a lot of things on their plate.

[00:03:09] And being able to tailor the teaching to each and every student just feels totally unrealistic. So what are some of the problems that you see happening in a traditional education environment, and particularly what’s the damage of a one size fits all approach?

[00:03:29] Alexis Peterson: I think you touched on it actually quite perfectly.   It’s virtually impossible to tailor a lesson to every student’s learning style. We function on the principle that everybody is different. Everyone’s brain is different, everyone learns differently, and there’s no way that you could efficiently teach a classroom where everyone is different , in a way that really resonates with everyone. So, the one size fits all approach, the potential danger there, I think is that students who learn markedly differently from their peers, might actually think that there is something wrong with them. That they are perhaps slower than their peers, or just not academically inclined.

[00:04:09] And that’s usually the furthest thing from the truth. And having a tutor that can come and explain things to you in a way that makes sense with you , in a way that connects with you. That not only has clear impact on your academics and your grades, but also on confidence. As a tutor, that’s probably, more than the grades, more than the test scores, that’s the part that matters to me the most is watching student confidence increase.

[00:04:36] Emily Melious: You are so spot on.  In my work, I’ve worked with over a thousand students at this point. And I also utilize the assessments and research done by Dynamind. We actually had Nicole Loucks who’s the COO of Dynamind on the podcast. Their research is astounding to really that impact that you just talked about. That when, kids are in any environment, particularly in a school environment, that causes them to go against their grain, learn in ways that don’t come naturally to them. And another shocker is that’s actually 80% of students. So the overwhelming majority of students are stressed out every single day, and they are not set up for success in terms of the expectations on them.

[00:05:30] And the fallout from that is that they totally disengage. And we see two big milestones for that, right around second and third grade, and then right around seventh and eighth grade. And that child that had that zeal for learning, has totally shut down and that’s very difficult to revive. And then as you also said, their confidence and their mental health. Those students feel something’s wrong with them. They feel very damaged. Many of them are even referred to a testing for cognitive disorders, which may or may not actually be present. Cause again, it may just be a misunderstanding of how they naturally operate, which is not something that’s good or bad it’s just different.

[00:06:13] And then that affects their self-efficacy. It affects their mental wellness, anxiety, depression, those kinds of things. So the fallout from this one size fits all approach. Is really serious, but yet that’s what a lot of parents are faced with. That’s my heart behind Mothers of Misfits because when you see this happening to your child, you’ll do anything to help them get that tailored approach. So do you feel the solution is that everybody should have a private tutor? Should we be matching up outside of the school system with that one-on-one attention for every student?

[00:06:50] Alexis Peterson: In my ideal scenario, that would absolutely happen. I realize that there are some major practical hurdles there, not the least of which is a typical tutor is expensive. Many families can’t afford that. Many families wouldn’t even be sure where to turn. That is the unfortunate issue.

[00:07:10] We as a company, we do try to get out there and we mentor students and we have scholarships. And so we try to bridge that and we would, we would love to see a scenario where every student was getting that one-on-one academic attention and reassurance. It is unfortunately a really tall order.

[00:07:28] Emily Melious: And maybe if you’re a parent who doesn’t have those resources, it can come from you. Maybe it’s about taking the time in the evenings, which I know is hard. We’re all exhausted, we’ve had long days ourselves. But sitting down and you know your child best, having a conversation about what they’re learning or helping them with their homework in a way that works for them.

[00:07:53] And that might be tweaking the expectations of the assignment a little bit, but if you’re getting to that end result and they’re actually learning the material, that’s worth it. And I mean, do you feel that it’s attainable for parents? Is there an approach that you’d recommend that we take to work with our kids, and tailor what they’re learning more to their needs?

[00:08:16] Alexis Peterson: That’s a really good question, especially because one of the number one things I hear from parents is how frustrating it is to try to help their student with schoolwork. Either because the parent has forgotten the basics. I hear a lot about parents that have forgotten how to work with fractions or probability. And so there’s some fear with the parents and what’s actually being taught and having forgot the subject matter, but then they also report that their students are unwilling to listen to them. The difference between a tutor and a parent is that a tutor, we’re not intervening with any of the judgment that perhaps if a student tells their parent, I got a 50 on this exam and I got a 50 because I honestly didn’t do any of the reading, and also I forgot I had an exam that day. The parent tends to react as a parent first, whereas as a tutor, my reaction is not one of disciplinary action. Mine is, okay, that is a reasonable reason to get a 50 on an exam. To me, what I’m hearing is it’s probably not a conceptual issue, but maybe more of an organizational issue.

[00:09:29] How can we tackle this? How can we make it better? I think that if I were trying to tutor my child, I admittedly don’t have any children, but I could imagine that we would have conflicts like that in the parent child relationship. I know for a fact, when my father was my tutor when I was in high school, there were a lot of tears at the kitchen table. So I do think that, there can be some extra kind of baggage brought into the parent-student relationship there. But I don’t think it’s impossible. I don’t think it’s insurmountable. I would say, take it small. Break off small chunks, maybe start with a subject that you would both enjoy working on together.

[00:10:11] And trying to leave any of that parental role behind, to the greatest extent possible for the time that you have set aside for tutoring.

[00:10:21] Emily Melious: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I see how that can be a real challenge for parents to take off that parenting hat, and be more of a partner in that instance and resist that knee jerk reaction of, what? You didn’t know this was a test? You didn’t study for this test? And instead be a problem solver with them.

[00:10:43] Okay. So now we know what happened. We can sort of do a post-mortem on that. How can we solve for that next time? And I like that your approach is results oriented. Here’s the result we’re all trying to get to, right? What is the goal? Okay get an A, or get a certain percentage. And here are the things that didn’t get us to that goal.

[00:11:04] So how can we rethink our methods? Let’s try a different approach, one that hopefully works better for you, given how you naturally organize or how you deal with information, that will get you there. And I think that’s a good framework for having those kinds of conversations, but you are so right. That, ooh it is hard, I mean I’ll speak from experience, to separate yourself from that parenting role, but that’s often what shuts down the whole conversation. And causes them to, not only not want to be in a tutoring session with us, but probably to hide some results or not even have conversation, particularly if they’re not feeling so great about how they’re doing in school. There might not be any communication about that.

[00:11:45] Alexis Peterson: That is a serious problem, that actually tutors have a much easier time getting past, which is the honesty component. Students seem to be, on the whole, a little bit less willing to be perfectly honest with their parents in terms of confessing errors, especially ones that seem to be a little bit more character based. Not so much, oh I just didn’t understand, but I forgot, I was disorganized, I missed this deadline, I made a mistake. And there is a bit of fear. They will confess that to tutors a bit more willingly, has been my experience.

[00:12:20] Emily Melious: Yeah, that’s so interesting. That makes complete sense. Okay, Alexis, I have to ask you, what is your secret? How did you get a 1600 on the SAT?

[00:12:32] Alexis Peterson: I was, I suppose, lucky.

[00:12:37] Emily Melious: No, no one believes that Alexis. It was not just luck, but I’ll let you finish.

[00:12:46] Alexis Peterson: To be fair, there really is a significant amount of luck between say, a 1580 and a 1600. There is a good amount of luck there I would say. That said, I was lucky in that the house that I grew up in, my family, made test taking seem not stressful. I was given brain teaser books and Mensa kids’ books for as long as I can remember as birthday gifts, holiday gifts.

[00:13:15] And I was really encouraged to try my hand at challenging problems, and I never felt that there was any negative repercussion for failing.   So if I got a question wrong, someone would be there to explain to me what I did incorrectly, and congratulate me for as far in the process as I had gotten on my own correctly.

[00:13:40] And they were like, oh, you just missed this last step. Or you just didn’t draw this radius in, or something like that. So I felt very, very positively about tests, challenges, and I felt none of the anxiety that I think surrounds the whole testing experience for so many people. Therefore, I showed up to test today and I didn’t feel any stress.

[00:14:05] I showed up to test day and I felt unwarranted confidence. Another test, how fantastic. To be fair, my first attempt at the SAT, I did not get the 1600. I came home and cried, and my parents asked me why I was crying.

[00:14:20] And I said, because I wanted a better score. And they asked me what score I wanted, and I said 1600. And they actually got mad at me, and told me that was a crazy reason to be crying. That did not deter me in the least, and so on my second attempt, I showed up and was like, 1600 time here we go. And I also believe that kind of crazy unwarranted confidence is a key component.

[00:14:44] And I, I do tell that story to a lot of my students and tell them if they can have that crazy confidence, they should embrace that. They should try to cultivate that because it does, it helps tremendously in high stress situations like a test.

[00:15:00] Emily Melious: Yeah. We actually had a confidence expert come on the podcast, and she talked about how to instill confidence in our kids. And that is so critical. It’s a game changer, not just in the good times, but in the tough times, that’s really where that confidence comes out. I love that you talk about you were in a family and in a culture that praised the progress and didn’t focus on the gap. A lot of tests, at least the way I’ve perceived them to be, I think a lot of schooling, is seen as a measure of how you don’t measure up, right? It’s about where you don’t hit the mark, what you got wrong. And the expectation of a perfect score is usually not there. In fact, a lot of teachers and professors think that if a lot of people are getting a perfect score, it might just be too easy. The kind of environment that I grew up in was all about, not false praise, but rewarding and praising the effort. And the fact that I was motivated, I was engaged, and I put in effort. And yeah, I didn’t get a perfect in that moment, but I got really far. So I feel like that’s a big golden nugget from what we’re talking about today is, that adjustment between again, how far you’ve come, not how far you have yet to go.

[00:16:18] Alexis Peterson: Absolutely.

[00:16:19] Emily Melious: Your dad though, had a funny reaction. I actually get where he’s coming from. When you came home and said I got a 1600. So tell us about what happened.

[00:16:30] Alexis Peterson: So I was actually cornered at school by my college counselor and the head of school. And they said, have you seen your SAT scores yet? And I was actually kind of pinned against a wall. I’m six foot two, and so I was about a full head taller than these people, but was kind of backed against the wall.

[00:16:49] And I didn’t know where this conversation was going. And I said, I had not seen my SAT scores yet. And they were both, they were so excited. I felt like they were inches from my face. And they told me you got a 1600. And so I called my parents , to give an indication of my age, from a payphone, and told them and my father’s immediate reaction was, don’t tell anybody. And I said, okay, I won’t tell anybody. That lasted maybe two hours, because then I was walking down the hall and the college counselor was a few people ahead of me, turned around and I don’t remember what she yelled, but something about the perfect score. And my best friend was right behind me. And kind of cross her arms and was like, what perfect score? So that was the end of the secrecy. But I did try to keep it under wraps as long as possible until I made it my full-time job. And now it’s on the internet and everything else.

[00:17:51] Emily Melious: You didn’t follow that direction real well there, Alexis. But this does bring up a very real issue and challenge, particularly for gifted students. And for those that have a track record of doing very well on things like tests or other educational challenges or measures, is imposter syndrome. Cause I can only imagine that when you achieve a 1600 on your SATs in high school, and everybody knows you as that girl, then now you have a reputation to maintain. Can you talk about imposter syndrome, maybe your own feelings with it, or what you see in other kids?

[00:18:32] Alexis Peterson: My own feelings with imposter syndrome, I feel that especially in school, kids would say things like, oh, Alexis is a genius. And I would always correct them and say, we have absolutely no proof of that whatsoever. I’m good at one specific measure, which is the SAT. I am good at the SAT. That’s what we can say. To me, that’s not actually imposter syndrome. To me that is practicality. I’ve always struggled to even identify if I do suffer from imposter syndrome, or whether it’s just being realistic, because it is true. I am good at standardized tests and that, that is just one measure.

[00:19:14] What I see in students that I actually rail against a lot is, it’s actually more with female students. And I will see female students and male students who are getting the same grades, let’s say in a math class, and they are struggling equal amounts with a given concept. And I am helping the female student just as much as I am helping the male student.

[00:19:42] And what I see over and over from female students is extreme self doubt about their ability in math. And so when we talk about potential fields of study or potential careers, the female students will tell me, oh, well, I know I’m not going to take any more math classes in college. I know I’m not going to go into a math related field because look how bad I am at math. And the male students, again, same grades, same abilities. When I talk to them about future fields of study, future careers, they tell me, oh, I’m going to study engineering. I’m going to study business or finance. And they don’t shy away from those math dominant fields. And, that is something I’ve started actually actively pointing out to my female students is I hope that you are not making these decisions based on what you perceive to be your ability in this field, because your ability is just as good as anyone else’s. Just as good as students who are telling me they are going into these fields. So if you are interested, please pursue that. That is something that I’ve noticed time and time again. And I do what I can to help encourage students when I see them doubting their own ability and, restricting their future possibilities as a result.

[00:21:02] Emily Melious: And the labels we use for ourselves. And the labels we give for others or our kids are so important. A friend of mine, Zach Mercurio, he also happened to be on the podcast talking about mattering. He talks about, instead of saying, I am a, we talk about, I am becoming. Because when we say something like, you’re a genius, it takes away from your effort.

[00:21:30] Oh, that must’ve been easy for you, or that was just who you are, instead of what you worked hard and invested in. And what you’re still working hard and investing in. It goes back to how your parents rewarded the effort you put in to solving those tough problems. You may or may not have gotten the right answer, but you got really far and you worked at it. Might be well-intended and say, oh, you’re smart, or you’re a genius, or you’re great at this or that.

[00:21:58] I think it’s actually so much more powerful to say, wow, you put so much effort into that schoolwork. That’s incredible. You worked hard to get that grade. I admire how much you’re invested in that. Or in that baseball game, I know that was the result of lots of practice and lots of hard work and lots of time. And look how that bore out for you on the baseball field. It’s much more about praising the effort, and yes recognizing the result, but in light of the effort. 

[00:22:33] Alexis Peterson: I have always appreciated compliments more when I was complimented on something that I had to choose to do or something that I had to put in effort to achieve. As opposed to, I mentioned I was tall, being complimented on my height. I did nothing. And when I’m working with students, I go out of my way to compliment specifically things that the student did as opposed to something that might be a more innate trait.

[00:23:01] The other thing that I didn’t necessarily like about being called a genius, aside from the fact that I sincerely doubted the factual accuracy of the statement, was that it made it seem like this was not an achievable thing for everybody. That you had to have something inherent in order to be able to get a perfect score.

[00:23:26] I don’t think that’s true at all. I probably didn’t have that precise thought when I was in high school, but certainly since. I think it’s really a matter of determination and mindset, as opposed to some inherent ability . I believe people can be coached to phenomenal performances.

[00:23:51] Emily Melious: That is so encouraging. And I really do think our kiddos need to hear that though, right? It’s not, but you just were blessed at birth your fate is sealed. No, you can work at this and this is what you are fully capable of accomplishing. And that’s just so important that they hear that, it’s not

[00:24:12] who you are it’s who you’re becoming, right? So let’s get into the nitty gritties. I want to close with you sharing some really practical strategies for parents to help their kids improve their grades and test scores.

[00:24:27] Alexis Peterson: Practically, I would say the number one thing that parents and students can do to improve grades is to talk about what is not working just as much as what is working. And to talk about both of those things with really neutral, nonjudgmental language. I do think it’s important to avoid getting emotions caught up in any of this.

[00:24:51] We’re talking about something that’s hopefully pretty objective. I know not all grades are objective, unfortunately, but the result certainly ends up being a number and we’re talking about wanting to crank that number up ever higher. So talking about that objectively can really be helpful. And it leads to more honest conversations. In terms of generally improving attitudes around learning and lessening anxiety around learning, the important thing to do is to realize that, even on something as seemingly black and white as say a multiple-choice test, there are ways to get an answer really wrong, there are ways to get an answer 100% correct.

[00:25:38] But there are shades of gray in there that I think it is all too easy to overlook. You can be working toward ever greater accomplishments and not seeing those grades change very much. And I think there it’s important, the parents can see improved study habits, improved attitudes.

[00:25:58] They see what’s going on at home that maybe the grades aren’t reflecting, and making sure that they’re reminding the student, hey, yeah you still have an 85 in this class and that hasn’t changed since last semester, but I’ve seen the changes that have occurred over these past months, and I’m incredibly proud of you. And this does mark significant achievement, despite what the number reflects.

[00:26:25] Emily Melious: Yes. And it goes back to rewarding that time and effort and investment in the process and being fully engaged is just so important. Those are incredibly helpful tips that we can all do. Alexis, you’re based in Texas, but we were talking about how you can help people all over the place.

[00:26:43] You operate virtually, so geography is not a barrier. Can you tell folks who are interested in how they can get in touch with you or maybe have one of your tutors work with their student?

[00:26:53] Alexis Peterson: Absolutely. Our website is alexisprep.com. You can email me at alexis@alexisprep.com, and my full contact information is on the website. And I love to talk about education and academics and tests, and you are welcome to schedule a call with me just to chat. I would love to have that opportunity.

[00:27:16] Emily Melious: And everybody should take Alexis up on it.  I started our interview this way, and I will end it this way to say that you are wonderful to talk to. And I always come away with great insights and even for myself, and it’s just a lot of fun to have that conversation. So I know it is going to benefit everybody listening. Thank you so much for your time and wisdom today, Alexis.

[00:27:38] Alexis Peterson: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a real pleasure. [00:27:42] Mothers of Misfits: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Mothers of Misfits podcast. Make sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode. We also invite you to visit us at MothersOfMisfits.com.

Resources:
  • Visit Alexis’ website: Alexisprep.com
  • Send Alexis an email: alexis@alexisprep.com