susanbernstein-headshotSusan Bernstein
BA – American Studies, UC Santa Cruz
MA – Education, Mills College

One day, when I was in second grade, I thought to share with a classmate a method I’d been using to subtract the bottom number from the top one when the digit in the ones column in the bottom number was bigger than that in the top number. I’d dubbed it, “subtraction by rhythm,” and had as of that moment been doing it only in my head. He liked it a lot, went back to his desk to try it out on a few problems, and was delighted to find that it helped him remember what to do. “Have you tried subtracting by rhythm?” I later overheard him asking the kid who sat next to him. How good it felt, being able to help someone get a handle on what had been a tricky procedure, and to see a big smile replace a furrowed brow!

That experience stayed with me, even as I considered and tried out other career paths … and eventually I became a teacher. Through the years my philosophy has stayed the same, even as methods and tools of teaching and assessment have changed: Help students access the beauty and satisfaction of knowing things. Help them shed light on that which was once opaque. Figure out the “way in,” recognizing that it may be different for different kids. Lead them toward doing the hard work that is sometimes required to advance. Prepare them for the future that awaits them, not the past or present. Get them out of their comfort zone regularly; make it clear that only by dealing with uncertainty, trying out potential solutions, and tracking what works will they grow.

A tutor’s role is a bit different. Unless it’s enrichment I’m providing, the student comes to me hurting to some degree. One or more aspects of school or homeschooling aren’t going well. The problem may be manifesting itself in the form of avoidance, irritability or shutdown. I see my job as figuring out what’s holding my tutee back, filling in knowledge/skill gaps, clearing up misconceptions, showing her how to break down tasks, walking her through step-by-step processes, showing her new ways to think about concepts, and – especially with the younger kids – finding the fun. I provide opportunities and motivation to repeat skills we’re working on, and assign work to be done between sessions if a parent/guardian requests it. My goal is to use the power of focused attention from an experienced educator (that’s me!) to build skills and confidence such that my student, who was in danger of sinking, now swims.


website design — Jocelyn Bergen,

photos — Dorothy Brown,

photo, this page — Ruth Chang