Big Thought’s Virtual Tutoring Pilot Program Adds Up to a Success

“We’ve been doing this work for some time and have built a bit of muscle doing it,” stated James Adams, Director of Big Thought Out of School Time Learning, “but oftentimes our best skill is listening. We listened. We learned and leaned in. And in doing so we realized that in order to go beyond relevancy, we have to be able to respond to needs.”

In response to the need of providing support to students whose academic performance had been affected by learning during the global pandemic Big Thought’s Out of School Time (OST) division launched specialized tutoring services specifically curated to deliver math tutoring for second, third, fifth and sixth graders. 

With virtual tutoring, the focus wasn’t on just improving grades or math scores. Instead, the pilot program also prioritized making connections with students and helping them boost their confidence by integrating social and emotional learning. “Our focus has been more on providing quality programming than worrying about the numbers,” Big Thought Program Manager Keila Williams said. “We hope that by building relationships, students won’t be afraid of math or feel like they can’t do it.” 

Big Thought connected with educator Lily Binford to help design the academics portion of the tutoring program. As the Virtual Learning Lead, Binford developed a multi-week program to complement what students were already learning in their classrooms. She also designed training for tutors in the program to help familiarize them with TEKS for math. “That way as they tutored,” Binford said, “they could tailor the instruction to the needs of the students and specific TEKS they needed support in.”

On site office space directly adjacent to Big Thought’s headquarters, tutors worked virtually with students at three elementary and three intermediate campuses starting as early as seven in the morning. Each campus had approximately 20 students attend the sessions, and those groups were divided into five pods. “One of the benefits of small group tutoring is being able to truly address the individual needs of students, and our tutors are just incredible,” Binford said. “I’ve been blown away by the abilities and the heart of these tutors to tailor their instruction to the provided rubric.”

The format has also allowed for tutors to accommodate different learning styles and challenges, whether it’s helping a second grader learn to tell time or an older student prepare for standardized testing. “We’re not going to be able to tackle all of the challenges that the students may have with math,” Williams said. “But if we’re able to build their confidence and they can walk out saying, ‘Guess what? I know what time it is today!’ I’m happy with that.”

Along with focusing on helping students navigate TEKS for math, the program also intently incorporated social and emotional learning into tutoring sessions. From making time for brain breaks to giving students a space to share feelings and advocate for themselves, SEL was a key part of the program’s structure. 

That dual focus on academics and SEL skills led to success for the pilot program. “We definitely see the excitement in the students and they look forward to being in a tutoring session with us,” Williams said. “We want to make sure it doesn’t feel like just another task, not only for the students but the teachers as well, we realize it’s been a tough year for everyone.”

But providing engaging OST tutoring in the midst of a pandemic hasn’t been without its challenges. It’s required pivoting and on-the-go thinking, especially since the tutors aren’t physically in the classroom. “We always have to have that adjusting hat on, that flexible hat, both for the campuses and the students so we can try to meet their needs,” Williams said. 

Based on those situations that the team encountered, Binford has created what Williams called “a book report,” a document packed with important information and things to be aware of. The hope is that, in the future, Big Thought’s virtual OST tutoring program can replicate their success with others. 

“Clients come to us thinking they don’t know what they want, but in fact they do. We consider ourselves experts at what we do, but one of our greatest skills is interpretation. We listen with the understanding that it’s not what ‘we think’ they need, we work to build like-minded partnerships and collaborate for the greater good of our most important stakeholders — our youth,” stated Adams.