An Interview with Marina Koestler Ruben


Marina Koestler Ruben, author of How to Tutor Your Own Child – Boost Grades and Inspire a Lifelong Love of Learning – Without Paying for a Professional Tutor, is the in-house writing tutor at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC.  She is also a writer, editor, and professional tutor of other subjects.  Her writing has appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine, the Washington City Paper, and Education Week; and she has been featured on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”.  She has a BA and MA from Johns Hopkins University.

Kelly Thunstrom, education writer, recently reviewed Ruben’s book.  Ruben graciously agreed to answer questions that Summit readers may want to know.


KT:  First, let me say that, having been an educator of elementary and middle school kids, I enjoyed this book.  It is not just about parents as tutors of their children.  There are ideas for parents to use to help their children in all aspects of the education realm.  Since you are a professional tutor, what made you write this book, essentially telling parents that there is no need to hire one in most cases?

MR:  Thanks, Kelly!  I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.  During my work as a professional tutor, I’ve found that parents can be intimidated by the process of providing their children with academic support.  I wrote How to Tutor Your Own Child to empower parents to work with their own children, whether they do so in structured, sit-down-at-a-desk sessions or in informal daily interactions.


KT: The book, as the title suggests, is about parents thinking twice about paying for a professional tutor.  Of course, there are times when one will be needed.  However, most of the time, a parent can do the tutoring.  What do you say to those parents who are apprehensive about doing so?

MR: The prospect of tutoring your own child can be daunting if you have the impression that you need to be an expert in everything your child’s studying.  While it certainly helps to be familiar with the material, you can provide crucial support even if the work is new to you.  Parents can help their children talk and walk through the day’s notes, point them toward useful supplemental resources (e.g., textbooks, online tutorials, study guides from the library), and encourage them by providing a clean, comfortable, supportive home work environment.


KT:  You tell a story about a close friend whose father did not realize that his simple literary act had such an impact on his sister until forty years later.  Can you describe a time when you realized months or years later that you had an educational influence on someone?

MR: Yes, there have been times when, after tutoring a student for months, I’ve heard from the student’s parent that something I said made a difference in the student’s outlook or performance.  I’ve also found myself realizing that some of my own teachers’ actions years ago ended up having a long-term effect on me.  As a fifth grader, it boosted my confidence when a teacher had me take the math section of the High School Proficiency Test and praised my performance.  I still remember watching him grade the test; I don’t remember the numerical result, but his positive comments encouraged me to focus on math and, more importantly, to think of myself as someone who could excel in the subject.


KT:  Some goals of a teacher are to make responsible citizens of his/her students and to get them ready for real life.  You say that “Your goal as a tutor is to make yourself obsolete.”  This goes against “helicopter” parenting, where parents sometimes race to the rescue of or do too much for their child.  How can parents provide a happy medium?

MR: Keep in mind that I don’t want parents to make themselves obsolete–they’ll always have important roles in their children’s lives.  In fact, I don’t really want them to abdicate their positions as educational leaders and tutors.  But I do think a successful tutor tries to give students the skills so that the students are capable of learning independently and so that they have the skills that would make a tutor unnecessary.  Of course, there’s always something to be learned from another person; even if a student becomes educationally self-sufficient in terms of study skills, the relationship between a parent-tutor and a child will always be beneficial, both academically and emotionally.


KT:  One of my favorite paragraphs is on pg. 148 describing a way for helicopter parents to become less involved. “If you’re a helicopter parent, try to switch aircraft. It’s safer to emulate a plane in a holding pattern. You’re nearby making sure conditions are clear and landing only when the ground asks you to land. Don’t hover overhead like a helicopter with your rope ladder down as if you think this is a rescue mission.” What are the effects of helicopter parenting on a child as he/she grows up?

MR: If your goal is to help your child be able to function independently, helicopter parenting does your child a disservice.  How can your child learn to fly if you keep clipping his or her wings?  The same way you’d let a baby struggle just enough to learn to crawl and then walk, give your child the leeway to learn by trial and error and be a self-advocate, especially as a teenager.


KT:  Most students find that just reading from a textbook and not learning through real-life situations is boring.  You tell parents to model a love of learning in every tutoring session.  Can you give more real-life examples of this that are not in your book?

MR: I grew up watching my father, a microbiologist, operate a scanning electron microscope.  Every time he showed me around his laboratory, he spoke enthusiastically about the equipment, his analysis, and his colleagues’ projects.  My father’s passion for his field stuck with me, and, though I ended up not liking my high school biology classes, I retained a deep appreciation for the value of the subject.  By association, I grew to value learning in all the sciences, not just biology, because I had a frame of reference for what real-life laboratory research was all about.


KT:  You have a viewpoint of failing grades that not every parent would follow.  Obviously, we know that mistakes are a part of life, but you say that parents should not act personally disappointed when their child receives a failing grade.  Parents should express “sympathy and encouragement.”  You even say that “Failure is a reason to celebrate.”   What do you say to the naysayers out there who disagree with that?

MR: Perhaps the naysayers are thinking of times when failure is not a reason to celebrate.  After all, it’s understandable if we’re frustrated when your car engine fails on the highway, your memory fails when trying to remember the name of an old friend, or your beloved pet’s health fails.  But academic failure is different.  In moderation, it enhances the learning process, ultimately leading toward better comprehension and retention.


KT:  The hardest age group for parents to tutor is teens for many reasons.  You say that reading aloud as a family can carry on into high school.  What are some ways that parents and teens can come together to share books?

MR: Find several copies of the same play and read the parts aloud at the dinner table or on a car trip.  Tell your child what you’re reading and whether you’d recommend the book.  Join or form a book club, with students selecting the book one month and parents picking the next.  Keep books out in your home, rotating coffee table books so that there’s always something out that invites your family to explore its contents.  Show your child that you turn to books for reference, research, and, of course, for pleasure.

Thanks for the interview!  I’d welcome comments or questions from your readers, who are also welcome to check out for more information about my book and to read my blog.


Kelly Thunstrom has been teaching for almost 15 years, working with the fourth, fifth, and seventh grades full-time.  She has been named to Who’s Who in Education, as well as awarded the Faculty Award for Academic Excellence in Education.  Kelly is editor and publisher of 1776books, which provides reviews of various types of books.  She also writes book reviews for Bookloons, local theater reviews for Stage Partners, and is the arts reviewer for the local Patch syndicates.







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