Kalen Lister on teaching, performing, and injecting creativity into Every lesson.
Kalen Lister is a Brooklyn-based tutor specializing in early childhood education and executive function. We met up at a cafe in Fort Greene to talk about how she started tutoring, how tutoring and performing aren't so different, and why ten years in, she still loves her job.
What drew you to tutoring? How did you first dip your toe in the water?
I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t teach. I’m an older sibling, I’m the older cousin of everybody in my family, and I went to Montessori schools, where the whole methodology is, if you move quickly through the curriculum, that you start teaching the other children. So I’ve always been a teacher of sorts. As early on as high school I started do more official teaching … and I after I graduated from Penn, I went back to Phillips Exeter [where I had gone to high school] and did a teaching internship over the summer—I loved that experience.
What kinds of students do you work with? What interests you about this age group?
[Initially, my] focus had been more early childhood education, so I have a lot of experience, from four through fourteen. It’s a big range, but I enjoy it—it keeps me engaged. The [early elementary students] can be so much fun. And you’re helping them develop a positive relationship with learning early on. I really like working with later elementary school and junior high students, too. They’re really starting to understand themselves as learners more thoroughly. And they’re just becoming more complicated people. To help them put some positive systems in place, that can really be beneficial to them long-term.
Tell me a little about those systems. How would you describe your pedagogy?
As a tutor, I’m very demanding. Regardless of the age of the kid, but I also try to be fun and engaged, loving at the same time, but stern. It seems to work in terms of getting the best results out of most kids because they feel a sense of trust but they also feel a sense of responsibility. [Regarding putting systems in place], I’m very interested in this question of executive function, and of really helping kids put more positive systems in place. I developed a curriculum about executive functioning [because] It was an issue I was finding with many of my students: we could focus on content, but without the context of how to learn, a lot of things were falling through the cracks.
Why do you think executive function is so important? How did you come to realize this was such a crucial skill?
I think it’s because I didn’t really have that. I had drive and ambition and willingness to work hard, but I don’t think I ever “worked smart.” I would procrastinate, I would get stressed out. All those executive function skills that I teach, I’ve had to learn and struggle with [myself], and I think that makes me better at teaching because I’ve had to grapple with it. I don’t think I’m naturally the most organized and strategic person, so I feel like I’ve had to come up with different ways to make it all work.
Tell me a little bit about your life outside of tutoring.
I’m a musician. I lead a rock band. I play gigs and tour. I write music and lyrics. It’s wonderful, but it’s so hard. Which is part of why I’ve always came back to education. Doing music is a huge part of my life; students usually think it’s pretty cool. I have some other projects that are tangential to that: I’m trying to get a children’s book published, I’m working on an app that’s at the intersection of visual arts and education for early childhood. Everything seems to be connected to art and education, but for a long time I felt they were very disconnected things.
[When I first moved to New York] I was really eager to try being an artist in the city. I moved here and actually turned down a number of full-time teaching things because I wanted to focus on the art, but I always kept coming back to tutoring. And I really loved it; it felt very natural, and I then I was hired by Bright Kids. [Back then, I felt ] that I was two extremely different people and had to go and put on a bat-suit to go be a “rockstar.” But what I’ve come to recognize is that there’s this big intersection of these two parts of my lives. It has to do with communication and being in the moment, that’s what makes me a good performer and that’s what makes me a good tutor. They’re pretty inextricably linked.
What advice would you give to parents and students seeking a tutor?
One of the things I love that Book&Table has built into the platform is that there’s so much communication before and after the session. If there’s no follow-through between sessions, especially if the sessions are weekly, then you really slide back in that time, and you’re making a lot less progress. Communication with the tutor, communication between all three parties I think is very important. I think Maurice really cares about creating something he would want to use. He’s really driven by an idea, and a good one. I think the way he’s also building a network within the real world simultaneous to the one he’s building online is beautiful. Because [some companies] I’ve worked for, I’ve seen them squander the opportunity for community, when it’s built into these physical, brick and mortar places. And that’s a shame to me, especially because tutoring is about people being together, even in the Skype sphere. So the fact that Book&Table is building in those supports—it’s going to lift everybody up, it’s going to make everybody a better educator.
Can you tell me about some of the rewards and challenges of being a tutor?
I think a one-on-one relationship is such a powerful thing. I had different art teachers and tutors when I was younger and I really carried those experiences with me. And the most rewarding times have been when I’ve been able to help children whom a lot of people have given up on. Who seem really difficult to reach. One of the most rewarding times was a little boy who I think was slightly on the spectrum, and most of his tutors were getting pretty exasperated with him. I think they were missing what his strengths were and only getting stuck on his weaknesses. And I was able to really home in on his strengths and push him through some of his struggles. His mom felt it made a huge difference in his school work for the rest of the year, in his relationship with learning. And those kinds of moments, those are the most special. This is meaningful work; it actually matters to somebody.
What do you wish students would do more of? What should they avoid?
I wish the young ones wouldn’t sneeze in my mouth. I wish they wouldn’t eat their boogers in front of me, and I wish my elementary schools would do their homework. But that’s where communication is so important, and putting systems in place to make sure the student is not taking advantage. It drives me crazy if they don’t do their homework [because] we can only do so much in an hour, and I want to use that time in thoughtful ways. I love when they do their homework. I love when they get excited about it and come with questions, and I love when they get excited about our sessions.
To learn more about Kalen and her teaching style visit her Book&Table profile.