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February 04, 2007

Moonlighting

As if going back to work full time wasn't enough, I have also been moonlighting for the past few weeks. That's right, I'm working a second job, training to be a GRE prep teacher at Kaplan. I call it working, even though I'm still in the training phase, because the training is paid and certainly feels like work, though sometimes it feels more like being a student.

I applied for this job way back in the fall, when I didn't know what I was going to do after leaving grad school. It was something I had always had at the back of my mind as a fallback or a way to earn some extra money if I ever found myself in a tight spot. However, I had never actually pursued it before because the idea of for-profit education makes me very uncomfortable. Kaplan is a huge money-making enterprise, profiting from students' test anxiety and desires to get into the "best" colleges or grad schools. I also hate the idea of students being able to basically buy higher test scores. It means that the kids from the wealthiest families are also going to get into the best colleges and get the best jobs after. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I did take a prep class for the SAT when I was in high school, but it wasn't through a private test prep company. It was at Loyola Marymount University and it was both cheap and accessible.

In any case, when I found myself faced with the prospect of unemployment, I went to the Kaplan website and applied. The first stage is basically just a screening to make sure that I had, indeed, scored in the 95th percentile when I took the GRE, which is Kaplan's minimum for teachers in Ann Arbor (apparently they only have to have scored in the 90th percentile in the rest of the country). Back in 2000, when I took the GRE, it was a different test than it is now. There were three sections -- verbal, quantitative, and analytical -- each scored on a scale from 200 to 800. Reader, I only scored in the 95th percentile on verbal and quantitative. I don't know what happened to me on the analytical section, but it was by far my lowest score. Happily, the GRE has since done away with the analytical section and now includes "analytical writing" instead -- two essays scored on a scale from 0 to 6. So I passed the initial Kaplan screening, despite my dismal analytical score.

The next stage of the application process was the audition, in which we were supposed to teach a five-minute non-academic lesson. I taught "How to Ride a Taxi in Accra, Ghana," which was a lot of fun. Apparently the audition went well, because I was then invited to training.

Training is the third phase of the application process. That's right, even though they are now paying me, I'm still not all the way in. Training involves five four-hour classroom sessions, each organized around a different set of "core competencies" that Kaplan teachers must have. The heart of the training is the "teachback" where we prepare and teach the lessons to each other as if we were in front of the actual class. The trainer then critiques each teachback and gives us "action steps" for improvement. If we don't improve sufficiently, we're out.

I have to admit that I have been having quite a bit of fun in the training. My trainer is awesome (he was voted regional teacher trainer of the year for 2006) and the two other trainees are really nice. Two weeks ago we did reading comprehension; last week we did quantitative; next week we will be teaching "short verbal," which includes sentence completion, analogies, and antonyms. In addition to getting to continue to work on my teaching and people skills, I'm enjoying learning about the logic of standardized tests, even though I never plan to take another one.

Working for a giant corporation (Kaplan is owned by the Washington Post), however, is very different from working for a state university. In some ways, it reminds me of working at Starbucks and Hot Dog on a Stick. To begin with, the customer is the highest priority: our number one goal is to "delight the students." Second, everything has to be done according to a precise method. Just as there is only one "right" way to cook a cheese stick or make a latte, we are only allowed to teach the "Kaplan method" for the GRE. Finally, at Hot Dog on a Stick, there was a list of words we were never allowed to use: dog, corndog, fry/fried, grease, no. Similarly, at Kaplan, there is a list of words that we are expected to work into our presentations as many times as possible: Kaplan, homework, online resources, test day, higher score, GRE. Every time I say "doing your homework and using Kaplan's online resources will help you get a higher score on the GRE on test day," I feel like the world's biggest tool.

Posted by eklanche at February 4, 2007 07:21 AM

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