How to Rethink Your Attitude Toward Learning with Your Children
New York City native Caitlin Meister began teaching even while she was still learning herself. A lifelong learner, she developed a passion for igniting the curiosity in young minds. Her first reinvention came when her son was born, giving her a new understanding of working with children – but as a mom. She went on to create The Greer Meister Group, a NYC-based private educational consulting and tutoring practice. And, like many of us, when Covid hit in March 2020, Meister was forced into another reinvention. She saw the loss of community that kids were experiencing and witnessed the need for connectedness in her own son. In her conversation with CoveyClub founder Lesley Jane Seymour, Meister explains how she reinvented her approach to teaching, bringing a sense of connection to children in the time of Zoom calls and quarantine. Most importantly, she shares her insights on how parents can reinvent their approach to educating their children, how you can find the “teachable moments”, and most importantly how you can foster a lifelong love of learning in your child.
Lesley Jane Seymour: So let’s talk about reinvention, which I always love. Often reinventions don’t come one at a time or when you plan them. Why don’t you talk a little bit about your personal reinvention to start with and then we’ll talk about your business?
Caitlin Meister: Sure. So I’m born and raised in New York; I’m a city girl. And I knew very early on that I had a calling to work with kids. I started teaching, basically, when I was still a kid myself. I was teaching as I was pursuing my own education and when I graduated, I also had this passion to pursue a career in voiceovers. So the question for me became, “How do I establish myself doing both of those things?” And I realized that the solution to that challenge was to go into the tutoring and educational consulting side of things, because it would allow me to do both in a way that classroom teaching wouldn’t.
So I opened my private practice and within a year, our schedules were completely full. We started bringing in other team members, and we grew from there. So it has been an incredibly beautiful journey. It’s the most fulfilling work. But it’s funny, because when I became a mom, myself, that was my first major reinvention. Having my first son changed me profoundly, both as a person and in a business sense, because I was working with children and families. So I would say that was my first major reinvention. And then the second one being when COVID hit, and we really had to pivot the way that we were approaching our business.
LJS: Let’s talk a little bit about how having a child can make you reinvent yourself. How did that happen for you?
CM: Yeah, you know, I’m chuckling along with you. Because even though I worked with children, and I had so much experience working with kids, I think that I was a little bit delusional about the impact that having a child was going to have on me. I think I had this idea that I was going to have this baby and sort of tuck him in my back pocket and go on with my life. And of course, everybody who’s a mom knows that’s not what happens. So I really had to reinvent both my personal identity and life and also reinvent what I was doing with my work.
I found, however, once I could have acceptance for that change (and it took me a while to find that acceptance) what I did find was that being a mom had this profound effect on the way that I approached my work. I had always been good at what I was doing. But I was talking to other parents on a sort of intellectual, conceptual level where I’m always taking a very evidence-based approach. Being a mom pushed me to connect with parents on a very raw emotional level. We want what is best for our children, we want the best educational opportunities for our children; and even deeper than that, I realized that so many parents were coming to me with the same story: “Something related to academic challenges is causing stress in my relationship with my child. It’s distancing us we’re fighting. I don’t want that. How do I change that?” There’s a realization that you can hire a tutor or an educator or a coach to work with your child on the academic piece, and what that does as a parent is free you to fill the role that only you can fill, which is to be your child’s primary source of unconditional love, connection, encouragement. And that was the piece I really understood as a mom on a very personal level. There were moments where I saw my son struggle with something and the educator in me wanted that to be a teachable moment. I wanted to step in and say, “No, wait, we can do this. Here’s what we do.” Like I would have done for any of my clients. But what he needed from me in those moments was a hug. He needed his mom. And that was the profound impact ,the real reinvention of the way I approach my work.
LJS: What did it change in your work specifically? Did you change the way that you tutored?
CM: It inspired me to launch the educational consulting branch of what we do. So prior to that we had been doing tutoring, but this inspired me to really help parents with their educational journeys and to see tutoring as one piece of an overall education plan for your child. To see that we are tasked with establishing foundations for our youngest learners that are going to impact how they relate to formalized learning for the rest of their lives. So we came to the idea that we need to have joy in learning, we need to have fun, we need to have hands-on exploration, we need to lean into self direction – all of these pieces – and that we need to be, for our older kids, strengths-based and neurodiversity-affirming. And I’m happy to chat more about what some of those buzzwords mean because we are providing the foundations that are going to impact the way these kids identify as learners and the way they relate to their academic environment and probably later their careers. It’s all part of a very big picture, as opposed to just thinking of this traditional idea of tutoring like, “Oh, he has a test in two weeks, let’s just study a bunch in the next two weeks and then be done with it.”
LJS: So you’re trying to do what we call lifelong learning, essentially establishing a love of learning very early on.
CM: Yeah, for our younger learners. It’s about establishing a love of learning and establishing an identity as a learner and developing academic independence as you get older, while also preserving this growth mindset that you’re born with. If you ever watch a toddler trying to walk, no matter how many times she gets knocked down, she gets back up again and keeps trying. So how do we preserve that, what we’re born with, as opposed to over time allowing it to contribute in some way to kids’ mindsets, narrowing, or potentially becoming fixed. And what that can look like is a child going from, “I haven’t figured out how to multiply fractions yet” to “I’m just not good at math” to “I just shouldn’t major in it” to “I just can’t be right.” We don’t ever have to get there. We don’t have to get to “I just can’t be.” The research shows us that the type of feedback that kids get from the adults around them directly impacts whether they preserve that growth mindset or they have that narrowing.
LJS: Becoming a lifelong learner, does it start all the way back there? And the reason why I’m digging that out is because that’s one of the taglines for CoveyClub. I would say that probably the most common trait among the women that join Covey is that they’re curious. They are still learning and they are always open. Is that something that you see that early on in kids?
CM: A hundred percent. Also, I see it in myself. I think that’s part of why I have been able to engage in these reinventions, because of exactly the characteristics you’re mentioning. So I completely agree with you. So kids have an innate curiosity, and if we foster that, then they can pursue more of what we would think of as a self-directed path in education, which just means they’re choosing what they’re interested in learning about. And we, as adults, can facilitate that for them. But it’s not coercive, they’re not just doing it because this has been assigned. They aren’t thinking, “I have to do it, whether I’m interested in it or not.” So yes, fostering curiosity and lifelong learning is what our current world needs. Unfortunately, a portion of our educational system now really wasn’t designed for the world that we’re living in today.
And, you know, my own education didn’t stop at 20. It’s ongoing today, and I hope it will be ongoing for a long time. My grandmother, who’s one of my incredible role models, never stopped learning. She liked to tell the story that when she was in her 60s and went back for a PhD, I was a baby and she would take me in the stroller to class.
LJS: That’s fabulous. Let’s talk about what you’re seeing now, because you say you had to reinvent your business during COVID. Obviously, when schools were closed, what happened?
CM: Yeah, so our tutoring model had long been one-on-one and when schools closed overnight, I could see that kids, particularly the younger learners, had had their sense of connectedness and community surrounding their learning ripped out from under them. Parents were panicking, justifiably so.We saw this challenge in front of us to recreate that connectedness and community for the kids around their learning. My husband is our CTO and one of the top tutors in my team, and we essentially locked ourselves in a room for the first 72 hours of the pandemic and said, “How are we going to pivot and reinvent what we’re doing to meet this need?” And what we ended up doing was launching a series of small group classes on Zoom. We had one teacher with four learners. We offered them on a weekly rolling basis so that parents could opt in by the day. It was no long-term commitment, because nobody knew what was happening one day at a time back then. And it also allowed us to make our work available to a much wider audience. We made it free of charge for families of frontline health care workers.
LJS: Can you talk a bit about the bigger picture and how things are changing?
CM: There are certain things related to education that some group of us who work in the field have been talking about since before the pandemic that have now become mainstream. I think that’s really going to influence the way we approach education moving forward. For example, the idea of self directed learning. It was very challenging that kids’ academic schedules and school schedules were unpredictable. Generally speaking, they were spending less time in school or in Zoom school during the pandemic, they had less homework often because it was considered “asynchronous work” during the school day. But the upside of that was that the kids had this chance to pursue things that were of interest to them that they might not have had the chance to pursue in a typical school year.
So again, I can see this in my own son. He developed an interest in rocketry and model rocketry that he never had before the pandemic, and because he was pursuing this interest and had time to research, he was suddenly learning new things about chemistry, physics, and needed the math behind the rocketry. He was able to connect to a new community and make new friends around this interest. Even in person, not just remotely, because it is something that happens outdoors and social distancing is easy when you do it. So that’s a beautiful example of self-direction at play. And those things that he learned about chemistry, about physics, engineering, math, are going to stay with him better than if had he been asked to memorize them from a textbook, because he feels personally connected to them. And because he was having fun! Kids learn best when they’re having fun.
LJS: Is that joy of learning something that a parent can install in a child?
CM: I think everybody’s born with that curiosity, that sort of fearless “why”. I think we’re born with that, and we can foster that as parents and as teachers. I think that there is a developmentally appropriate way to approach any subject. And I think that we need to be careful, also, as adults, of not dismissing something and saying, “Oh, he’s not ready for that.” Well, he may not be ready for the same version you’re ready for, but he’s ready for some version of it. And I think the other part of fostering that curiosity is giving our kids space to be self-directed, to show us what they’re going to be interested in and to follow their lead.
LJS: What advice can you give to parents for reinventing how they approach working with their kids?
CM: Yeah, I would say the number one tip that I would give is, if being involved in your child’s academics, if trying to play the role of the tutor is creating stress and discord in that relationship, step back from that and bring in a professional to help. Because you then can step fully into the role of providing that encouragement and that emotional connection that your child really can only get from you as the parent. I have seen over and over again, when we make that adjustment, that the academics improve. Stop looking for the teachable moments and look for the huggable moments. When my child is experiencing a perfectionist moment and is frustrated and is crying, I go in and I give a hug. And that’s a change for me from before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I would have gone in and tried to fix the learning issue. But now I go on and give the hug. So that’s tip number one, seek the emotional connection and find somebody else to help with the academic stress.
Number two, I would say be open to change in your own life and in your child’s life. How often do we have a picture in our heads of what the next chapter of our life or three chapters from now are going to look like? And it’s not what it turns out to be. And yet what it turns out to be it can be wonderful.I think that we need to remember to be open to that for our children. And if the the next chapter in your child’s life or in her academic career, since that’s what we’ve been talking about, doesn’t look the way you envisioned it, it can still be wonderful and beautiful. Look for ways to support your child on that path, on that journey, whatever it does end up looking like.
And my third tip would be: trust that your child can do well. I truly believe that kids do well when they can and I truly believe that no child is looking for the easy way out. They’re looking for the right way in. And what we have to do as educators and as parents is help them develop the skills they need to succeed and to help them figure out what is my right way in and we do that by listening to them. We do that by trusting them. We do that by advocating for them with their teachers and their schools on how they learn best.
LJS: Wonderful. Caitlin, thank you so much. So tell us a little bit about where people can reach you.
They can find me at Caitlyn Greer Meister. And what we’re doing there is a lot of what we just talked about, this idea of how do we break down some of this education jargon because your child’s education should not be mystifying, right? And how do we put practical strategies in place that you can learn today and be using to help your kid.
LJS: Wonderful. Caitlin, thank you so much for your time.
CM: Thank you, Leslie. It’s been such a pleasure.
Caitlin Meister is the Founding Director of The Greer Meister Group, a New York City-based private tutoring and educational consulting practice. Her interest in education began when she was young, and she began teaching children and teens while pursuing her own education. Inspired by her own educational experiences at the Little Red School House, Stuyvesant High School, and Wesleyan University, she went on to receive additional training through the Harvard Graduate School of Education and in the Orton-Gillingham approach for teaching students with language-based learning differences. Meister has extensive experience working with gifted learners and supporting neurodiverse students, and she is dedicated to a strengths-based, neurodiversity-affirming approach.