There’s a question my students often ask: “Did you always want to be an SAT instructor?” Here’s my answer.
During my senior year of college several professors, after reading my short stories, told me writing should be my life focus. I wrote about what I knew: adolescence, the beauty and pain of growing up with great yearning and doubt. I went on to receive a writing fellowship from Cornell University, where I completed my MFA, and then, like all aspiring writers, set out to become the voice of my generation. I supported myself by painting houses, which gave me ample time to think of my stories. When a friend advised me to try teaching the SAT, I was doubtful. I thought it would rob me of creative thoughts and force me to grind into the heads of young minds what I considered useless information.
The experience turned out to be quite different. I began to develop relationships with kids I was coaching. I’d look forward to our meetings each week. The students often confided in me, and I’d use their stories to emphasize their unique strengths as we reviewed the problems. A vibrant sense of productivity emerged as kids developed skills that translated into higher scores. Seeing the strong correlation between the good work they put in and the positive results they got out led to an exciting awareness of their potential.
Dr. Matt and Renata Joseph,
Owners and Founders of MJ Test Prep
Having enjoyed helping my students, and wanting to support kids in more profound ways, I went back to school to pursue a PhD in psychology. I was nearly halfway through my dissertation when I heard a radio interview with someone from the College Board who claimed the SAT was not coachable. I knew he was wrong and wanted to prove it. So I went to my department head and petitioned to change my dissertation to investigate the efficacy of coaching for a psychometric test like the SAT.
This compelled me to do vast amounts of research on standardized tests, learning theory, and motivational strategies. I then spent months deconstructing the SAT to delineate pervasive underlying dynamics of the problems. I developed a program of highly systematized worksheets which chunked problem types so students, through a process called repetition to mastery, used deliberate practice to master each problem type. Strategic teaching methods combined with the repetition-to-mastery worksheet program dramatically improved students’ performance. My data irrefutably demonstrated the robust efficacy of carefully designed SAT coaching.
As I was doing this study and still working with SAT students, I was also training as a clinician. The juxtaposition of these roles produced important insights. I saw how relationships with my students developed organically through the training, and began to recognize a powerful therapeutic dimension of our collaborative test-prep work. Parents would often comment that the work students did with us resonated into enhanced study habits, stronger academic performance and heightened self-confidence.
As I was trying to determine how these discoveries would influence the direction of my life, I went to the park with a basketball to ruminate, relax and get some sun. While out shooting, I saw over by the swings a beautiful young woman taking care of a willful boy of about five. He climbed on the see-saw the wrong way, hung dangerously upside down from the jungle gym, and wandered further from her than he knew he should. She didn’t flinch. I didn’t know whether this boy was her son, but I was mesmerized by the gravity she exerted on him. I thought, wow, she’ll make a great mother. And I was right. The willful boy later became the ring bearer at our wedding, and that young woman has turned out to be a great mother.
Renata, now my wife, was finishing up her masters in education when we met at the park that day. She was organized, methodical, and pragmatic—all traits I sorely lacked. She helped direct all my thoughts about how I wanted to work with kids into something much more focused and substantial. We soon outgrew the office in our first house, and then our second, and then the office we rented for two years in Bryn Mawr. We finally bought a building which Renata transformed into the educational center we’d dreamed of, where students could sit and study and enjoy their coffee while developing a strong sense of purpose and autonomy. She has created a rich, nurturing infrastructure that allows us to streamline all the logistics of what we do so that our instructors can focus on what is most important—our students.
We’re fortunate to have a staff of talented, motivated, and empathetic instructors who have all contributed greatly to our vision.
Our three daughters have been through our training, and our oldest, Natalia, who is currently studying at Wharton, has run one of our summer programs to rave reviews. Our twins, Sonia and Olivia, now high school sophomores, are waiting in the wings for their shot to teach. We like to think of ourselves as a family business—but the family is not simply our nuclear family. We support our students according to the same principles we’ve used to raise our children—with respect for their abilities and confidence that the right structure and guidance will equip them to sustain themselves through a pressurized time in their life. The process is reciprocal. Our students, through their inspiring efforts at standardized testing and beyond, reward us with that strong sense of purpose that comes from helping others succeed.
After all these years, I’m still surprised and delighted when my students say, “Matt, did you always dream of being an SAT instructor?” My answer is always the same. “Yeah, of course—right after playing in the NBA and becoming the voice of my generation.” Perhaps my youthful dreams of literary and athletic glory will never completely die, but my hope is that they’ve made their way into my life as an educator, father, husband and tutor who can share in the stories and hopes of his students. Our work here has been a dream come true, and we’re happy that the culture we’ve created enables students to handle the stresses and aspirations of standardized testing with a grace we all share.
From, Dr. Matthew Joseph