Photos by Libby Rogers
Just two weeks into a new assignment teaching English at Winton Woods High School in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, Jen Henson was summoned to meet with her principal and superintendent. She was apprehensive, but soon learned the surprising reason for the meeting. The University of Louisville had recruited the school’s star quarterback, but his ACT score did not meet the NCAA requirement for college eligibility. The principal recalled that while interviewing Jen, she had mentioned she had experience with the ACT. Could she help?
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she says, “but I figured it out. I taught him after school, and he got the score he needed.” Later, she watched her student play football at the University of Louisville. (He ultimately played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.) As students and coaches talked among themselves, word spread; before long, Jen was teaching six classes of ACT prep at her high school. In 2014, she was the district-wide teacher of the year in Winton Woods City Schools. Now a resident of Montgomery, Jen tutors students from around the country—in person and via the internet—to help them get the ACT scores they need.
Why did you decide to be a teacher?
I loved my school experiences. I always wanted to be a teacher, and I always wanted to teach high school. I don’t think you can teach someone to be a teacher.
How did you discover your gift for ACT prep?
Coaches started talking to each other, and the players talked to each other. One day there was a knock on my classroom door, and it was one of the defensive line coaches for Ohio State football. I thought he wanted to speak to one of my students, but he said, “No ma’am, I am here to speak with you. We have a student from Cincinnati who needs help, and we hear you are the lady who can help him.” That was when I knew that word about me was spreading, and I really had stumbled onto something, completely by accident, that was a gift. I felt very passionate about using that to help as many students as I could.
Within two years, that’s all I was teaching at that school. We were running over three hundred students through my program at no charge. I was working after school and on the weekends. I was doing what I could to help as many people as I could. I had to bring someone in under my wings, because I couldn’t keep up with the demand.
What made you so passionate about your job?
I earned an English degree from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio and a master’s in education from Northern Kentucky University. I played tennis at Xavier. I was recruited by some smaller schools I didn’t want to attend. I attended Xavier because I had an academic scholarship (because of my ACT score, ironically). I wasn’t as athletically gifted as others. The coach told me I was not good enough to play tennis there. I thought, “Au contraire! I will play here.” I worked all summer to walk on and play. That was my goal. I had the academic piece, but I understand the athletically-gifted student who has to work hard to get that academic piece. I understand the demands and their desire to play at the next level. There is no difference between what I did from what they have to do in the classroom. If you spend years perfecting your craft on the athletic field and your parents have spent tens of thousands of dollars in travel and lessons and you want to keep playing that sport—and one test is going to keep you from that? I would never let that happen to a student, ever.
Can anyone improve his or her ACT score?
There are good test takers and bad test takers, but the bad test takers can be taught how to beat that test. You have to know the test. Sometimes it takes them two or three times to reach their goal, but all my students’ scores have gone up—one hundred percent.
How did an Ohio native end up here?
My husband was transferred to Houston. I was devastated, because I was in what I thought was my career prime. I was teaching ACT prep at a wonderful school. I was known around the Cincinnati vicinity as the lady to go to, and I was going to move to Texas. No one knew me. I had to re-clutch and say, “It will be okay.” So, I had to get my Texas teacher’s certificate. I interviewed at 13 different schools in the area. I had an interview at Montgomery High School, and I was offered the job. We chose to live here in Montgomery. The lake was beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to live by the lake?
Why did you start tutoring via Skype?
A family in Cincinnati insisted, because I had worked with two of their children. They said, “We are sure it will work for the third. It’s still you. The books are the same.” And it worked. It worked the same.
And now you are tutoring full-time?
I was working with students back home in Ohio via Facetime, Skype, and Zoom. It became very convenient for the student. They didn’t have to drive anywhere. They could do it at their house. I started getting calls from people all over the U.S.: “Well, my cousin lives in Detroit. Can you tutor him?”
So during my second year of teaching at Montgomery High School, I couldn’t keep up with it. And I had a family. I couldn’t do all three successfully. It was a really tough decision. I am a teacher. It’s what I had always done for 22 years. I had been a teacher longer than I had been a mom, longer than I had been married. I waited and researched and met with an accountant and talked with my husband. I kept talking it out, with my college roommate, my family. What are the drawbacks? What are the benefits? There was a fear of “will I be successful?”
Which colleges have your students attended?
Air Force Academy, Naval Academy, Texas A&M, University of Texas, Baylor, TCU, Rice, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Dartmouth, Marshall University, St. Andrews in Scotland, Ohio State University—to name a few. I had those pennants hanging all over my classroom.
How many of your students are athletes?
About 40 percent. One of my students is in the NFL now. I have helped two major league baseball players. They are all very thankful.
Where do your students live?
All different parts of Cincinnati, Montgomery, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Wisconsin. Once a town or pocket finds out about me, I tend to work with a lot of students from that area. One family from Connecticut flew their son in. He stayed at La Torretta, and we fit my whole program into a week. He worked from Sunday to Thursday. He flew out Thursday and took the ACT Friday and got the increase he needed.
How does your program work for local students?
I tutor students at Panera Bread on 105 in Montgomery. I know the staff at Panera by name, and they are very accommodating. Students have about two hours of homework for every time they meet with me and they meet with me 16 times, once a week. Every section of the test definitely has a strategy. How you take the English part is very different from how you take the reading comprehension part. That’s very different from how you do the science part, which is of course totally different from how you do the math. Students take about five sample tests over the course of the work with me. I tell them, “I know what you need to do to make it happen. You have to do everything I ask of you, and you will have success.”
How has your life changed since becoming a full-time tutor?
One thing that I didn’t know would be a benefit is spending more time with my husband Dan and with our children. Because my husband and I both work from home, we can go out to lunch. I can adjust my schedule so I can go to my children’s schools if they need me, or see an event in the middle of the day. Augie is 10. He is a fifth grader at Madeley Ranch Elementary. Etta will be 13 in March. She is a student at Montgomery Junior High. We are in National Charity League. NCL encourages you to find a good fit for you and your daughter, so we have worked with the Montgomery County Food Bank, and we helped out at the Cookie Walk.
You must find your job rewarding.
Some students feel success for the first time. They feel like they can actually learn things. All the time students say, “Thank you for teaching me this.”