We had the good fortune of connecting with Megan McNulty and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Megan, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
Starting The Tiny Tutor was really the culmination of 20+ years devoted to making kids feel confident. While the name itself absolutely flashed in my brain one night (which led to my husband promptly securing the website for me to build later), the actual concept materialized into a startup business from the many tiny steps I’ve taken since 1995. I always knew I wanted to be a special educator. In middle school, I sat next to a dear family friend with Down Syndrome, while she lost her battle with leukemia. In high school I designed my own independent study in order to spend every afternoon with the “mentally retarded” class at my neighborhood middle school. Those were the days when that phrase was actually politically acceptable. Those steps led me to UVA’s Curry School of Education, where after three years of focused coursework in reading diagnosis and remediation, math instruction for special and elementary education, and behavior management, I finally got to translate my skills to the classroom. By the time I reached my 5th year student teaching practicums, the PC phrase had shifted to “mildly mentally retarded,” which was the population of high school students I taught in a trailer in Albemarle County, VA. I let my students call me Ms. Mick because McNulty had too many syllables for them to pronounce. I taught these kind and loving students basic life skills that determined whether or not they would be able to live independently after 12th grade.
The next step involved my move to NYC in 2000, where I wasn’t sure how to use my Master of Teaching. I knew there must be some way to combine my two passions and training up to that point (I had simultaneously received my BA in theatre from UVA and headed to NYC to audition for theatre, film and television). Teaching and acting seemed to coexist in my mind as a natural fit, but it wasn’t until a close friend from my Master’s Program called with a very simple question, that I understood the place I would hold in the field of education.
That question was, “Can you tutor my student?”
Within one month, I became “Megan the Tutor.” I walked endless blocks and rode the subway from the Bronx to Battery Park to work one-on-one in my students’ homes, where they were most comfortable. I was teaching the way I had always envisioned by utilizing the tried, true and tested strategies I had learned in school and creating fun tricks and techniques on the spot from my years as an actor who loved to improv. Most importantly, I was truly assessing my students’ individual progress, without the pressure of comparison against their peers or classroom standards. Simply put, I figured out how my students learned best and that’s the way I taught them. For 45 minutes to an hour each session, it was just me and my student. Of course, every student was taller than me and my title of “Megan the Tutor” quickly turned to “Megan the Tiny Tutor.”
The next step involved another move, but this time to LA. Though I began as an early reading and math specialist, I ended up doing a little bit of everything as I grew with my West Coast students. Phonics and fluency morphed into AP US History and Bio. Essay writing, test prep, comprehension skills, and organization took the form of countless college essays and supplements. I regarded each and every one of my many students through the years as “my kids.” They’d text after they aced a final and put out the bat signal when a big English essay deadline suddenly got moved up. I was their first call when they got their acceptance into their top choice college (my favorite call of all:) and I became an important part of their family dynamic. I ate dinner with them, went to their bar and bat mitzvahs, and celebrated birthdays, graduations and everything in between. I would do anything for these kids and always gave them my heart. Then I had my own kids… which marks the last step towards inspiring this business pursuit.
Mackenzie (Mack) and Huck (not Huckleberry, just Huck:) changed my world. After two decades of mentoring other people’s children, I was ready to teach my own kids (and talk about different learning styles). Mack started Kindergarten at our beloved neighborhood elementary school, when I quickly saw the need to supplement her early literacy learning at home. Mack was more than happy to become my new student and see what mommy had done in her “job” all those years. So I made her a reading box (precursor of our current Tiny Tutor Box), came up with a song to help her learn the months of the year (to one of her favorite tunes), and pulled my dusty early readers off the shelf. That’s when a few mom friends from her old preschool asked me, “Can you show me what you’re doing with Mack ?” I hosted a playdate the next week. After the kids ran around and us moms caught up, Mack and I gave a few tutorials on word sorts, phonics games, building a sight word box… and that’s when The Tiny Tutor was really conceived.
Now that Mack is 9 and confidently reading in 3rd grade, I’m starting all over again with Huck (now 4.5 and starting to read and write sentences). “Welcome to The Tiny Tutor” has become our favorite household phrase and I still have to pinch myself when I see my two loves fulfilling mama’s dream of building confident learners.
I always said when my NYC tutoring business landed in my lap back in 2000, that I would keep doing it until there were no more kids who needed to blend their CVC words or write a strong topic sentence. It is my sincere desire to keep on mentoring for the next two decades and beyond, by giving all the parents out there the same tools and tricks I’ve learned with my many students through the years and now my own kids.
Tutoring is what I’ve always done and it’s organically grown into this startup every step of the way. We say at The Tiny Tutor that “tiny steps have big effects” and they really do. Had I not said, “Yes” to every one of the steps I outlined above, I wouldn’t be here now, growing a small business with my kids, about kids, and for kids everywhere. The same thought process I had as a young student teacher to make kids feel massively confident about learning still holds true as I continue to build out this business. Now it’s just taken on a new format – a comprehensive box subscription program with educational and fun video tutorials, all aimed at helping parents feel massively confident teaching their kids, so their kids can feel massively confident about themselves! It’s all about confidence and it starts early. We as parents are also the most important mentors our kids will ever have. We teach them so many lessons, tiny to massive, every single day. It’s time to empower parents to get down on the ground with their kids, with tangible materials that promote retention and mastery, and interact in a meaningful that will forever change their educational trajectory.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
As an actor and educator, I used to think I had two disparate interests. Once I started tutoring however, I realized how my creativity, adaptability, and resilience as an artist complemented my teaching and set me apart as an educator. I seem to have a never ending well of energy – it’s the main quality all of my students first mention. I also always try to meet my students right where they’re at and build their confidence from there. Whether I’m teaching an 8th grader to master his multiplication facts (because he never learned them) using a Blink 182 song, making up a fun riddle for a 1st grader to remember the sound of short “a”, or dissecting the character of Stella for a Streetcar Named Desire essay, I’m adapting to that student’s needs and strengths in that particular moment. I’m utilizing any creative story or device that helps them see the material with a fresh perspective and keeps them engaged. By staying open and resilient, I’m modeling those same behaviors for them. Pursuing acting and now writing has never been easy. It’s 99% rejection, 100% adaptability, 150% resilience and infinite creativity. I don’t take any of the rejection personally anymore. I stick to what matters, which is understanding humankind and bringing it to life (on the screen or on the page). It turns out that my two interests aren’t disparate at all and help me understand and relate to my students, no matter what age they are and what I’m teaching. Combining my interests as an acting coach and teacher in LA and serving on the UCLA Faculty in their Professional Acting Program has been such a honor. It fuels me to teach the craft of acting and to find the vulnerability in any character. It also fuels me to find the inner confidence of all of my students. That’s what I’d like people to know about my brand – I’m the tiny 4’11” (and 1/2) educator with an uncanny ratio of energy to height and no matter what I’m teaching, I’m cultivating confidence.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
We’d definitely hike as many trails in Griffith Park as we could (and I’d probably get lost during most of them). We’d bike down the LA River path and grab a kickboxing class at my dojang (where I’m a 1st degree Black Belt). In between, we’d hit up a local cafe in my town of Burbank (and grab a cold brew from another local shop on Magnolia Blvd). Then we’d shop all the vintage stores on Magnolia, and make Happy Hour at the Roosevelt Library Bar before grabbing dinner at Castaways in the Burbank Hills. The night would end with some silent disco (I recently heard there was one on the beach and I’m absolutely into that). I’m not a huge beach person, though I’ve lived in LA almost 17 years, but I’ll go anywhere there’s silent disco. Oh and if the trip was a week long, we’d venture out to Idyllwild during the winter and Coronado in the spring or summer.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My kids! Mack and Huck are my everything. They are why I’m doing this. Nothing beats seeing the pride in Huck’s eyes when Mack teaches him a new word. Similarly, nothing beats the pride in my eyes when I see Mack playing the role of the “Tiny Tutor” to Huck. From the artwork and video tutorials to mom’s weekly Tuesday Tips, they are my co-creators:) My husband is also wholly supportive and I couldn’t build this business without his encouragement. I also would not be where I am today in this phase of subscription boxes without my amazing business partner, Andrea Arabia. Thank you, Andrea, for believing in The Tiny Tutor and taking us to this next level. You are the marketing and numbers to my curriculum and alphabet letters. Finally I have to thank every student, and their parents, who made me the Tiny Tutor I am today. I consider it one of life’s greatest blessings that I was entrusted with each and every one of them on their educational path.
Dana Patrick Kayci Lacob Jennifer Garcia