My Year as a Tutor: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Today marked my final session with the two students I have been tutoring since the beginning of the school year last September as a part-time gig while in classes. Rather than spending the day forcing them to work or practise their reading comprehension as I often do, I simply let the session pass giving my two students the choice to do whatever they felt like doing. Immediately, they chose to spend the session on the computers at the school’s library where our tutoring sessions take place. I had been depriving them of this privilege nearly the entire year feeling that it was a distraction from what they really should have been focussing on, namely their reading. This is primarily because my two students were enrolled in this program specifically due to the fact that they were far behind the literacy standards for their grade level and severely needed to play catchup lest the problem exacerbate itself in the coming years.

It’s a written law, however, that on the last day of anything school related, no one is to do what they’re actually there to do. The last day of school is usually reserved for “class parties” featuring a wide assortment of sugary snacks and soft drinks donated by the students (the parents, really). The class might watch a movie or play games, but no matter what there was to be no talk of actual school work (if you could call what we did in elementary school work). I only had two students under my charge and lacked the resources for doing anything extravagant. I knew, however, that a session on the computers would be more than sufficient to make them happy, so for the last day of tutoring, I didn’t resist their demands.

In some sense, this was the most meaningful session I’ve had with my students all year. As they used an art program that was around even when I was a kid, I got to engage in the most informal conversation I’ve had with them all year, and it’s these informal conversations which are always the most meaningful. They asked me about life as a university student and seemed easily amazed at the amount of work that was required of me. As they composed their artwork on the computer, I snuck in a few art history lessons just for the hell of it using my feeble knowledge of the subject. I gained more insights than I had all year about their likes and dislikes, their fears and the sense of humour they shared.

When our session came to an end, I left them with their simple parting gifts and was sure for the first time that I had made some breakthroughs with them during our time together. I  felt for the first time with some certainty that they looked up to me and were appreciative of what I did as a tutor. They repeated their pledge to spend the summer reading and why it was important to do so  told me that I was the “best tutor ever.” I’m pretty sure, however, that I am the only tutor they have ever had and this might have been an after-effect of the gifts I gave them, but it was a nice sentiment nonetheless and it’s always nice to know that you are appreciated for something. This entire venture has been, simply stated, a learning experience. As contrived as it may sound, I learned far more from my students that they probably learned from me. I may have taught them the basic mathematical operations and bolstered their literacy in whatever manner I could, but I emerged with a myriad of life lessons which will forever impact my worldview.

Here’s how I basically break down the whole experience.

The Good

Throughout the year, I can say confidently that I noticed significant instances of progress from my students. My second grader began the year unable to so much as complete a basic math problem (and by basic I mean 2X2). Furthermore, he lacked the ability to decode words and sound them out (i.e. what does “ing” always sound like). As the year came to a close, however, while he still struggles with these issues, he has shown a greater ability to solve the problems he encounters. He may not recognize even simple words among first seeing them, but has developed a knack for breaking them down and using strategies we’ve worked out together to eventually work out what a text says. Though this take a significant amount of time, at the very least I feel like we’ve laid the foundations for him to eventually achieve fluency in reading at his grade level so long as he has the support to put in the hours. When it comes to literacy, you get what you put in and time spent building comprehension is crucial. I know that this student’s mother is incredibly committed to seeing him pull himself together, so I feel that I can breathe at least somewhat easier.

My third grader is much the same story. Lacking basic comprehension when we began, I would often spend entire sessions working through only a few pages of simple text with him so that he could actually understand what he read. Slowly but surely the time it took to work through texts lessened and he was able to relate to me at least a basic summary of what we had been reading,  even answering comprehension questions. Once again, as I leave these students behind, I can only cross my fingers and hope that though they lose their time with a regular tutor, they will have at least some support system or mechanism (i.e. family members) that allow them to keep up with these tasks.

For me, personally, this experience only reiterated how rewarding it is to be involved in any type of educational process. As you navigate the unique needs and abilities of each pupil and somehow manage to make them “get something,” you can’t help but feel a real sense of purpose and triumph when you finally succeed. Concerning something as simple as math problems, you can truly feel a sense of accomplishment when your pupil is able to execute such questions entirely on their own without your help. When you’re in the teacher position, it’s not about you, but rather a matter of harnessing all your energy and the potential of the student into discovering new knowledge, and it’s a riveting feeling and one which changes one’s perspective on life. Indeed, it is possible to find a sense of fulfillment serving someone other than yourself.

I have long been considering a career in teaching, and it will certainly remain in my mind after this experience. It’s a career built entirely on the idea of service and investment in the well-being of others, and it’s always been attractive to me for precisely that reason.

The Bad

My students, as I’ve mentioned, were in grades two and three. Yes, they could be bratty on occasion and weren’t keen on doing work often, but this was to be expected. I came into the job with a realistic outlook, remembering that I myself avoided workwhenever possible at that age and had to be coerced into getting anything done. This was something I could manage. What struck me, however, was that my students approached everything as a negotiation process. If I said that we would spend the session practicing our math, their immediate response would be something to the effect of “If we do math for an hour, then can we go on the computer?” or “How about we do math for a bit and then we can play with our Pokemon cards (I know, I can’t believe these abominations still exist)?” On other occasions, they would simply demand that they work on something other than what they had to.

I have no idea what the root of this is. Perhaps children are now raised without a sense of hierarchy and are given more opportunities to make choices. I often felt that I wasn’t respected because nothing I said required immediate compliance because it could be negotiated and they probably figured I would cave as many of their teachers or their parents often did, usually due to the overwhelming stress each faced in their daily lives, which left them without the energy to go head to head with a second or third grader. My patience was truly tested, and I often spent the first chunk of each session simply going back and forth with them just to get them to work. I’m proud to say that in these battles, I made few compromises and mostly emerged victorious. Nonetheless, I remember being far more obedient as a child, but I’m not a sociologist or psychologist so I won’t get any further into that matter.

The Ugly

I won’t be the first or last to say this, but the entire educational system is failing our children and as a tutor for the year I witnessed this first hand. Class sizes are simply too large and teachers are not getting the one on one time required with their students which is necessary if they are to develop certain skills, literacy in particular. Too often, when speaking with teachers, they mention that they only have an hour per day to work with a class on a certain subject and the classes are too large that they often can’t administer proper assignments because designing and marking them would be a logistical nightmare (most teachers have more than one class at this school).

I’ll refrain from a full-blown political rant here because I don’t know nearly enough about educational policy and have only my own experience to go on, but students are lacking the support to succeed. Students coming from single-parent families or families where parents are constantly working and pressed for time will probably not have any practice reading outside of the classroom. This spills over into the classroom and teachers are expected to pick up the slack, which is especially difficult in gigantic classes and when teachers themselves are lacking the time and resources to remedy other shortcomings. The sad result is that schools often make compromises and succumb to the fact that certain goals will not be met. Many of the teachers I met in this process were simply disillusioned and hoping to do only what they could for some students, knowing full well that truly ambitious targets could not be met.

Time determines results in education, and teachers are lacking in this valuable commodity when classes are so large and when problems from outside of the classroom (of a familial or socio-economic nature) are leaking into the confines of schools. Nonetheless, many teachers I met persevere through this bleak scenario and find someway to be a teacher, parent, coach, counsellor, and psychiatrist all at the same time. It often deters from the time they could spend engaging in the educational process, but it’s something teachers must do and it remains an inspiring thing to witness.

It was nothing short of alarming when a third grade student could not do basic math, which was in turn fuelled by the fact that they could not properly count in some cases. I can’t even begin to imagine what the cause of this is, and I’m left feeling frustrated at the end of this process. On the other hand, these alarming facts have renewed my commitment to understanding these issues and hopefully playing a part in the solution.

In the final analysis, my time as a tutor has been one of the great learning experiences of my life. Throughout all the highs and lows, I was continually inspired by my students and other tutors who took the time  to undertake this venture. Even those teachers who are often disillusioned are still equally inspiring. The mere fact that they can remain in such an incredibly stressful profession and remain committed to the success of their students no matter the odds they face is something to behold.

***The tutoring program I was part of was facilitated by the Working Women Community Centre, which primarily serves the Portuguese and Spanish-Canadian communities in Toronto but has also undertaken many other worthwhile initiatives tackling vital community issues. If you can support them in any way, please do.

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