The young boy sits across the table from me, intent on solving simple subtraction facts. His tousled hair sticks straight up in spots, and he sticks his tongue out as he concentrates. Then his face suddenly glows as an answer comes to him. He remembered a math fact answer without counting, and that’s a real accomplishment.
The students come in all sizes and shapes, but all have one thing in common. They are not succeeding with learning in their assigned educational settings. Whether the youngster missed an excessive amount of school, changed residences frequently, or is struggling with a learning disability doesn’t really matter. The student needs the specialized help of a tutor, and I have the privilege and challenge of providing that help.
My teaching career has taken a less-traveled path. After spending time as a classroom teacher with mentally disabled youth, I started my own private tutoring service. I put my special education training to use and make a difference in students’ lives, one child at a time. It’s challenging and gratifying work, and allows me to see results first hand and up close.
Students whose families seek private tutorial assistance are struggling with schoolwork, often for reasons unknown. The children are failing or nearly failing, and parents are desperately seeking some help for them. Many times, the kids are “falling through the cracks” of our educational system. They don’t quite qualify for special education services, but they can’t quite learn in the regular classroom setting. They may need a slower pace, an extra review of basic concepts, or even an entirely different teaching method than they are being offered at school. Sometimes, their teachers have told the parents that the child is “lazy” or “not working up to his potential.” Many have heard that they shouldn’t be so concerned, since the child will “grow out of it” in the next year or two.
Teachers, with their student loads often past the numbers that allow efficient teaching, can not individualize lessons to help these few struggling students. Some don’t even notice these youngsters sitting quietly in the back of the room with their consistently low grades. They may not realize that the good grades that are achieved are the product of countless hours of supervised homework each and every evening. They can’t know about the sweat and tears that have gone into each project. “I only assign forty-five minutes of homework each night,” says one teacher. The parent replies that the forty-five minute assignment took their child four or five hours to complete. This is passed off as a family problem with priorities or distraction, and often ignored.
The students who visit me each week generally are not lazy, unmotivated, or uncaring. In fact, they usually care all too much, and are suffering from damaged self-esteem in addition to whatever educational problems they may be facing. Several years of banging your head against a stone wall will do that to a person. Peers and even some adults have told the child that he or she just needs to “try harder.” In addition to diagnosing and remediating educational weaknesses, I spend a lot of time building confidence for learning. A major review of previous concepts is often needed, and I can find ways to disguise what we’re doing so that my young student doesn’t realize that we’re reviewing material from two, three, or more years ago. When I find the problem area, we take baby steps as I reteach the concepts involved. After a few weeks, students generally begin to see progress and to feel that the tutoring sessions are, indeed, helping their performance.
The memorable and gratifying moments quickly outshine the frustrations of working with students in a one-to-one setting. Such intensive attention, immediate correction and reinforcement, and individualized remediation has quick and lasting results for most pupils. A fourth-grade student came to me with a strong phobia of numbers and things mathematical. He avoided math whenever he could, grew increasingly hysterical when faced with an assignment, and was totally convinced that he was stupid because he couldn’t master the simplest math problems that his friends were breezing through several years ago. One year later, slow and careful review combined with multi-sensory teaching techniques paid off, and the boy had mastered basic math concepts. During the next year, he caught up to his classmates, and finally, no longer needed any assistance with math at all. He was able to listen in class without his brain shutting down and could now learn productively from the teacher and with his peers.
A third-grade girl had great difficulty with written expression. She could barely put one or two sentences on paper before giving up. Words just would not be spelled right, punctuation concepts escaped her, and sentences did not flow into paragraphs and stories as teachers expected. Often, during those first few weeks of tutoring, she would throw her pencil down in disgust and burst into tears. She responded to special motivation programs to build written fluency, learned to enjoy word games, and found a way to get the wonderful stories in her head to flow onto the paper whenever she wanted. Her real-life story had the perfect ending when, years after she finished her tutoring program, I heard that she graduated high school with honors and was headed to a college journalism program.
These are the students and the stories that make this job worthwhile and so rewarding. Yes, there are students who are less successful, and even a few whose problems run so much deeper than the educational issues that I cannot find a way to help them, but the success stories far, far outnumber the frustrations. I’ve been doing this long enough in the same community that I can now look around and see successful young adults who hold satisfying jobs and know that I helped them over a rough spot in their schooling and enabled them to get where they are today.
The boy with the tousled hair who just got the right answer grins from ear to ear. He’s really ten years old, and age-wise, is much older than the work would indicate. He’s using counting disks to solve most of the problems on the worksheet, a luxury that his fourth grade teacher simply will not allow in class. But the manipulation of these concrete items is helping him to remember those elusive answers. We’ll keep practicing together, and most of all, keep celebrating these small accomplishments. And who knows, next year at this time, this boy might be back on track for classroom success, and there will be yet another child sitting at my table, learning and growing out of frustration and failure toward success and self-confidence. I just love saying goodbye to my students when it means they no longer need my help.