What I Learned: The Tutoring Edition

As I mentioned before, I tutor a 7 year old boy twice a week in reading and writing. You may well have concluded based on that post that the little guy (I’ll call him Nick) and I got on very well and made good progress together. Well, that was the case until Thursday of last week.

Nick and his mom showed up to Multnomah’s library as usual for our lesson. Nick hid behind a stack of books and refused to come into the little annex where we have class. Eventually his mom half-pulled, half-pushed him into the room. Once he and I were alone in the room together he wouldn’t look at me. He turned his back to me, head bowed, and shuffled his feet. He wouldn’t say a word.

I didn’t want to press him so I told him that I would read a story book and he was free to do the same. I sat with my back to him and read. He sat cross-legged on the floor and listlessly leafed through books too. Finally, 35 minutes later, he turned to face me and I began to ask him questions: “Are you upset? Do you not feel like reading today? What should we do today so that we have fun while we practice? What can I do to help you be ready to learn? Did something happen today that made you feel sad?” All to no avail. Eventually I got out of him that he was tired, bored, and didn’t like the library. He wanted to be at home playing video games and watching his fish. I’ve never seen a bored kid put up such a barrier — that kid is a first class stonewaller.

I promised Nick that I would bring something fun on the following Tuesday for us to do. When he showed up I displayed to him what I had prepared: a series of flashcards with pictures on them (a house, a dog, a beach, etc.) The game was this: we would each take turns writing stories on the back of the card. One person would write one sentence and the other would write the next. This game was a big, resounding failure. Once I told him that not talking was not an option he very clearly communicated his feelings: “I can’t write on paper without lines. I don’t want to make up a story. This is just making me even more bored.”Ok, message received.

Because he resolutely refused to participate in the activity I had prepared we spent the time doing psychoanalysis instead. “Why don’t you want to write?” I asked him. “Is it because it’s hard?” He agreed, writing is hard. “What happens when you don’t work when you’re parents are trying to teach you?” He told me, “They get made and say angry words.” With great irony (because I myself was not all that happy at that point) but also with great calm I said, “Well, in this class with me it’s OK not to know how to do things and to think something is hard.  I’ll never get mad at you. Now do you want to try?” “No.” Our hour together ticked by and eventually his mom came.

Luckily, I had a fun activity planned for after tutoring so I could recover a little from this test of wills. A friend took my to his climbing gym and showed me the ropes a little (Get it?) It was so hard! My hands had trouble gripping the little pegs and I was scared when I got to the top and I just couldn’t do it! My friends were really patient and just kept giving me easier and easier routes to try. Finally, we went to the easiest one in the building and I could do it. We stayed there for the rest of the time, practicing and working on basic skills.

While I was there I was thinking about how I respond when something is too hard for me. Because I’m an adult I can reflect on my experience and respond proactively. If I were a 7-year-old, though, and someone took me to the gym and made me do something too hard for me I might shut down, just like Nick did. If I were 7 1/ 2 and just now entering first grade I might feel like a failure already. So, to be asked to do something that I don’t feel confident doing (like writing whole sentences out of thin air) might feel like just one more chance to miss the mark. My frustration toward Nick changed to pity and regret that I had not been a more helpful teacher to him.

So, on Thursday I went to his house for another lesson. I came armed with a binder with his name on it and stacks of lined paper. We spent time coloring and practicing writing individual letters. I helped him to caption his drawings and we stuck it in the binder so he could have a record of his work. Suddenly, the happy, chatty, friendly kid I had known was back. I could tell that he was feeling more confident, “I already know how to do this!” he said, and also, “This is easy now for me.” The difference wasn’t in him — it was in me. I looked at the kindergarten and first grade state standards and I created a skill-level appropriate activity. As we were doing it I noticed some warning signs for dyslexia or some other reading disability and so I suggested to his mom that she have him assessed by a reading specialist. But, at least he’s happy and we’re making some progress.

It’s easy for me to forget that little kids can’t cope the same way adults can. What’s more, it’s easy to forget that as adults we shape our environments so that we feel comfortable and in control as much of the time as possible. Little kids don’t have that luxury. So, it’s my job as a teacher to help him feel comfortable so he can go out on a limb and take a risk and improve. And that’s what I learned from tutoring.

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