17 May 2008

Tutor. [too-ter] noun. One who can apply the difference between Content and Context

The challenge of being a tutor goes beyond being sensitive to the student's learning methods, moods, and capabilities. After a full, long, and probably challenging--if they need me--day of school, they get home to find another teacher waiting for them. I'm not just competing with an already established resentment for the subject, but also with a resentment for my presence, when any kid would rather be spending their after-school hours with friends or a video game.

Yet I persist to schedule my appointments just after school lets out. It's important to me that I catch them then, just as it was important that the first thing I did when I got home from school was instrumental practice and homework. Otherwise, the mind is weakened from hunger as it nears dinner time, fatigue as it nears bedtime, and restlessness if it has to return to a focused state after it's decided school is over. I'm just the last class of the day.

Faced with these challenges, the hour I spend with a student is like no other hour they get during the day. My goals are lofty, but instead of requiring discipline of the body, I command discipline of the mind. If discipline of the mind leads to a quiet lecture-study-question-answer hour, that's traditional. But most of the time those kids who have the mental power to stay put are not the kids who need my help. Instead, my students walk around in circles, lie under the table, or sit on the floor. Since I already have an established authority role with the students, being as I'm not their teacher and their parents must be under some noticeable duress to have to pay for extra help, sitting all formal in a chair is a good way to lose their attention and have them revert to the same role of teacher-student that got them to my services. Instead, I join them.

At first I was afraid to have this kind of relationship, but over time that has changed. It empowers me when a parent comes to get their brilliant student and we're lying on our backs staring at the underside of a table. "Look!" it says, "My loss of inhibition allows your child to lose theirs, too." And the report cards come back that I'm right. The student gets to see I know what I'm talking about; they begin to see it as general knowledge as opposed to book-smarts. If there's no book, how could it possibly be book-smarts, right?

My creativity can't stop there, though. If I am to teach lessons that will follow a student into the classroom and down the road, I have to be consistent with other methods of teaching. Pens, pencils, cursive writing. A chalkboard in the classroom and a chalkboard on my table. Rules, repetition, lists, and firm requests. No cheating, no sliding, and no getting out of an answer. Questions. Answers. Applications. Tests.
How do I un-normalize such worn methods? I put the board flat on the table. We write messages back and forth, and incorrectly coded messages don't get across. I use silence as much as I use verbal-only exercises.

I have to think on my toes, and I have to listen. It surely doesn't hurt when the parent asserts some new progress noticed by the normal teacher, but my meter for success is more subtle. No moment feels better than when my student walks out the door and I recap the last hour in my head, discovering, he learned it!

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