The Taser's Edge

Work Sheet.

Tuesday, one of the kids I tutor after school was insistent that we finish his homework before he went home.  It was strange, because I usually have to constantly reorient him to his tasks (even as I think to myself, “Wow. I’m glad nobody ever asked me to keep sustained concentration for 1.5 hours after a full day of school”).

It was only as we moved onto reading homework, and I glanced over his worksheet to see what we would be doing, and saw that there was space on this worksheet for the student and a parent/guardian to sign under “We have worked on this worksheet together,” that I realized what was going on in this ten-year-old’s anxious heart.  His parents can’t speak, read, or write English, no matter how attentive and available they are to his other needs as their son.

I don’t think I can overstate how impressive it is for a 10-year-old to start deciding that he must gain his education for himself; but I also can’t overstate how massive the obstacles are against him.

Why I Am Not a Teacher

My first real employment in months has been as an after-school language arts and math tutor for K-5th graders.  It’s only three days a week, a couple hours at a time, and it’s one of those programs federally funded under No Child Left Behind (meaning, the federal trough is open, all kinds of skeezy companies have sprung up to eat their fill, and one of those companies has hired me).

For the first time, I’m getting a slight taste of what my wife and other teacher friends are going through 180+ days a year.  My ‘classroom’ has only four kids, not 34 kids, so I don’t have the everyday knowledge that there is no way to make a connection with each child.  And while at least two of these students would certainly be a handful in a large classroom, no one is really a behavioral issue with the amount of personal attention I can give.

So the issue boils down to the academic side of school, and I am cursed by the award-winning computer software this tutoring company uses, which tells me daily exactly how far behind all but one of my students are.  The software has thousands of focused lessons programmed in, all focused toward state standards, so that language arts and math are both broken down into a ton of smaller components.

These components are actually surprisingly fun (at least for someone who wasn’t born into a household with a Playstation 2 and satellite HDTV).  Build a sandwich by doing phonics, fill a shuttle’s booster rockets with fuel by counting change, help out a local newscaster by telling him what letters his subjects begin with, etc.

Part of this is actually a beautiful mystery–how long did it take me to figure out that a tiny dime is worth more than a bigger nickel, or to automatically differentiate between a nickel and a quarter, which look basically the same when you’re not used to them?  (And when, other than when counting change, do you ever count by 25s?)  When did I first realize that when reading English, you just have to memorize certain words, because sounding out the letters only gets you so far?  When did I buy into the lie that it makes sense for phonics to start with the letter P?  (One student keeps reading it ‘poe-niks’, and I am on his side, even as I correct him.)

A second part of the experience is just that it’s a lot of fun.  The youngest kid is all smiles all the time, and when he walks, he races everywhere slowly on his 20-inch legs.  The next older is very shy, slowly came out of his shell before Christmas break, and now after break has apparently retreated inward again.  And I love talking to all of them, asking how their days are going, failing to make them laugh at my dumb jokes (succeeding in having them laugh at my dumb face).

The last part, however, is heartbreaking.  I usually work my way around the classroom, sit next to a student, have him unplug his headphones, and then listen and follow along as he goes through a module.  Yesterday, I sat beside one student as the computer asked him to click on the picture with the middle sound of a long O: “Which word has the middle sound…’O’?”.  In the program, when you slide the cursor over a picture, it reads it aloud: “House…Rope…Hero…Bed.”

The problem is, as it turns out, D doesn’t know the answer, because, being both six years old and an English Language Learner, he doesn’t understand the word ‘middle.’  If you have spent any time with me on the same side of a game of Taboo, you know I had to work hard to come up with an explanation that wasn’t even more confusing.  Synonyms don’t work: ‘center’ and ‘between’ wouldn’t help.  So maybe write out a word he would know, and ask him to sound it out.  Except sounding it out isn’t that easy, and he’s distracted because I’ve muted the program but the visuals are still interesting.  Could I use numbers instead (1-2-3)?  No, that’s more confusing, because it changes the subject.  By this point, I started thinking towards drawing a short train with a letter in each car, but his concentration was totally gone.  So we moved on, hoping to come back later.

I don’t write about this because I think my experience is unique, or because I have anything new to say.  (That’s actually the reason for the title of this post: to say I’m a teacher would be to insult those who are.)  I really don’t know what I’m doing, except that I have some compassion, some patience, and some creativity.

I write this because last night after tutoring I was totally drained and dragging around the house.  This morning has not gone according to schedule because I’m still drained and dragging around the house.  At first I was clueless, but now what I think it is is not lack of sleep or calories.  It’s emotional.

I am an empathic sponge.  It works well in some situations–I’m compassionate and a good listener.  I actually hurt when others hurt.  I’m a very good chaplain, a great friend, and usually a good husband.  It doesn’t work so well in other situations.  When Holly comes home after a hard day, my day becomes a hard day, because I soak it up without any conscious decision, and then sometimes find myself taking her hard day out on her.  After a year-long chaplaincy residency, I still bore far too many of other people’s hurts, and I would guess that seven months after it ended I am still detoxing.

And then this morning, I am wiped out by the emotional expenditure of being with a kid who doesn’t understand the word ‘middle.’  Thankfully, no more tutoring until tomorrow.

Until then, unwinding from one version of Blasters (no, it’s not actually Math Blasters) with another: