How Being a Tutor Improved My Education

(Rachel Lerman, formerly the Associate Director of Marketing and Development for the CityBridge Foundation, serves as one of FLOC’s board members. This article was first published in The Huffington Post in June of 2009.)

Across our nation’s capital, there is a daily struggle to lift (and sometimes drag) our children from the depths of Dante’s 10th Level of Hell — “below basic” reading and math.

What can one person do? Try using a pink dry erase marker and “trashketball.”

Or become a volunteer tutor in a DC public school.

That’s what I did two years ago. I (naively) believed I was more than qualified to help “disadvantaged” children improve their learning skills. After all, I’m an African-American woman with a graduate degree, a professional career, and young children of my own. My father was a public school teacher. I loved school.

Certainly I could give back to my adopted community of DC in some way. (Very Michelle Obama, no? Well actually, no.)

Pop quiz: When do you use carrying in addition? How do you pronounce “gh” in through, though, thought and tough? What is the likelihood that a student just like the one you tutor every week will graduate high school?

As of today, the odds are 1 in 9.

Good intentions are not enough.

Luckily for the kids at Garrison Elementary, a ten-minute bus ride from both my house and from the White House, a local nonprofit operates a structured tutoring program to harness good intentions into achievable outcomes. And they help ensure that wannabe do-gooder types like me apply skills and energy in a relevant way.

The nonprofit is called For Love of Children (FLOC). They have data, processes, training, research-driven practices, evaluations and a very talented (mostly young) professional staff. Of course there is the enthusiasm and idealism most often associated with volunteer organizations. But don’t let the flip-flops fool you. These are pros.

A FLOC trainer brought me to reality the first day: a tutor’s job is not to make friends or help with homework. The job is to teach. To do so means learning, and in some cases un-learning, things you thought you already knew. Reading books is not enough.

So here are some things I had to learn. Pink dry-erase markers can be more effective than pencils. The “good” kids are often the ones considered best-behaved. And they are often quite adept at guessing answers and reading your face for clues.

Pencils on paper — with the inevitable splintering, dulling and wearing down of erasers — can easily be used to delay committing to an answer for a problem when a bright child has no idea what you mean. Here’s how it works. They slooooowly write out nine plus six, then sloooowly erase, write a five, look at you, smile, erase erase erase, write a six, look up at you, erase erase erase. Well, you get the idea.

Dry erase boards and markers provide none of the precision of a pencil, ergo less time spent erasing and rewriting as a means to divine a tutor’s intention. Penmanship cannot override problem solving when you literally start with a clean slate.

(Pink is actually optional.)

“Trashketball” aka basketball with a classroom trash can help burn up some energy and allow kids to focus. But fellow volunteers, please don’t fall for this line. “Miss Rachel, if I get this page of word problems right, can we play trashketball? Pleeeeease? You’re my faaaavorite tutor.”

As one of the savvier tutors informed me, “trashketball” is a well documented best practice utilized by students to get even the most tenacious of tutors distracted from lesson plans. Some kids are experts at missing the rim of the hallway trashcan just enough to push “trashketball” into triple overtime. (Note to self: watch more ESPN next year.)

How has being a tutor changed my life? Perhaps not in the ways one would expect. Yes, it’s been rewarding to see smiling young faces, dedicated teachers and inspiring families who belie urban stereotypes.

On a completely selfish basis, what I have learned about learning has prepared me to begin facing the myriad of nuances of education, class and community that my children will face growing up in Washington, DC.

I am less naïve about what I “give back” and more appreciative of what I am getting: an education about education.

So to Shannon, Chaka, Melissa, Tim, Ellie, Ms. Herndon, Trinisha, and everyone involved at FLOC, thank you.

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