Monday, June 8, 2015

Reflections: Teacher or Tutor?

I have been a teacher and a tutor. What is the difference between those two jobs? Teachers have to cater to parents, school boards, and administrators. A good teacher has to be a genius at group management. Teachers have to prioritize a great many activities that have very little to do with children learning. Teachers have to work with someone else's idea of a curriculum. Teachers have to attempt to teach whoever ends up in their classroom. And today, public school teachers have to deal with testing, testing, and more testing. In exchange for this a public school teacher, who hangs in there, gets a decent (but certainly not a fantastic) salary, a great retirement, and pretty good benefits. If she is lucky she has some wonderful students, great parents, and a supportive administrators. Private school teaching is similar, but often has smaller classroom size, less testing,  smaller salaries, and a much smaller (if any) retirement. 

A tutor has autonomy, no administration, the right to turn away a student or parent, and the freedom to choose what to teach and how to teach it. The student has one-to-one attention of an adult who can change the curriculum or method immediately if need be. Of course, there are many types of tutors, but I am writing about independent, private tutors.

After many years of teaching in private schools I retired. Now I tutor a small select number of children. Being a teacher improved my ability to tutor and being a tutor has improved my ability to teach. Being a teacher introduced me to various curriculums and paradigms about special education. I was sent to numerous workshops. I watched presentations on brain research and saw sales pitches on various programs based on "current" research.  I saw computer programs, and all inclusive boxed programs (which included teacher manuals, workbooks, flashcards, games and access to a website). I met teachers who for years varied nary a micron from rote instruction, and I saw creative teachers who, in the creative process, somehow lost the goal of what was to be taught. 

But, most importantly, I saw children succeed and I saw children fail. I knew children attending expensive private schools that specialized in teaching children with LDs; children exposed for several years to researched computer programs, small classrooms, and focused reading programs, who somehow never quite learned to read or calculate. Many of these children had been pulled from good public schools that had, despite wonderful IEPs, failed to teach them to read or comprehend basic arithmetic. I met parents desperately trying their best to find something to help their children who, despite average or high IQs, were not learning basic skills. 

So now that I am a few years away from school and a few years into tutoring what have I learned?  I've now concluded some children are pushed too hard at too young an age to read and write. I believe that children have to be challenged, not coddled, if they have an LD; but the challenges don't negate the need for remediation. A child can memorize poetry, understand literature, learn history, explore science, and still need to be in a beginning reading program. We must remember, especially in the lower grades, that we teach children, not curriculum. I now have the time to back track if something is obviously too difficult for a child. 

You don't let children give up, but you don't push them beyond their abilities. Time and time again I have seen the importance of TIME. A child who wants to quit because he can't get the letter q oriented in the right direction is (after a two weeks of just writing it on paper with his finger) begging to try it again with a pencil. That child is delighted that he can now write a great q! A child who can't remember a single sight word at age six, flies through 10 words a week at age seven. 

In a perfect world we would have no more than five children in beginning reading and math classes. Those who needed more time would get it. Those who didn't need constant repetition would move on. There would be individualized help for a child who was having a difficult time learning to read. We would have patient, intelligent teachers who would focus on the goal while having a plethora of methods and time to reach that goal. These teachers would receive the same praise and salary as the high school coach. Think of it in cost benefit terms: If everyone could read and understood basic math by the time they reached high school, tax dollars for remediation wouldn't be needed and graduation rates would go up.   In addition all school athletes would be able read.

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