13 January 2010


Tutor Tales, Volume 11

Some time last year, while browsing in a thrift bookstore near my home, I came across a book written by a parent who was highly indignant at one response many teachers gave when they were polled about the biggest hindrances to teaching. Ranked even higher than the expected answers of budget cuts, school bureaucracy and student hoodlums (!!!) were . . . parents.

I had to laugh. I spent two years as an English teacher in a private Catholic school and am currently tutoring students from other private Catholic schools--and I, too, would have put parents in my Top 5 List of Stuff That Makes Teaching Difficult (and Tutoring Hell). For it's true! (Oh, the stories I could tell you . . .)

It is rare to find a parent who "gets it." That is, it's rare to find a parent who can either appraise his children with the cool eye of a teacher or be open-minded enough to listen to a teacher's appraisal of his child. That's perfectly normal, of course, and the only time it ever becomes a problem is when parents refuse to admit that they just might have a blind spot.


When Lug Wrench's mother hired me, she was very specific about the way her six-year-old boy was more brilliant than other children at that age.

"He has the IQ of a thirteen-year-old," she boasted--and though I took it with several grains of salt, I thought it was promising.

Ha! Now that I've been tutoring her boy for a couple of months, I can say that he is quick to pick up new lessons and that he stands out among his peers because of his unusually outgoing nature . . . but, otherwise, he's a perfectly normal boy. (You know, it's not such a bad thing!) He seems advanced because he talks a lot, but he's really only articulate when it comes to himself! If you ask him to come up with ways to conserve water at home (Science lesson) or to narrate what he remembers of the life of St. Dominic Savio (Religion lesson), then he'll need a bit more prodding.

I also know some things Mrs. Wrench might not know about her son's homework folder and the portfolios she has me organise. Last Tuesday evening, she contacted me because she couldn't find Science Activity Sheet #2. Since there was no separate Science folder when I started tutoring Lug Wrench, I told her that I store his Science papers in his Religion folder. (A private quirk.) She messaged back to say that it wasn't there and that she was disappointed in me. The reason she wanted it was that Lug Wrench will have a test tomorrow on the topic it covers, and at the time of her messages, he didn't seem to know the lesson at all.

Feeling a bit miffed, I told her that I had covered all the material on Matter that he brought home and believed that he knew the lesson pretty well. (Quietly, I wondered whether Lug Wrench was just being surly with her.)

Her reply--and I quote--was simply: Energy!

Apparently, there was a lesson beyond Matter which slipped past my vigilant eye . . . and that was enough to ruin her night.

This brings me back to what I know about Lug Wrench's homework folder. There have been two times in the past when he brought home a classmate's activity sheets by mistake; and so it's perfectly plausible that this time a classmate took home one of his! (I mean, they're in the First Grade! Give them a break!) I know that because I'm in charge of sorting all the papers he brings home, but I know from experience that it is impossible to defend oneself to an angry parent if the explanation makes the child look less perfect than the image she has of him.



Then there's Fire Storm's mother, who thinks her boy is more creative than he actually is, because he is taking drum lessons--and because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a teenage boy who takes drum lessons must be the creative sort!

Well, okay, that's not entirely fair. She's a shrewd woman--I'll give her that--and I'm sure she knows the areas where Fire Storm needs improvement. Yet though she sees him more clearly than Lug Wrench's mother sees her own boy, she doesn't also listen to him; and that makes a difference, too.

Two weeks ago, she asked us to perform a special set for his sister's upcoming birthday party. She had already, she told him, hired a set of drums from the party organisers so that she wouldn't have to worry about dismantling his electronic drum kit and transporting it to the venue. Then he asked her what the hired set looked like. Hearing the way she brushed off the question by telling him to stop fussing, I realised that she did not know one basic fact about drum sets--which is that not all of them are put together the same way. Or if she knew it, then she didn't understand that a drummer used to one arrangement would have trouble getting used to another. Yet that was something I learned the first day I started tutoring Fire Storm.

And no, Fire Storm did not bother to explain it to her--and I had to be the one to ask if he and I could go at the venue early, so that he could get used to what might be some very different drums. As for our set itself . . .

I had thought it would make a nice Music project, being a great way to apply what he has learned from his drum class . . . and then I found myself puzzling out all the arrangements by myself. Used to playing his drum instructor's sheet music drills and practicing with uptempo songs on his iPod, he was completely at a loss when confronted with the thoughtful In My Life (The Beatles) and the romantic True (Spandau Ballet).

Without dragging up more of his school work so far, it must be said that Fire Storm just isn't ready for the kind of independent learning that high school teachers expect. (I speak as a former high school teacher . . . and current high school-level homeschool tutor.) I can monitor his work extra closely now and coach him for the school entrance exams he is going to take next month . . . but after that, it will be entirely up to him . . . and he doesn't seem to want things to be up to him. But back to the set . . .

After a week's worth of awful, awkward rehearsals, we finally stumbled upon something we could both play--something we could play together. Now the only challenge is how to explain to his mother why we're rocking out to Summer of '69 (circa-1984 Bryan Adams!!!) at his sister's debutante ball. That is, if she bothers to listen.



Perhaps the parent I get along best with is the mother of the Doctor Brothers. She and her husband are separated and she goes by her maiden name, so let's call her Ms. Cotton Flower. ("Doctor Cotton" is kind of cute, though, don't you think?)

I think we get along because there's no way she can tell herself that her boys are utterly brilliant and that it is their teachers who are insane. Indeed, when it comes to Doctor Nemesis, her greatest allies in making sure he turns out civilised in the end are the teachers and tutors who see him as he is and yet refuse to give up on him.

Last week, Ms. Cotton Flower had a conference with his Homeroom teacher, who told her point blank that Doctor Nemesis has one last chance this school year to pull his failing Maths grade up. If he can't--or won't--do that, then he'll have to repeat the whole sixth grade.

My first reaction to the news was my usual exasperation with the boy. I see him after school three days a week; I make him do Maths drills all the time; I know that he understands all the concepts and can follow all the steps. That he himself chooses to doodle on his test papers than follow the school rules lets all of us off the hook . . . but now I find that I don't want to be let off the hook!

The only blind spot here is Doctor Nemesis' own. I want to fight for this indefensible boy more than he wants to fight for himself, and I am honoured to be in this battle with his mother.

Image Sources: a) Lug Wrench, b) Fire Storm, c) Cotton Flower


twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Absolutely yes and absolutely not,eh?

I could go on and on. Mom who gets mad because I threatened her kid with police if he wouldn't turn over his slingshot (real deal, killing rodents type of slingshot, not fisher price)and he might have had an asthma attack from the fear. Dad who tells me his kid gets A's so he doesn't want to hear about the nasty manipulative sociopathic behavior and by the way stop expecting him to do anything because it makes him unhappy which makes his mom unhappy so that makes dad unhappy so he's coming in to yell at me.

What I found, generally, was that it was the modern-est, wealthiest, most privileged folks who were my biggest impediments to teaching their kids anything useful at all. You're not surprised to hear that from me, are you?

At the same time, looking back at the teaching I did when I was 21, I was in a teacher/admin culture that really had disdain for parents. The assumption was that we were supposed to gently go around them or manipulate them into doing and prioritizing what our education-degree programs told us was necessary and important. I remember very distinctly a poor kid who had a mild ADHD, mom took him off his meds and the counselor fairly bullied her into returning him to them (then and now it was clear to me that mom was right), and the assumptions were all that this counselor, who had spent a few minutes with the kid but many hours in university, knew more about his needs than the mom that probably hadn't made it past high school but clearly knew and loved her kid.

Which is not, I know, what you're talking about. But I bring it up because I think the tendency with teachers is to see parent type #1 and to develop a pre-disposition in their way of viewing parents. I get that a lot, lot, lot at our current (and good) school. We have had lots of papers sent home about how we're supposed to feed and exercise our kids -- from a school that considers white bread a thrice daily staple and gives them candy at least 4 times a week and locks them in seats for 6 or 7 hours every day. The newsletter to parents lectured them on how they shouldn't be tardy (there's no bus to this school) not because it was inconveniencing the teachers (which is a legit communication) but because we don't see what "message" we're giving our kids about the importance of school when we do it (my kids get no secret messages -- they *know* I think school is of marginal importance!). We are told that when kids resolve disputes in the principal's office, parents usually won't be informed because it's unnecessary and a hassle, and besides, kids often work things out better on their own (i.e. with pro help, not parental). (An example of stellar pro mediation, when my six year old daughter was slapped in the face by a first grade boy the boy had to apologize. . . ).

In any case, I get it, but also there's a real move out there (do you hear the black helicopters? . . . .)to say kids are best taken care of by people with degrees and paychecks (daycare, teachers, counselors, etc.) than by their own parents.

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Oh, and just to continue the ramble, when my oldest entered kindergarten she was reading quite a bit -- she was reading Dahl books on her own initiative. No, I didn't think she was the new Einstein, I thought she learned to read early, entered K late, and read a lot because she liked it.

But in K they were learning the alphabet. Pretty much all year. Teacher refused to just let her read a book on her own.

They got a script for a school program and she was reading it to me after school, out loud, and he was there and said, "it's amazing how fast they memorize things that are read to them, isn't it?"

It was really strange how he refused to believe she could read.

Later, he mentioned his daughter was a great reader, and was reading "chapter books" when she was in kindergarten.

So, essentially, for this kindergarten teacher, no kid in his class was ever allowed to be further along than his own prodigy daughter had been.

There's an intersection of crazy parent and crazy teacher for you.

Enbrethiliel said...


Since I was in kindergarten, I was taught that my teacher was my second mother; and when I started teaching, I adopted the faculty room custom of referring to my homeroom class as "my offspring." So I've tended to see parents and teachers as tag team partners. I think the relationship breaks down when either party thinks it knows better and refuses to believe otherwise.

Then there are different expectations. I've always shared your opinion that school is of marginal importance--even when I was teaching in one--and you can imagine how badly some parents, who had made careers out of their children's school performance, took that when they finally figured it out! =S

On the other hand, I've worked with some pretty remarkable parents, too--the kind who were missed by the entire faculty after their kids graduated.

Yet I always find myself on guard when I have to meet a parent, after having known his child for some time--and always relieved when the parent seems friendly.

Your oldest child's kindergarten teacher sounds a little like my own! I learned to read before kindergarten, but I had to go over the alphabet, anyway, with all the other kids. I think she knew I could read but had no idea what to do with me. Believe it or not, there were no books in the classroom in those days! There was nothing I could do but follow along . . . or daydream!

Noxxtis said...

As promised: http://decadentlymacabre.blogspot.com/2010/01/dancing-potato.html


Enbrethiliel said...


Excellent! Now I just have to think of a great way to introduce you to all my readers. =)

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Did I tell you about the resume someone showed me for a woman who got a high powered job? She had put on it all her jobs over the decades, but also the impressive jobs her *grown children* held.

We all are tempted to define ourselves using our kid's achievements, but I've never seen anything so blatant.

Totally agree on the expectations gap and where the problem comes in.

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

Thanks for the decadently macabre link. I asked my husband for his top five female vampires. It was stressful for him. He asked things like, "What are the criteria?"

1. Amy Peterson from Fright Night.

2. Lucy Westenra (yes, he had to tell me it's from the novel Dracula).

3. Vampirella.

4. Selene from the Underworld movies.

5. Mae from *Near Dark* played by Jenny Wright.

He says Buffy must be mentioned even though she's not a vampire.

There's a thread on his forum right now, who are your favorite vampires.

Didn't know if I should post that here or there, but wanted you guys to know you've inspired.

twowaysofrenouncingthedevil said...

I started reading the Macabre list and my husband was very upset that he'd forgotten Claudia and requested that they be put into the Vampirella spot.

Enbrethiliel said...


Now that is some resume! I could understand a professional mentor (???) doing that . . . so I guess this makes the woman a "career mother"?

Marie, I think you must run into more than your average share of interesting people!

Please post your comment over at Noxxtis' blog, too. =) She'll be thrilled to know that someone else has read her post and had something more relevant to say than I did!

dylan said...

Did you know that the German word for Wrench is Schraubenschl├╝ssel?

Enbrethiliel said...


I didn't know that yesterday . . . but I know it today! =)

You know, I think Lug Wrench would really enjoy a nickname like Schraubenschlussel. Unfortunately, if I called him that during our sessions, then I'd have to explain . . . He's as fun to know as "Schraubenschlussel" is fun to say, but he's really nothing like a "wrench"!