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