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Tutoring in the Trenches


When you think of tutoring, do you think of a teacher and student sitting quietly in a classroom or office or perhaps at a dining room table, going over some vocabulary or working on writing a letter or reading a passage from a book? This was more or less my experience over many, many years as a teacher and tutor to hundreds of English language learners. Tutoring for the Mano en Mano clients, however, has been a whole different adventure. While delights have been many, the challenges have been amazing and unexpected. I call it Tutoring in the Trenches.

One delight—and challenge—has been delivering tutoring in students’ homes. The advantages of doing the work in their homes are significant. For one thing, students rarely cancel if they know I am coming to their house. On the contrary, they go to great effort to be ready and to take advantage of the lesson. Also, they can’t be late, another significant problem in more traditional tutoring situations. And of course, I get to know my students in ways no work in a classroom would ever permit.

But being in students’ homes and trying to concentrate on English lessons is not easy. First, it is extremely rare to have a table to work on. More often we sit on a futon or sofa that also serves as someone’s bed. There may not even be a chair handy on which to put my box of materials. This makes keeping my materials organized and at hand quite challenging. I have become more adept at carrying all the supplies I might need in tutoring in a small plastic box and a tote bag.

Also, nearly every home I have been in has one—sometimes more—baby. I have often paused while the baby is changed, nursed, rocked or entertained—sometimes by me. It is not uncommon for me to do a lesson with a baby on my knee. If there are toddlers, they love to dig in my supply box, and otherwise demand much more attention than the babies. Older children are thrilled when they are included in the games and activities their parent is engaged in for English study. This latter practice isn’t always as good as it sounds, however, because frequently children who are in school have much stronger conversational English than their parent does, and they correct or translate for the parent, diluting the effect of the English activity, and sometimes annoying the parent!

Among other distractions in the home are noisy TVs, phones ringing or receiving texts, friendly—or not so friendly—pets, other family members or inhabitants in the house needing to pass through the very limited work space or needing my student’s attention for something, and food being prepared, sometimes by the student him or herself. Lucky me if I am offered some wonderful treat as I leave!

Though the setting is challenging, it affords me an invaluable opportunity both to get to know the student in a way I could never do in a classroom, and allows the student to see I am perfectly comfortable in their environment, holding the baby or waiting until some family member’s request is taken care of. I often get to know grandparents, siblings, spouses and friends of the student and learn surprising things, like how much English Grandma knows, or how many years an uncle has been doing crop work, or that many, many people share a limited living space with remarkable civility and grace.

In this way, I have made a raft of wonderful, kind and interesting friends. When I see students or members of their families in the grocery store or farmers’ market, or at events at Mano en Mano, it is a joy to be greeted warmly and to know who everyone is.

Other tutoring has been far more traditional in that it is conducted in my home or perhaps at Mano en Mano. Because my mandate is to support each student in pursuing his or her learning goal, I have the freedom to focus on what is important to the student and to take the time to get to know each one well. A couple of clients whom I worked with in the fall were starting college as non-traditional students, going back to school as adults after several years out of school altogether. It is hard to describe how rewarding it is to guide such a student through a puzzling and difficult assignment and see her feel the reward of a good grade and praise from the professor. It is challenging to me to dredge up old school skills, such as doing bibliographies, narrowing topics, finding research in peer-reviewed journals and making sure assignments are done correctly to the letter. The students appreciate being held to high standards, and it is gratifying in the extreme when on their own, they see that classmates have not done work as well crafted as theirs.

Other students are working on preparing for the citizenship interview or trying to learn very basic conversational English to be able to talk to people outside of their language community, or in the case of a fairly new student, to be able to talk to other parents at her child’s school comfortably and not embarrass her child! I had not expected to use the full range of my experience and skills on just a handful of students when I started this tutoring for Mano en Mano. Needless to say it requires enormous flexibility, creativity and patience. But as I say, the rewards are indescribable.

I have always known that teaching adult English language learners was the best job in the world, but now I amend that statement to “tutoring my Mano en Mano students” is the most rewarding work I have ever done!

—Robin Lovrien, Ph.D.

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