Friday, February 16, 2007

Five Types of Parents…

…Of Kids I Tutor

I’ve been tutoring off and on over the last 34 years. Since I’m 47, that may seem a little odd, but I was a peer and near peer tutor in school, too. When I went on to college, I tutored for pocket money, and since college, I’ve tutored for pocket money, out of pity, out of a sense of public duty, to further good relations with schools, and sometimes out of boredom. I’ll even admit to a couple of rounds of tutoring due to morbid fascination and/or sheer cussed determination.

There are all kinds of students who need tutoring – some don’t have the hardware, so to speak, to do the work they’re asked to do. The teachers know it, the kid knows it, and sometimes the parent knows it, but the system requires it. Other kids have the hardware, but their software got corrupted somewhere, and other kids have spent so much time sliding by or not caring that it has finally caught up to them and they are seriously in the soup. Sometimes really questionable teaching has derailed them. There are lots of reasons why kids may need an academic helping hand.

More consistent are types of parents. I probably haven’t really listed all of the ones I know here, but it’s time for Friday Fives, and it’s my blog. (snort)

1. Uninvolved and Don’t Care: These are usually the parents of the kids I get referred to me by the school system and teachers. The parents are usually unable to help their child due to circumstances of a pretty wide variety, and they never contact me. The kids never mention that their parents ask about their school day, how the tutoring is going, the parent never enters into the equation unless they have been abusive, which will cause problems for the kid academically, and it shows when I meet with them. These kids tend to confide in me, particularly if I’ve been working with them for a while, and that puts me in a sticky spot. Teachers don’t hear from the parents either.

2. Clueless But Proactive: These parents call me for private tutoring. It’s almost always for math, and the problem is not just that they don’t understand the new curricula or new theories, it’s that they didn’t get the whole concept the first time around when THEY were in school, so they are unable to help their own kids. They are usually earnestly apologetic, very fluttery and worried, and sometimes they will hover around to make sure that I know what I’m doing.

They’re kind of cute sometimes, too – I can spot them eavesdropping, and after the session, they’ll say something like, “Holy cow! If someone had explained it to ME like that, I might not be so dumb in math!” I always offer to have them sit in and learn along with their child, but they never do. I have had some call me on the QT and ask for math lessons for things like getting a real estate license or other certification that requires basic math, but we always do it sort of secretively, so that no one knows they needed help. These are very sweet people, and they’re usually very loving, caring parents.

3. Enablers: Kids will try to get away with just as much laziness as they can, and these parents let them do it. These folks always have some excuse for why Freddy or Sally is having so much trouble – he has too many sports activities, he’s upset over the move, over the divorce, we just stopped home schooling him last year, and it turns out he’s YEARS behind (no surprise there!), he’s afraid of his teacher, he doesn’t like riding the bus so we’re letting him study at home this year, etc., etc., etc.

What it really boils down to is that the kid is has more will power than the parent – the kid whines and wails and rolls in the floor in a great show of helplessness and despair worthy of an Oscar, and Mom (it’s almost always Mom) falls for it. The kid is usually perfectly capable of learning the material, and would do so easily if put back in school and given a suitable environment at home in which to study. That’s where the problem really is – in the home; the homes are invariably chaotic and disorganized, characterized by noise, interruptions, petty questioning, lack of patience, and interference. It’s not the kid who has the problem, it’s the parent. These situations rarely work out – the kid exerts more guilt power, or the parent doesn’t like having the door to the study room shut for an hour and keeps interrupting, and when no magical osmotic learning occurs during their short attention durations, they all give up.

I have no problem taking these people’s money. I have no problem answering the school district’s questions honestly when the parents try to use me as a referral without consulting me, either.

4. Stress Monkey Overachievers: The parent, usually a professional and a father, calls me up, absolutely on the edge of an angry breakdown of some sort. “My kid is in XXX private academy, and he’s never had problems in XXX before, but he’s getting a B in it now! Can you help? He HAS to have an A or he won’t get into (insert Ivy League college name)! He has a test next Tuesday, can you have him up to speed by then?” I usually refuse these jobs unless the kid himself convinces me that HE wants to be tutored, and I’m easy-going enough to tutor the kid who wants to get Dad off his back, too, I just won’t help Dad railroad some perfectly OK kid who missed a decimal point on his last quiz.

It usually takes three sessions – one to put the kid at ease and solve whatever small problem is at issue, one to build the kid’s confidence in asking for help in school from the teacher and other pupils (they’ve usually been so crushed under Dad’s ego needs that they’re afraid asking for help is going to make Dad go into a rage over the kid’s incompetence), and a third one with kid and both parents to calm Dad down and get his approval (in front of the kid) for the sane course of getting help at school. I always leave the door open for them to call me back if there’s another need, and there has only been one callback in all these years.

5. Hostile: The parent calls me because someone else told them they really needed a tutor for their kid. They spend the first call explaining to me why I’m unnecessary, how put upon they are, that the kid just won’t try, that the kid won’t listen to the parent or the kid wouldn’t need tutoring, and what incredible buttinskis grandparents, spouses, neighbors and parents of kid’s friends are. Sometimes the kid has himself, prodded and poked and asked the parent to call for a tutor.

Whatever the case, the parent is hostile towards me and really wants their money’s worth – they want a kid who doesn’t get fractions to be doing differential equations by the end of the second session, or they’ll call it quits in a huge huff of consumer dissatisfaction. Sometimes they call me names. They do that once, and promptly see my large, strudely ass heading out the door. I do not return until we have established some rules of conduct and boundaries, after which we all get along great.

You know that the parent was just hugely embarrassed that they couldn’t help the kid and that the problem got big enough to be noticed, and that they took out their frustration on me. I know it, too, and I know it going in. Sometimes, if the parent is having a humble moment, I can slide a few sympathetic words into our conversation and divert them from getting their knickers in a knot. Sometimes not and it plays out like a cheap novel. I usually spot an LD in about 40% of these cases, recommend a screening, and everyone is a seriously happy camper as a result. The parents then think I walk on water.

I know these parents well, and I’m sympathetic with all of them because I’ve walked in their shoes -- I’ve been too busy to be as involved as I wish, I’ve been clueless, I’ve been guilty of letting a kid slough off when they really should have knuckled down, I’ve even been an occasional stress monkey. And, two of my kids have ADHD, and I was pretty hostile myself until they were diagnosed. I’d be happy to sit down and commiserate with them over coffee and cinnamon buns, but that’s not why they called me.

Mostly, I think about the kids – having a rough time of it, not wanting to be the center of negative attention at home or at school, wanting to succeed or at least get by, hoping to learn a few study and coping strategies in addition to just the material at hand. I get my goodies from seeing them smile, feel more confident, or being excited and proud of themselves and bragging to me about their good test grades.

Anyone can tutor, and public schools are generally thrilled to find someone who will step up to the plate and help out. I hope that anyone reading this, if you have a little time during the day, maybe you’re retired or work a different shift, will call a school and see what you can do – elementary schools have kids who need to be read to and practice reading aloud; lots of schools really just need a “body double”, someone to be present and encouraging and keep a child focused while they do their homework, someone to show them how to use a glossary and index. And, of course, if you can help them with math or other subjects, that’s great, too.

It’s a good use of time for everyone.

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