In honor of the first half of my Americorps teaching term coming to an end, I am compiling a top 10 list of things that I have learned this “year” while volunteering as a literacy tutor in an elementary school.
1. Don’t take anything personally: Kids will love you one day and the next day they’ll yell, “Do I have to go with you?!” It has nothing to do with you. Their reticence is a natural extension of the fact that you make them work and sometimes, work sucks. And therefore, you suck. But only for the day and then they get over it. And wouldn’t you rather be the person who believed in them enough to make them learn x, y and z, than the person who was all fun and games but didn’t help them learn life-essential skills? I think so. And so I take the role of hard ass seriously.
2. Kids are natural storytellers and they have amazing memories. They can remember significant pieces of an outwardly banal daily experience and then reassemble those pieces into a semi-coherent story in the most colorful and creative way. I start each tutoring session by asking the kiddo what’s going on in their world or what they did that morning, or something similar to get them talking. And then I sit back and prepare to be entertained as they relay their story with gusto. Sometimes I even take notes.
3. Consistency is key: Be who you are, intrinsically, at all times. Or at least be the same person you originally presented to them, regardless of any day to day ups and downs that you may be battling. Nothing is scarier to a 5 year old than having to work one-on-one with an adult for 20 minutes every day when they’re not sure if they’re going to get Mrs. Way-Happy-About-Everything or Mrs. Too-Tired-to-Find-Fart-Jokes-Funny.
4. Candy can go a long way: Whether it’s an unruly kid who you need to train to simply come into the reading room and sit down without first jumping into all of the bean bag chairs, or a shy kindergartener who you want to reward for their steady commitment to not giving you a hard time, all kids love candy. Especially laffy taffy and dum-dums. I am a big fan of smarties though, because there are approximately 15 smarties in one little roll so they last a long time, and they dissolve quickly enough in your mouth so even a student who stuffs all the smarties into their mouth at once in an attempt to stall our session can only hold out for 2-3 chews before they are forced to resume their “ahhs” and “ehhhs”.
5. Which leads me to number 5: The “good” kids get less: Less candy as bribes. Less high fives. Less bullshit basically. The good kids do good work, every day. They come into the reading room, sit right down at the table and pay attention. They make gains faster and their fluency improves quickly, and so you start to expect more from them. You don’t praise them as frequently or give them as much candy because you’ve gotten used to them doing a good job. So I remind myself before the start of each tutoring session that every kiddo deserves my full attention, my full excitement and my full encouragement (and maybe even some candy).
6. Boys will always be surprised when a girl quotes sports scores or displays even a rudimentary understanding of sports info: Especially when it’s a lady teacher who is so enlightened. Because: (a) teachers don’t know anything about anything cool and (b) girls are sports illiterate. Hence, the reason why I like to spontaneously start rattling off obscure sports related info to my 2nd and 3rd grade boys and, I’ll admit, brag about having been to a Vikings or Packers game, this year until the boys push back from the tutoring table at which time I declare victory with a discrete fist pump.
7. Kids far prefer the smell of candy or gum on your breath than coffee (or, it’s a wonderful compliment to be told your breath smells like cupcakes): Even grade school kids associate paper to-go cups with the brown liquid energy that their parents drink. And as for coffee’s wayward, and little spoken-of side effect (bad, bad breath), kids are all too familiar. So spare them the avoidable bath in acidic coffee wash and down a few tic-tacs before getting to the business of teaching. ::side note:: Maybe peppermint mochas are a good alternative?
8. Little girls love when you wear sparkly purple or pink eye shadow: They love it, a lot. So if you need a little pick me up in the morning, brush on some eye sparkles and get ready for the hushed awes that will overcome the little ones.
9. The kids will make you want to cry. Out of joy, and occasionally out of fear. When they master a new letter sound or finally grasp that those funny symbols at the end of a sentence actually mean something (?!?), or when they start to read more effortlessly and their fluently picks up, my heart swells with pride. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a person learn something new, especially when you’ve had a hand in helping them. It makes me so stinkin proud of them.
10. Lastly, my personal mantra for the tougher days: It will get better. As much as one day can suck the life out of you, the next day can deliver CPR. Hang in there. And, when you least expect it, one of those little 5 year old buggers will do something that makes you want to cry. And hug them. And give them candy.
A few fun examples of things my kids have said to me in the past few weeks
*We were reading a passage titled, “Making Limestone”, which was about how limestone is formed from the accumulation of small rocks and dirt that are swept along by running water. My 3rd grader was in the middle of reading the passage when he looked up and said, “Oh, I thought this was set in the 80s or something.” I’m intrigued and say, why is that? And he responds, because it’s about the Flintstones….. (I’m guessing that all the stones being moved back and forth conjured up memories of Fred and Wilma, which to an 8 year old is a really old cartoon? Hell, The Flintstones are old even to me!).
*Around Halloween, I was walking a kindergarten girl to the reading room for tutoring and she told me that her mom had taken her trick or treating the night before and had carried her on her shoulders when she got tired. I repeat to her, “You’re mommy carried you on her shoulders?”, and she nods emphatically and says, “Her is strong. Her is working out and lifting weights. Her has muscles!”
*This same kindergarten kiddo once told me, “I have 2 colds now. At daycare, they tried to use a thermometer but it couldn’t catch it. It needs new batteries.”
*I asked a 1st grade boy whether he had gotten a haircut because his hair looked markedly different one day. His response, “No, it’s just my bed.” When I looked at him quizzically, he elaborated. “It’s just my bed; it squished down my head hard in one spot and now it’s all weird.”
Here’s hoping the second half of my Americorps service is a memorable and as much fun as the first half.