Friday, November 2, 2007

My Little Secret

I have this little secret. Every once in a while it sneaks up on me and rears it's ugly head. You see, part of my income every month comes from tutoring other homeschooled children. There, I said it. I tutor. Not so bad, you say? Well, here's where it trips me up.

The other day a mom was picking up her son. We had just spent the past hour playing math games together. Mancala, Set, Tic Tac Toe, Tangrams, Pattern Blocks, Uno, and a few card games I have made up that practice math facts. Every once in a while I break out the three corner flash cards because his mom wants to make sure he is comfortable with his basic facts. We have a great time. It doesn't feel like hard work because we are playing the entire hour. When I see that he is struggling with a particular concept, I come up with a game we can play that addresses his need. Sounds fine so far, right?

Here's the tricky part. I don't do this with my own kids. Oh, we play plenty of games. And our games always have educational value. Not because I'm screening them for academic muster, but because when you unschool, everything has educational value. The part I don't do is the constant monitoring and evaluating and tweaking to make sure my kids have learned enough. I don't need to. I believe that my kids have always learned enough. I evaluate them everyday simply by being with them, interacting with them, observing how they move through the world. For me, this is enough.

As the mom and I were chatting about our time together, I heard myself say, "He's doing so well. I'm seeing lots of progress." She responded by agreeing and explaining that she is so pleased with the progress her son is making. "He has been working so hard, I'm so pleased," she beamed. My teacher-ego puffed itself up. I was being complimented. Then my stomach turned. The unschooler in me couldn't help feeling discomfort. Progress and hard work imply that this child was not enough prior to this moment. That he has somehow been less than and is only now inching toward "good".

Schools, many teachers, and some homeschool philosophies will have us believe that kids aren't enough until they have reached a particular bench mark or memorized a set of facts. Everyone knows that you can't move on to fourth grade long division until you've mastered 2 digit multiplication......right? Yeah, okay, it's true. There are skills that are needed in order to move forward academically, but I don't buy the notion that kids should be held up to an artificial standard that doesn't have a place in their everyday lives. My kids don't have a need for long division mastery at this point. Someday they will. They will learn it at that time because it is relevant and they are ready and it will come easily to them because of it.

A few days later I hashed out my discomfort with a good friend, also an unschooler. I explained that my tutoring job makes me feel a bit like I have a double life. I tried to think of a time in my kids lives where it was important to impose a yard stick for improvement. Because learning at our house isn't framed in an atmosphere of milestones and progress, it was a struggle. I asked my friend if she thought there was anything wrong with me participating in this notion that a child needed to be tutored in order to measure up. My friend smiled. She reminded me that I have an ability to play with kids in a really fun, educational way. She reminded me that I have strengths and gifts to offer this child that his parents may not. She reminded me of the times that she and I have been able to mentor each others' children in various ways simply by being a different adult in their lives with a different set of skills and strengths.

This all makes sense to me now. One of the major benefits of homeschooling is that my kids have the opportunity to interact with many, many different adults on a regular basis. Just like the mom who drops off her child at my house to play math games, I rely on countless others to help me provide my kids with the care, nurturing, and stimulation they need in order to be happy and fulfilled. And, sadly, as a parent, I will also come up short. Just like my parents and their parents before them, there will be times when I will miss the mark and fail my children. It won't be intentional, but it will happen. In the meantime, I think I can continue tutoring with clear conscience.


Nathan said...

Excellent article. I just wanted to say that you weren't proud of your student because he measured up to a quantifiable standard, but because he was "working so hard" as his mother put it. He was improving, not by memorizing what he's told is important, but by deciding to dedicate himself to something he felt was worthy and was motivated to do, apparently by his great teacher.
Also you're giving these children a vast gift. You're showing them that learning can be an organic process and there is no one way to do it. I didn't learn this for myself untill I was in college, and my mind shot off like an arrow from a long drawn bow. I can't imagine what kind of man I would be had I learned it 10 or more years earlier. You are giving that to your students and children at an early age and the effect is infinite.
Unfortunately industrial schooling has become much like industrial farming. One applies industrial fertilizers and poisons then tests for N, P, & K. The other applies standards and dogmas and tests for the three R's. Both reduce a precious and dynamic miracle into numbers, and the state of our cultures minds are much like our soils, sterile and delicate, a culture of hydroponic brains. Thank you so much for growing organic and your eloquant writing, good fortune.

piscesgrrl said...

I was looking in your sidebar for information on your consulting and saw the label tutoring. I think you and I were separated at birth or something, because I tutor kids too! And I share the same exact concerns! Wow, so great to read about someone else who knows the quandary.

What I find is my time (and their money) would be better spent if I had more time with the parents! Often, we spend an extra half hour or more standing at my front door while I find gentle ways to help them see their child for all the good things and not simply for one weakness or fault. And if I don't have that time with the parent, I do feel that at least with me a child can learn without any smothering, expectation-heavy authority looming over them. I celebrate everything they ARE with them, and we, too, play games and have fun. I also talk a LOT about how everyone learns different things at different times and give the child lots of examples of late readers, etc. Then I roll my eyes and say unfortunately, schools think they need to make everyone do it all at the same time.