While I tutored a particularly unhappy student last week, the mother stuck her head in the room and said, “My God, you have the patience of a saint! I don’t know how you do it!”
As a tutor of dyslexic learners, I spend a lot of time with kids who feel angry, frustrated or sad. That’s not to suggest that dyslexics are unpleasant people to be around. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s just that during the hour my students spend with me, I ask them to confront one of the things that most frustrates them: the code that is our written language. It’s hard.
I don’t know where I get it from, but I have this well of patience that I draw from during our lessons. It sustains me when my students repeatedly slay me with pretend swords, kick the soccer ball incessantly against the wall, or most unhappily, curl up in a ball under the table, refusing to come out at all.
I never get (or even feel) angry. I speak kindly to them, play with them, tell them I understand, wait them out. I never give up on them. In the end, I teach them to read.
I’m a freakin saint!
Yeah. By now you have to know that something is coming, right? Otherwise, I don’t doubt you’ll be nominating me for the most annoying and self-aggrandizing blogger of the century award.
When that mother called me a saint last week, my heart just sank. If only she could have seen me 45 minutes earlier when I was “helping” Olivia with her homework. For some reason, I do not have this well of patience for my daughter. When we start out on her math, the well is full, but inexplicably, I suck it dry before we’ve finished our first multiplication problem. Then I get to breaking all my rules.
I regularly counsel my parents on how to talk to their kids during homework and reading time. I instruct them not to raise their voices or show frustration. I explain that, no, their child is not lazy or indifferent or unintelligent. They have dyslexia, which means that while they will make very measurable progress with me, they will read and write inconsistently, make unexpected mistakes, and tire easily when at these tasks. None of these troubles demonstrate a lack of will or effort. When working on reading and writing, kids with learning differences (and all kids really) require patience, kindness, and understanding (If they have dyslexia, they also require a properly administered Orton-Gillingham method of instruction, but that’s the topic of a different post).
I impress upon my parents that their child’s self-esteem matters far more than his or her ability to spell “horticulture” correctly.
It sounds so easy when I say it to them.
Olivia does not have dyslexia. However, she has what I would call it’s equivalent in math. Some people call it dyscalculia. I call it a royal pain in the neck–especially for Olivia. Her inability to easily grasp math concepts isn’t what frustrates me, however. No, it’s her inattention that drives me absolutely batty. Typically, I cannot even get through one sentence without losing her. I say, “The denominator is the number on the–” and she’s off. Already upside down, asking a question about dinner, or playing with the dog. So we start again: “Olivia, let’s talk about the number on the bot–” and she’s off again. This time asking if she should wash her hands or checking (again) that I’m not angry because she keeps interrupting.
I could say that I cannot teach her because she can’t engage, but guess what? Many of my other students have the same issues with attention. I manage to teach all of them just fine.
Where is my well of patience? Where is my common sense? My experience? My understanding? When I feel myself slipping, I know I should just leave the room, but there often isn’t time. If we have 45 minutes to get the homework done, I can’t spend 10 minutes of it decompressing in the bathroom!
Before I know it, I’m showing frustration: I huff; I repeat instructions in the same way, only louder (as if THAT ever helped a student learn anything). Eventually, I yell.
Olivia knows the rules. She’ll tell me, “Mom, you’re not supposed to yell when you’re teaching me.” Sometimes she yells back. Othertimes she cries. But the worst is when she gets quiet.
I understand why this happens. She’s my daughter. I am her mother. Parents and kids tend to both behave badly when they try to work together. I know I’m not alone (please tell me I’m not alone!). This is often why other parents hire me: because they tried and failed to do it themselves. The thing is, we cannot afford a tutor right now.
So what to do? I suppose this post is my little pep talk to myself, and to you if you need it. Olivia deserves the same kind of instruction that my students get. When I work with her, I need to dig deeper, to figure out how to wear my tutor hat instead of my mother hat. I need to say everything like it’s the first time (even if it’s the twentieth); I need to leave the room if I have to (even if I don’t think there’s time for deep breathing!), and I need to remember my cardinal rule: a child’s self-esteem matters more than his or her ability to spell “horticulture”–or to reduce fractions. Period.
So the next time she’s hanging from the ceiling fan as I try to explain cross-multipyling:
I promise not to yell.