Yesterday was hard. Really hard.
Sometimes I work with challenging students. That’s part of the job. I try to remember that a kid is just a kid; they act up sometimes and I don’t take it too personally. And I try to remember how much I hated being in school at that age, and how boring and pointless it all seemed.
But this one kid…
He’s one of those kids that is so spaced out that I sometimes wonder if he’s in a coma. He only seems to be alert when he is complaining about something or making snotty remarks. He comes to the tutoring center to get extra help with reading and math skills, but then just wants to do his homework, which if fine, but he isn’t getting any extra practice. He’s also one of those kids who always tells me that his teacher lets them use calculators and that he doesn’t have to show his work, which I strongly suspect is a lie. The first time I worked with him, he was trying to write a paper describing the mood in one of the chapters of The Outsiders. However, he hadn’t read the chapter, he didn’t know who any of the characters were, he was unsure what “mood” meant, and he wanted to write his paper on the sole idea that “everything was calm in the chapter. Nothing was really happening.” That, coupled with the fact that I’ve never read the book, made it pretty difficult to write a paper. I wanted to tell him to go read the chapter and come back when he was prepared to write about it, but he’s paying for this time. It doesn’t make sense for him to do silent reading, which he could be doing at home. We have to slog it out, even though it is a complete waste of time.
So yesterday I’m working with this student. Three minutes into our session, he wants to go to the bathroom. I tell him to do some work first. Then we check his grades and look for any missing assignments. This took forever, since he’s clearly never navigated through the school website. I kept asking him, “what’s this missing assignment about Imperialism?” and he’d say, “I don’t know, it’s from a long time ago” (it’s really from a few weeks ago). It was like he’d never entered the classroom himself and I was asking him to read Nordic runes. This is something he’s supposed to be doing on a daily basis but, after 20 minutes of trying to get him to click through the menus, I just had to give up because it was getting to be a huge waste of time. The one thing I found out was that the paper on the Outsiders that I’d spent a lot of time with him on, had never been turned in. It’s now about 2 months late.
So then we turned to his math homework. He was solving problems using cross multiply and divide. The problem: he’d memorized what he was supposed to do, but he didn’t understand the concept. I’m trying to have him show me the steps and learn the process but he just keeps saying a series of random numbers out loud; at some point he says the right answer, but I don’t even know what the answer is because I’m still trying to get him to do step 1 and show his work. After we work it out he says, “I already said that a long time ago– you told me it was wrong.” And he gives me this little self-important scoff like I don’t know what I’m doing. I try to explain that it’s important he show his work and that, at that time, I wasn’t looking for the answer; I was trying to get him to understand the concept and do step 1. He just makes a little stink face and tells me he knows how to do it already.
So I say, “Fine. Do the next problem on your own, show your work, prove to me you know how to do it.”
…And he gets the next problem wrong and doesn’t show his work. “Nope,” I say. “Try again.”
“Well what did you get?” he asks, but I just make him do it again. He gets the same wrong answer.
The problem is that he’s trying to do division problems that comes out as 7R4– but he doesn’t know how to solve the remainder, so he’s put 7.4 (the answer should have been 7.2). This is one of those times that simple math skills could have helped him solve it, but he’s so reliant on the calculator do it for him that he doesn’t know how to solve it on his own. We go back and review how to divide using decimals. The whole time this is going on, he’s making these exaggerated sighs and little scoffs whenever I tell him to do something. At first I shrug it off, but as he starts refocusing his gripes from the math to me, I finally have to tell I’m sick of the attitude and to do his work. We finish the problem and I let him use the bathroom.
As I’m waiting at the desk I hear him call his mother from the bathroom and complain that I’m being “mean” to him and that “he feels like he’s going to cry.” This is hard for me because I’m genuinely trying to help this kid. I’m new at this and it’s hard not to take it personally and it does make me worry that I should be doing more to connect with the kid. It’s unnerving because parents can be so protective of their kids and I have no idea how this will play out: is it possible that a reasonable parent will offer sympathy and then tell him to suck it up? Will they come screaming into the tutoring center demanding my head? Will the call my boss angrily accusing one of the tutors of verbally abusing their son?
I don’t believe in coddling students, especially when the student isn’t being very polite. Basic manners and learning to interact with students and teachers is part of the education. Let’s face it: I’m a lot less inclined to help him if he’s rude or calling his parents on me– I will, because that’s my job– but at some point, a student has to be expected to actually do the reading. He has to learn to do basic math without a calculator, show his work, and stop making excuses. At a certain level, they should know what’s going on in their own classrooms: what their assignments are, when they are due, and what assignments are missing.
At the same time, the whole thing is a little scary and confusing for me. I’ve been able to connect with every other kid, even if they were really unenthusiastic about learning. I know this comes with the turf, too. There are going to be kids like this and I just have to let it roll off me and do my best to help the student anyway. I have to treat this as a learning experience. It’s frustrating, but next time I work with this student I’ve got to go in with a smile on my face, do my best to teach him, and not let the past get in my way.