Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The dual identity of my tutee
I met with my tutee yesterday and today and had completely different experiences with him each time. Yesterday, we actually had a good time and he really opened up to me. We talked about Mexico and his pets and family. I was able to share some things that the two of us have in common and he seemed very much at ease. I was also really excited because his reading skills have really been improving over the last several weeks. When I first started meeting with him, he was reading “a” and “b” level books (and having trouble with them). This week he was reading “e” and “f” and was doing really well. His teacher even has him reading a chapter book, which I was a little concerned about, but the teacher didn’t want him to feel left out when they did group activities. He was so happy about being able to read it, and we worked on it together. He did surprisingly well! Things really flowed between us and I thought that we had finally made a real breakthrough.
I went in today, expecting to pick up where we left off, but he seemed to be a completely different child. He was hostile towards me and he spent most of our time together mumbling in Spanish under his breath. Even with my remedial Spanish skills, I know that “Ella es muy stupido” is not a sentence indicating a good relationship between us. I tried everything to interest him, but he really wanted nothing to do with me. I am feeling really discouraged and I don’t know how else I can approach him or what I can do. I tried playing games, taking him out of the room to play, I even tried the old reliable The Simpsons book and comics with him. Everything about him, including his body language, showed me that he had completely shut me out. What can I do? How did we go from having a great time yesterday to going back to how things were before?
1. Sorry that you’re having such a rough time of it. On the positive side, it’s good that he’s not always this negative towards you. It sounds like you had a really good session with your tutee on Monday. I can’t really offer any definitive suggestions about how to improve his behavior and attitude because I don’t really know him. But, I can tell you that it probably has nothing to do with you. Perhaps you caught him on a bad day or maybe something is going on at home. If so, there’s really nothing you can do. I’m not saying give up on the little guy, but don’t be totally crushed if even your most heroic efforts yield little results. I’d try to get him to open up more. I know-easier said than done! But having a conversation might help him release some of his tension and give you insight as to what is causing the problem and how you can help. If he wants nothing to do with you, perhaps you could just give him some blank pieces of paper and writing/drawing supplies and just let him express himself on paper. He might feel better when he’s done and want to talk about what he’s drawn or written. If not, you might be able to glean some information from his work. Also, do his teachers have anything to say about this behavior? Have they noticed similar patterns and do they know anything about his home life?
2. It seems that the child had a specific negative situation or experience sometimes during the week in between your sessions. If tutees/students have issues in other areas of their lives that make them upset, there is no way these will not affect their attitudes, behavior, motivation, etc. This not only applies to you trying to tutor him, but it applies to any teaching context, like if you had this student in your regular classroom. My first suggestion is that you don’t lay the blame on yourself. This is not a case of you being an ineffective teacher. The second point, is that what happened to him may be something that is out of his control. You may try to find out if it is a family problem, a school related problem, etc. If you get a chance and catch the teacher at recess for example, you may ask her if she is aware of any problems. I assume that you already tried to ask questions indirect or directly to the child. You may want to do a writing or drawing activity such as “This bad thing happened to me last week” and you can provide some examples from your own life first.
3. As usual, there is not an easy answer, but we always have to go back to our theoretical underpinnings: there will be many factors that will affect a child’s motivation to learn and teachers have to be in tune with what is happening in their students’ lives that may hinder learning. These will include constant factors such as prior literacy, cultural and personality factors, but also daily life occurrences that may be stressful. That is why the best way to approach this type of challenge is to discover the source of stress so you can plan accordingly. A word of caution for you as future teachers: Don’t feel tempted to be counselors unless you have the degree. You can mentor your students and give them general guidance and support, but in more complicated situations you want to send them to qualified professionals. I am sorry this is happening, for you, and also for the student, but the positive side is that we probably learn as much or more from challenging situations (I know this is cliche but it’s so true). The good news is that you did get to experience successful sessions before. Let’s be optimistic, he may be over his issue by next week.