There are a lot of things you can do to make a difference in the world. You can write a check to a cause you believe in, sponsor a child in a third world country or volunteer to help out at the yearly church or school fundraiser. I’ve done all these things and felt good about them. Like most good people, I want to do my part to make the world a better place.
There is a comfortable distance in this kind of giving because the face and situation of the needy people on the other end is something you are aware of in a removed, academic way. Furthermore, you are only involved for a limited amount of time, which makes it easy to commit and then put the issue behind you. Your efforts are just a small part of one bigger whole. You feel good knowing you did your part, but you have to trust that the organization or foundation follows through and indeed does something wonderful along the line. Unfortunately, it also means you never really know how significant the impact of your particular contribution is. You know you made a difference . . . but how much?
When you teach someone to read, the act of volunteering is a very intimate experience. You are paired with one person with a drastic need, and their success or failure is in your hands. You can’t be sure how involved teaching any particular individual will be, so your commitment is “as long as it takes. But one thing is sure, as you continue to show up week after week, there is no question of whether your efforts are making a difference. The results are right there in front of you. You are changing a life. And because every person’s life touches so many more, your efforts create a chain reaction of positive cause and effect. For example, the individuals you teach to read usually have children and spouses. Learning to read alters how they care and provide for them. Breaking the pattern of illiteracy in a family means not only the person you are teaching today, but future generations, will have better opportunities and happier lives too. And because a non reader often can not work and doesn’t vote or function normally in our community, turning them into readers means they become contributing members of society rather than a drain – and that effects all of us. For all you know, a student who has learned to read will now be able to understand a warning sign on the highway, which will prevent them from slamming their car into an oncoming one, so now you’ve impacted the lives a another family as well.
You see, the ongoing effect of changing the world one reader at a time is huge. But you don’t need to wonder if you are making a difference, because there is no denying the individual sitting right before you is going through a life altering experience. It is all because of you – because you care enough to sit down, get intimately involved and make right something that went wrong along the way. You are evening the imbalance of opportunity and understanding for one lucky individual.
What I’m saying is, if you really want to make a difference in the world; if you want to put a face on your cause and experience first hand what it is like to change a life forever, then teach someone to read. They will never be the same. And guess what . . . you won’t be either.
I’ve been working with Kathy for two years now, so I can paint a pretty clear picture of the realities of teaching someone to read. I talked about what worked, what didn’t work; what was positive about the experience and what was a drag. Mostly, I hammered home the fact that this experience not only changed Kathy’s life forever, but my own.
After lecturing one and a half hours, I turned the floor over to our trained educational supervisor and director head, and she discussed resources for 45 minutes. By then, we had some very excited, committed new volunteers. (I must admit, I was jealous. I never got an orientation or training or a list of resources. I was just given a student and thrown to the wolves. Luckily, I was resourceful and I stumbled through. What I learned the hard way makes me a good tutor trainer now.)
After the session, I was told I was very inspirational. One woman stopped me in the bathroom and said, “I’m so moved. I just hope I can be as good a reading teacher as you.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was probably an average reading teacher, but just a good speaker. They told me others called the office the next day to rave about the training. I was pleased, because frankly, this first time, I didn’t know what to expect so I was winging it.
The fact is, I felt very comfortable in my role as teacher’s teacher, because this has been my forte for years in dance. It is all the same. Teaching others to be good teachers isn’t about drilling facts regarding the subject at hand nearly as much as it is about teaching the leaders to be good communicators and to be sensitive to the student’s mindset. To really teach well, you must be able to understand and respect a student’s needs and not confuse those needs with their short term wants or a person’s natural inclination to seek a quick fix rather than building a solid foundation. You must first and foremost teach your charge to love the subject at hand, showing them how mastering it will help them achieve their goals. Teaching is about enhanced communication and really knowing and caring about an individual on a personal level.
I walked the new tutors through a day in the life of a non-reader to widen their perspective. We discussed how and why these people have negative associations to school and how important it is to change that now. We discussed the difference between being “stupid” and “uneducated”, and how important it is to remind the student that you recognize that difference. I explained that giving tests is never testing the student, but testing the teacher, because when a student does not know something, it signifies that the information has to be re-explained or explained in another way so it can be grasped. This points out the responsibility of the teacher to do the job well, which helps the intimidated student no longer fear tests. You are acknowledging that even a teacher isn’t perfect, and success involves trial and error for everyone involved, both of you must work and learn together to achieve the goal.
I spent a great deal of time discussing that the teacher/student relationship should never become “us” against “them”, but people working together for a common goal. Students often forget you have their best interest at heart when they are being corrected all the time, so you must occasionally pause to remind them that even though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way, everything you do is in an effort to help them find success. And frankly, you need to remind yourself of that occasionally when progress is slow and you get frustrated.
Anyway, the training was a success.
What I loved best about working with dance teachers at the dance school was the feeling that I could touch the lives of more students than just the ones I had time to work with first hand. It wasn’t just because I wanted a really great school. The truth is, I loved dance, and I wanted to do whatever I could to assure others loved it too. Making dance classes a positive experience and making the introduction to dance education inspirational was my means to that end.
This project is no different. I am hoping my insight and the extra effort I put into tutor training will result in better experiences for many other new readers and their teachers. It is a way of serving the cause I believe in.