Can we talk?
In 25 years of working with after-school care centers, summer camps, and tutoring programs, I’ve met a lot of burned-out people. Almost without exception, these fried folks started working with children in poverty because they wanted to make a real difference. They dreamed of turning kids’ lives around by teaching them to read, strengthening their math skills, helping them to love learning again. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
Here’s the thing they don’t know, and the thing most people don’t know: This experience is not rare. It’s not even the exception. It’s the rule.
Why would that be? How hard is it, really, to teach children how to read and write and do elementary arithmetic? Is it so Herculean that we really can’t expect to be able to do it?
No. It’s not.
But if you’re one of those burned-out people, please hear this: it’s also not your fault.
You have been showing up and working hard. You’ve given a lot of time and energy and love. You’re doing everything you know how to do. And your biggest frustration is probably this: you don’t KNOW what to do.
Maybe you’ve started to think you’re just not equal to the task. It’s just too hard, It must require something you don’t have — perhaps a degree, or a teaching certificate. Or maybe you’re just “not good with kids,” after all.
Here’s the problem — for some reason, we collectively have a model in our heads that isn’t reasonable at all, but it’s very persistent. Tell me if you recognize it:
4:00-4:30 Snack time. This is intended to provide nutrition, as well as community-building among the children and staff.
4:30-5:30 Homework time. If any of the children don’t have homework, their tutors will find them a grade-level-appropriate worksheet or educational game, or perhaps the children will simply “read and write” for a specified period of time.
5:30-6:00 Art project or other organized group activity.
The schedule above, or some version of it, is the norm in almost every after-school tutoring program I’ve visited. It sounds great, and it might very well *be* great, if it worked that way.
Now — be honest — here’s the reality:
4:00-4:10 Snack time. Noisier than you’d expected, but that’s okay.
4:10-4:20 Fight to make the children who are finished eating stay at the table, while encouraging the others to hurry up and finish.
4:20-4:30 Fight to keep children from fighting with each other. Insist on “inside voices” from the children while the adults’ voices steadily rise. End by shouting at the children to stop talking entirely.
4:30-4:40 Clean up the snack tables as quickly as possible while children wait…which means the children are actually tumbling around on the floor, re-engaging in the aforementioned fights, or crying inexplicably.
4:40-4:50 Corral the children back to the table to do homework. Start to secretly wonder if you’re some kind of classist (or racist, or old person) jerk because you can’t believe how badly “these children” behave.
4:55-5:15 Try to find appropriate work for the children who don’t have homework. Discover that 50% of the children who do have homework have no idea how to do it, and might not be able to do it even if they understood it. The “reading and writing” devolves into avoidance techniques. The kid you’re working with chooses the same book she always does — a comic book.
5:15-5:30 Finally in the groove. You might not be making any huge academic progress, but you’re spending time with the children, and that has real value, right?
5:30-5:40 Put away academic work, prepare for group activity while the kids go nuts again.
5:40-6:00 Some children love the art project, but are rushed and don’t have time to really enjoy it. Some of them are bored stiff, and some of the bored kids begin to cause trouble again. Start watching the clock, psychically willing parents to arrive.
What went wrong with the beautiful plans you made? Why won’t the children listen and behave? How in the world can you make any real academic progress when you discover you have fifth graders who can’t read and junior high students who still add on their fingers?
Stay tuned. There are reasons, and there are solutions. And…listen to me…it’s NOT. YOUR. FAULT.