If you’re someone who’s followed this blog, you know that ‘little p’ refers to one of those small purposes that each of us carries out daily, purposes that make families run smoother, make people feel loved, and spread kindness. Things like volunteering at a book sale to raise money for scholarships, preparing and serving lunch at church after a funeral, and making sure family members have a good day. These are not grand purposes, but incrementally, they make life better.
A common ‘little p’ is volunteering. Although it’s almost a cliché to say that when we volunteer, we get more than we give, I have to indulge that cliché when I talk about tutoring, my ‘little p.’ I definitely get more than I give.
I have the perfect tutoring gig—four mornings a week at a nearby school in Minneapolis where my son is the principal, Lake Harriet Community School. It’s a small school, grades 3-5, and a highly successful school—a Minneapolis Public School that ranks 4th in the state. It’s also over a hundred years old, with shiny wood floors, heavy oak doors, windows, and woodwork, and tired classrooms, even though they’ve been kept up well. Like many districts, currently, it has children who were in primary school during the COVID shutdowns, and some are not ready for grade level work (we are avoiding calling them “behind.”). One way schools are addressing the needs of these children is through tutoring. That’s one reason I’m tutoring, specifically in math. The gift to me is that I AM NEEDED.
I tutor three small groups and then I help in a classroom. I’m on my feet for three hours, and on my toes mentally, even though it’s basic mathematics—in my day we called it arithmetic. Mathematics is not being taught the way you and I learned it or the way I taught thirty years ago. Now arrays are used to teach multiplication; children learn properties like commutative and identity; and algebraic thinking is introduced in first grade, etc. Clearly I must stretch mentally and find ways to teach new ways of doing arithmetic. That’s my second gift—keeping my brain challenged.
Then there are the obvious benefits, tutoring gets me out of bed and cleaned up early in the day; it gets me moving in natural ways rather than going to a gym; and my favorite, tutoring gives a purpose to my days.
Like other things we do in our mostly small lives, tutoring, at first, felt insignificant. I initially labeled it a feel-good way to spend some of my time in retirement. (By now you know I’m a hopeless cynic). I mean, how much difference can 2-4 hours a week make in a child’s mathematical growth? But to be an educator—which I am—is to believe fervently in small steps, small miracles of understanding. So, cynicism notwithstanding, a part of me believes what I do matters. I’m a caring adult in these children’s school experience who believes in them and supports them.
Yesterday, the impart of tutoring was resoundingly brought home to me. It occurred in the 4th grade class where my role is to hang out and help as needed. I’m the right hand “woman” to the teacher, who is especially creative and commanding when she teaches. She often starts the class period with a video that gives an example of kindness. Here’s a link to the video she showed yesterday. I urge you to watch it before you read further.
After viewing the video, the teacher asked students what was going on, what was the video about. Why were some residents in the nursing home tearing up? It took some time for these ten-year-olds to stop focusing on the gifts and to think about what was really going on for the residents. But they got there. As one little girl put it, “She showed that she cared about them.” That led to a discussion about loneliness. I’m not sure that all the children understood, but it was one of those small steps of learning.
For the remainder of the class we studied what to do with a remainder in division. That was fun and equally challenging. In my car on the way home, I reflected on the class in the context of the video. And suddenly I felt it, the biggest reason I tutor—I feel like I belong! I belong to this one classroom, to the other teachers I support with small groups, and in this small school. Best of all, I belong in a world that I care for because I know what individual children need. I am doing my part to make this place and their lives better in small, incremental ways.
If you want to find out more about Ruby, here’s her website: