I have been involved with the Literacy Coalition since 1993 when I joined the board of directors. After six years on the board, I began working part-time in the office and then in April of 2000 was hired as the executive director.
Here are some of the things I have learned (in no particular order) since I began working with adults with low or no reading skills:
1. They were seldom the person in school that I had assumed they were when I began. I was thinking about the troublemakers, the class clowns, the kids who acted out in my school experience. What I found is they were more likely the child in the back of the class, desperately trying to be invisible to both the teachers and other students. They often felt scared and isolated because they were different.
2. Many had problems or trauma at home. This could range from missing or abusive parents to parents who themselves did not read and could provide little or no support for their child in school. I learned that illiteracy is a problem that often echoes from generation to generation.
3. Over the years I have tutored a man, who saw his father hit and killed by a train. I also tutored a man who had fallen out of the back of a pickup truck as a child and had severe brain damage. I have learned my students come with many life experiences that have had devastating effects on their learning ability and that I need to take the time to understand them.
4. In the third-grade students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. If you struggle with basic reading at that level, school gets much harder. Most of my students were frustrated during this time and by the fifth grade had mentally dropped out of trying to learn and were just waiting until they could quit completely
5. 80% of students struggling with reading have a “learning disability!” That is the term used and they hear it and feel that failure is their fault. I have often thought a better term might be a teaching disability. It often is that teachers do not know how to teach in a way that they can learn or are so overloaded that they do not have the time to do that. I have learned that given a caring tutor, a few resources, and no time constraint they can learn and succeed.
6. I have learned that the human brain is fascinating and very different. When I have attempted to put students at a similar level with similar goals into a class I am often disappointed. One learns faster than the others do. One struggles with a skill that others easily master and then learns another skill much faster. This is why one-to-one tutoring is so helpful to our students.
7. Our students struggle with trust and self-esteem. Until they learn to trust you, it is hard to make any real progress. Until they actually believe they can do it, that they can be successful and reach their goals, they have little chance of doing it. A major leap is when you can change their mindset from “I can’t do it” to “I can’t do it YET!”
8. I have learned that all of my students can do things I cannot do. It has lead me to realize that we are all illiterate in most things in this world. Reading three books last month no longer makes me feel smarter than a mom who only has two gallons of milk and a pound of hamburger to feed her children this week, We just have different skills. I can surf the internet but I cannot rebuild the engine in my car.
9. I now know that the poverty of hope is more devastating than any other form of poverty.
10. I have discovered that tutoring someone and helping give him or her more skills to succeed changes my life as much as it changes theirs.
11. I have found having a regimented curriculum is not always the best way to teach someone. We provide our tutors with workbooks based upon the best research available to help their students but they often learn to teach in ways that are more effective. We have seen tutors make impressive breakthroughs by the wonderfully creative methods they develop themselves.