Confessions of a Terrible Tutor

Okay, okay, that’s hyperbole. I don’t really think I’m a terrible tutor. In fact, I think I’m quite a good tutor. I certainly charge enough, and parents keep paying me to tutor their kids. (Not that this is saying much. Parents ask stunningly few questions of the tutors they hire for their kids.)

At any rate, I’ve been reading Trevor Eissler’s excellent book Montessori Madness, and it has gotten me thinking. In it, the author talks about “parasitic lessons,” the unintentional lessons we teach children (or adults) when we think we’re teaching something else. He tells the story of finding his son eating a cookie at an inappropriate time (not for dessert) and telling him not to eat cookies when it wasn’t time for dessert. The next day, he couldn’t find his son and eventually located him in the pantry, hiding and eating a cookie. He realized that when he thought he was teaching his son not to snack on cookies, he was really teaching him to hide his cookie eating so he didn’t get in trouble.

Although I think Eissler invented the term parasitic lessons (which I love), he certainly wasn’t the first to talk about the idea. Maria Montessori wrote a great deal about indirect teaching (and in fact, I think one of the major jobs of a Montessori teacher is to create an environment and an atmosphere that support the “right” indirect lessons). John Taylor Gatto, who was a public school teacher in New York City for a quarter century and New York State teacher of the year at least once, and is now an outspoken critic of traditional schools writes in Dumbing Us Down about the real lessons he taught his students. By expecting them to be totally focused on one thing during a class period (regardless of whether they were interested in it) and then to completely drop it at the end of the period, he taught them never to care too much about anything. By handing out grades, check marks, gold stars, and punishments, he taught them to be emotionally dependent. By demanding that students wait their turn, do as they are told, and look for the answer he says is right, he taught them to be intellectually dependent.

(It is worth noting that there are really two kinds of parasitic lessons. There are the parasitic lessons taught by individuals when they think they are teaching something else (e.g. Eissler and the cookies), and there are the lessons taught by the environment, regardless of what the adults in them want to do. These are the sorts of lessons that Gatto is talking about, and to my mind, they are the more disturbing ones, because it’s not enough for individuals to become aware of their own actions. These kinds of lessons can only stop when the entire environment changes.)

Reading this has gotten me thinking about what sorts of parasitic lessons I accidentally teach when I’m tutoring students. Whether out of mindlessness, exhaustion, trying to defend my own ego, or the limits placed on me by my role as a tutor, I often find myself doing things that seem counterproductive or downright mean. Given how much I grumble about the school system and about teaching and learning and so on, a bit of self-flagellation is probably good for me, but I’m not really doing this just to make myself feel bad. I want to see what sorts of parasitic lessons I teach, despite my best intentions, in the hopes that it’ll remind me not to dump too much blame on parents and teachers who are also trying to do their best (and who, in many ways, are working in a much less wholesome environment than I am). I’m also going through these in an attempt to become more aware of my weaknesses as a tutor so that I can improve (and then find new weaknesses).

  1. A few months ago, I was working with a student who had a terrible time understanding that squaring a square root undoes the root and leaves you with what you started with, and who had a lot of trouble with rational exponents. One day, we had a long tutoring session, I was tired and cranky, and we got to a section where we had to deal with roots and powers. I tried explaining rational exponents to her in every way I could possibly think of (which wasn’t very many that day, as I was feeling particularly dull). She wasn’t getting it, and I felt myself getting more and more irritable. I started giving her the same explanations over and over again (and louder and louder), and finally noticed that I gave up on trying to get the concepts across and just reverted to the formal rules for manipulating exponents.

    What did I teach her? I certainly didn’t teach her much about rational exponents that day, but I probably did teach her that she ought to have been able to “get it” from the explanations I gave her, and that she was stupid for not understanding. This disturbs me a lot because I know for a fact that I have a much greater depth of mathematical knowledge than a lot of high school math teachers (and therefore a better chance of coming up with different ways to view the same concept). How often do teachers give the parasitic lesson that their students are stupid simply because they don’t know another way to explain the same concept? From what my students tell me, their math teachers often don’t even bother to explain the concepts at all. They just expect their students to understand. What a lesson that teaches. (To be fair, I tend to get the students who have the worst teachers. The ones with good teachers don’t need tutoring.)

  2. I correct my students far too quickly. I actually mean this in two different ways, so I’ll take them one at a time. The first is probably fairly minor but still makes me feel awful. When, say, my calc students are working through a bit of ugly algebra, I watch over their shoulder (which they expect), but I am far too quick to jump in and correct their little errors. Sometimes, that leads to complete mis-communication, because they’re doing the algebra in a different way than I would and I misunderstand. Other times, they really did miss something, and they’re grateful. Still, I’m sure I’m unintentionally teaching them that they can’t be trusted to do that work unsupervised, and I’m unintentionally teaching them that doing math requires being paranoid every step of the way.

    I think this really is the result of a systemic problem with the way math problems are written and graded. One of the crucial principles behind Montessori materials (especially for something like math, where there is a definite right answer) is that they be self-correcting. In other words, the child has some way to decide whether she’s answered the problem correctly without going to the teacher or another authority for approval. Math problems in textbooks are typically not written this way. A lot of books do have the answers to some problems in the back (usually the odds), but many teachers won’t assign these problems because they don’t want their students to “cheat” by looking up the answers, despite the fact that working backwards from the answer can be one of the best ways to learn. The problems themselves rarely have any sort of internal logic that would suggest which answers make sense and which don’t. Sometimes, as with word problems, you can narrow down a range of possible answers by deciding whether the answer is reasonable, but those problems are few and far between.

    Moreover, by the time they are in high school, my students have learned to expect that an outside authority will tell them whether they’re right or not. The truth is, there nearly always are ways to use your answer to see if you are right or not (by undoing the problem or plugging the answer into the original equation or doing it a different way), but my students have almost never been shown any of these methods. They are told to “check their work” (which has always struck me as supremely stupid–if I can make the mistake one time, what’s to stop me from doing it wrong the second time too?), but mostly, they’re expected to turn it in to see if the teacher thinks the answer is right. As a result, my students expect me to tell them if they’re right. I do what I can to show them ways to check for themselves, but mostly, I just have to check their work. And so I follow along, because it’s much easier to check each step as we go than it is to go back and look at a whole list of steps afterwards. (Yes, I’m saying my students are lazy, but I’m also saying that laziness is the parasitic lesson they’ve been taught. It’s hardly fair to say that laziness is an inherent feature of adolescence, when we teach students to be lazy every step of the way.)

I have to run now, so I’m going to stop this post halfway through. I’ll post the remaining confessions later today or tomorrow, I promise. Meanwhile, what parasitic lessons do you teach?

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2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Terrible Tutor

  1. Language teachers do the same thing. When you hesitate to put a tricky sentence together in a reasonable way in English, they’ll sometimes, in an effort to speed the process, jump in with what they think you’re having problems with. If you don’t think, read, or write like your prof, usually they’ve just completely derailed you so it takes three times as long to regather your thoughts, AND they’ve made you feel like a dumbass over half the time, since you probably weren’t even hesitating on the word they prompted you on.

    Parasitic lessons…it’s always easier to see them from the outside than when you’re in the situation. I think one of the most important things that I can teach by example in the things I teach is that it’s okay not to know everything. I can speculate, and I can reason something out and offer the result of that reasoning, but some things either aren’t knowable or I don’t know, and that’s okay.

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