At the beginning of this past school year, I volunteered to tutor a student at a nearby elementary school through a program established by Madison’s 3 synagogues. On my first day, the school’s learning coordinator introduced me to a smiling 5th grader, Isaiah. She also asked me if I would agree to tutor a second child, who was in the 3rd grade, so I could maintain my relationship for a few years since Isaiah would move on to middle school next year. I agreed to an arrangement in which I tutored Isaiah for a half an hour once a week, and immediately tutored a 3rd grader, afterwards.
Both students were smiling, friendly, cooperative and eager to learn. However, both were significantly behind their peers in math, so that is the subject in which I tutored them.
After a few weeks of tutoring, it became clear to me that Isaiah had significant math challenges that my tutoring alone was not helping. I notified the school’s learning coordinator, and his teacher e-mailed me to thank me for my concern.
By November, I still saw no progress in Isaiah’s math skills, and I grew increasingly concerned that if he did not receive additional specialized instruction, he would face increasing academic barriers as he moved forward in his education. One day that month, I opened the folder the 3rd grader brought to me and noticed that his folder did not contain a new assignment and only contained the assignment he had completed with me the week before. I did not want to interrupt his teacher during class, so I simply made up some math work for that session.
However, I e-mailed the learning coordinator expressing once again my concern that Isaiah needed further evaluation to find out why he struggled so much in math. I also requested that the third grader’s teacher make sure that she always gave me work to do with him in the future. Little did I know that these simple requests would end my brief tutoring career.
Isaiah’s teacher e-mailed me to tell me that since I was clearly frustrated, perhaps I should stop tutoring him. I responded by telling her that I was fine, but I was concerned for Isaiah’s academic career. Fortunately, she decided to call me and during our conversation, she and I agreed that if Isaiah’s mother agreed, perhaps it would be better if I evolved my relationship with Isaiah into that of an after-school mentor. His teacher agreed to ask his mother, and his mother agreed.
Sadly, the third grader’s teacher took great offense at my simple request and rather than simply acknowledge her oversight, she ended my tutoring relationship with him. I contacted the principal who agreed to let me meet with with the third grader in the office to say good-bye to him. I hope he gets the help he needs from someone else.
Yesterday, Isaiah completed 5th grade and there was a lovely graduation ceremony that his mother and I both attended. The week before, Isaiah had been very concerned that he look good at graduation, and he showed me his unlaced shoes that were a size to small, and wondered if we could go shoe shopping so he would have nice shoes that fit him during graduation. While I regularly take Isaiah out for a meal and often take him to the movies, sign him up to play on a basketball team, have fun playing laser tag or at the trampoline gym, buying a new pair of shoes felt like something I should share with his mother. So, after he found a reasonably priced pair of shoes he liked, I told him that I would contact his mother to see if she would be willing to split the cost. After shoe shopping we went to Rockin’ Jump the local trampoline gym, which he loves.
Over the weekend, Isaiah called me to see if he could help me in my garden. Gardening at his neighbors’ homes is something he has done to earn money in the past and although I was willing to have him do some gardening for me, I was out of town last weekend so that was not feasible. Since I had not heard back from his mother about splitting the cost of his new shoes, I contacted her to see if she would prefer if Isaiah earned half the cost of the shoes by gardening for me, and she thought that was an “awesome” idea.
Normally, I mentor Isaiah once a week, but since Isaiah needed the new shoes before graduation, and we had already agreed that after attending graduation, I would take him to see a movie to celebrate, I agreed to pick him up after school on Tuesday so we could buy the shoes. Afterwards, he came back to my house to do some weeding in my yard.
After graduation, the kids and their parents were invited to a reception in the school cafeteria to enjoy cake and lemonade. When Isaiah was ready to go, I suggested that he say good-bye to his teacher, so we both approached her. She gave us both hugs and whispered to me, “Please stick with him.” I promised her that I planned to do so.
Earlier in the year, I asked Isaiah what he planned to do over the summer. He responded with a smile and said, “spend more time with you.” As my mentoring is not organized by anyone other than me, Isaiah, and his mother, we will evolve our relationship in a way that makes sense for all 3 of us. He will attend summer school to hopefully get the math help that he needs and I will continue to take him for meals and other fun outings once a week.
My work as a civil rights attorney has given me many opportunities to resolve civil rights violations on both an individual and systemic level. But engaging as a mentor has opened my eyes to the reality that real change begins with personal relationships. I hope I am helping Isaiah see a bigger world and live a successful fulfilling life. It is clear that he also has my back. As we were driving from the movie yesterday, I changed lanes without checking my blind spot, but Isaiah was looking and shouted out that there was a car there, and fortunately helped me avoid an accident. Our relationship is mutual. we help each other. Indeed, that is as it should be. I look forward to growing that relationship with him for as long as he is willing.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.