Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Kristi Harreld, tutor.
“Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, you’re a tutor, that’s a cute side job.’ But no, this is actually my job. This isn’t my hobby. I can’t quite say this enough. I have a master’s degree and more than ten years of experience. One student I’ve worked with for eight and a half years now, all the way from his freshman year of high school to being a super senior now at DePaul.
“A huge percentage of my current clients are eighth-graders studying for their high school entrance exams. I was very resistant to this kind of work because I didn’t want to teach to a test. And I still don’t. But there are skills you can teach through that work that carry over into other parts of their lives, like how to map out your time, what you do when you’re falling behind, where your resources are.
“I get lied to on a daily basis. It’s understandable. Most of us don’t like to say, ‘I’m flunking algebra, so let’s get a tutor.’ Most of us, we’re not going to own up to a deficit. So instead of saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ they’ll say, ‘The teacher is mean.’ I have literally heard, ‘The dog ate my homework.’
“So then I’ll pull something out of their backpack or binder: ‘What’s this? Has the teacher talked to you about these quizzes? Look at this note the teacher wrote you.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, I didn’t see that.’ Yeah, OK. We all get that you’re maybe not telling the truth. I say, ‘Your teacher is being very generous to you and wants to see you succeed. This person is really saying to you, ‘I care about you, and I think you can do better.'”
“Sometimes I’m playing every trick that I have, and I’m not getting through. Sometimes the student is like, ‘There’s no way you’re going to teach me.’ I say, ‘OK.’ You can’t make people grow up. Sometimes the kindest, most professional thing to do is to let it go.
“Tutoring is the kind of work where you can’t phone it in. Well, I guess you could, but I wouldn’t. I had a student yesterday whose dad said, ‘How he’s doing?’ I said, ‘He got 100 percent on the math I gave him.’ The dad said, ‘What are you going to do about that?’ I said, ‘Give him harder math,’ and he high-fived me.
“I used to teach English as a second language. Once I had a class that was almost completely Polish, and I had them read a little passage about Las Vegas. Then I asked them, ‘What do you know about Las Vegas?’ It was a free-association thing. Silence. I could hear the clock ticking. From the back of the room, this kid who never said anything said, ‘Prostitution.’ I think he wanted to impress upon the ladies in the room that he had this background knowledge of Las Vegas. I look at a couple other students, and they’re shaking their heads.
“At the end of that class, for some reason, the students wanted to take me out, so we all went to Starbucks. I noticed everyone got cappuccino. I said, ‘Do Polish people just love cappuccino?’ and this kid, the same kid, said, ‘No, it’s the only word they know.’ I said, ‘I’m not doing my job!’ He said, ‘Eh, cappuccino is delicious.'”