HOW TO KEEP….AND LOSE VOLUNTEERS


I was thrilled when I discovered the solution:  the student had forgotten to cube both numerator and denominator constants when she inverted 1/[(sec x)^2] to (cos x^2).  Two other tutors hadn’t seen it, and I haven’t done trig calculus in years.

When I first looked online at Lane Community College to become a volunteer math tutor, it appeared that I needed to take an 18 hour course in how to teach.  I was a bit miffed; I have taught math for years.  When I arrived in Eugene, I went to the downtown office and was given a number to call, but that didn’t help, either.  I waited, since it was summer.

In September, I called the college and this time given the e-mail address of a person whom I should contact.  To my surprise, she e-mailed me right back and said I could come over to talk at the end of September.  I did that, met her, and learned how the system worked.  She asked me when I wanted to work.  I set up some times and went to work.

The system at Lane is good, interesting, and my hours are flexible.  I often go when I have free time, for there is always a need.  The tutors have desks along the wall with a computer to look up things.  Students study in the room; if they need help, they go to one of the tutors.  If all are busy, the student waits in one of the chairs along the wall until somebody is available.  I get every math issue I can imagine, from men and women, young and beautiful; old, with a lot of miles on them; tattooed, body piercing and hair color I can’t believe.  One, 76, was recently released from prison after four years.  All are there to learn; all deserve help and respect.  Some come to me if I’m the only one free, preferring other tutors.  I don’t care. I help all comers, and if I don’t know something, I look it up quickly online.  I’m good, not perfect, but when I can explain basic algebra to somebody, lining up equal signs, balancing equations, what can and can’t be cancelled, showing short cuts, trying multiple approaches, completing squares, they are appreciative.

I’ve handled math from subtracting fractions to integral calculus.  The latter has been difficult, but I am amazed at what I have pulled out of the air.  I am the go-to person for statistics, since I have a master’s in it.  The other day, I helped a guy use a compass to make a 30-60-90 triangle.  One of the tutors asked me if I knew how.  I didn’t, but quickly figured it out.  Tutors help each other.

Every day, when I leave, I am thanked for doing what I love.  Amazing.  It works; one day I was told twice, “I saved the day” by showing up. The week before finals, I went four days in a row.  I have worked solidly for five hours.  I bring material to read and it stays unread, for I am busy. I like what I do, I am helping people, I am appreciated, I am making a difference.  I look forward to tutor day at Lane.

I also volunteer at a reading program for first and second graders.  Reading to children is important.  They need to hear the sound of words, the rhythm of the language, and discuss the book.  They begin to learn pronunciation.  They need to discover that books can take them places they can’t even imagine, and allow them to see the world without leaving a house.  I taught myself to read when I was 3.  I read the newspaper, sitting on my father’s lap.

I signed up at an elementary school that needed volunteers and was within walking distance of my house.  I was a little leery, because several years ago, I tried to teach a 35 year-old how to read, and it was extraordinarily difficult.

The school doesn’t fully buy-in to the program.  I know that as soon as I walk in the door.  I sign in at the front office and get my name tag.  Nobody greets me.  The coordinator left for another job, and nobody told me or the other readers that was going to happen.  A volunteer took it over, but she is a volunteer, not a school employee.  We start at 11, a bad time, because we may only read during lunch and recess, not at all good for students, but that is what the school wants.

I have to go to 3 rooms, get the children, who should be ready immediately, but aren’t.  Then we walk down the hall to the cafeteria, and when we should be beginning to read, we are waiting for the dietary personnel to open up the serving line, which they always do, a few minutes late.  The children go slowly through the line, then get silverware, napkins and salad dressing, FINALLY walking outdoors 50 yards, with their trays, eventually arriving at the reading room.

By the time we choose a book to read, we are 10 minutes or more late. I try to read to a child who is hungry….or not….eating, or not…., looking out the window at recess, and paying attention…. or not.  When we finish, they go to recess, we get the next group and repeat the process.  What was supposed to be an hour is an hour and a half.  Reading to kids while they should be at recess and are eating is sub-optimal, messy, with dropped food, and because the child is eating, he cannot fully concentrate.

I leave, glad I’m done, and walk home.  I don’t think I have accomplished anything, except setting a new record for the duration of a cold.  I was originally told my commitment was half a year; now I am told it is a year. When a couple suddenly left for a month because of the birth of a grandchild, I was told to read to their students, not mine, which I thought not fair to either me or my charges.

It’s a bad fit for me.  I believe in reading to children.  I believe adults should do it, and the parents should, if there are parents.  Having children brings the responsibility to read to them.  I was not put in front of a TV when I was a child. I was read to. I had to write book reports, too.  I learned to look up every word I didn’t know, to improve my vocabulary.  That’s what students need to do. I’m concerned whether computer screen reading is as effective; I know how easy it is to be interrupted on line.

I think we need those with means and time to volunteer in schools before or after classes, nights and weekends. The schools need to welcome volunteers with good systems in place to use them effectively.  Parents and the community must be involved.  This should be easy, but in my experience in high schools, it is not happening.  Why? Teaching to tests isn’t new. I grew up in the Sputnik era, however, when the world changed, and America got a dash of cold water in the face.

I tutor math where I am wanted and make the subject come alive.  For now, I read to kids who are hungry and distracted at a place where it doesn’t seem to matter.  It should.

A lot.

 

 

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