* Teaching: tyranny of the urgent

Alarm-Clock-Simple--4926-largeTutoring students in a one-to-one setting without typical classroom constraints has its advantages.  I enjoy being able to select appropriate materials, tailor activities to student interests, and address skills without the pressure of teaching the core curriculum.  On the other hand, I am frequently in the same battle as resource teachers and other specialists.  Homework and projects routinely impact my valuable time with students.  You know that I am not keen on homework, if you’ve been following this blog.  After an hour or more of tutoring, I don’t want my students to face a stack of homework, so I typically assist them to complete it as quickly as possible during our session.  But the disconnect between students’ skills and their homework drives me NUTS!

Here’s what happened today:  I was teaching a fourth grader who is struggling with math.  I wanted to continue our work on place value and rounding numbers.  Instead, I checked his homework and took a deep breath.  It was algebra (or “algebraic,” as he told me).  Knowing that he works much better on frustrating tasks with me than his parents (it was that way with my own kiddos), I decided to bite the bullet.  Here is a sample problem:  Sue had 5 times more pencils than Nate.  Together they had 18 pencils.  How many pencils does Sue have?  How many more pencils does she have than Nate?  My student was required to model the problem using symbols and write three or four equations to demonstrate how he solved it.

I imagine some kids in his class are totally ready for that problem.  But my student was not.  He had no idea where to start, was dealing with abstract procedures that made no sense to him, and didn’t have sufficient opportunities to work with manipulatives (and perhaps understand) what “5 times more” actually means.  This is a student who does not know when to add or subtract.  Not only did we lose valuable instructional time on the skills which match his current math understandings, but he needed two brain breaks in order to survive that portion of our session.  And what does he know after our “guided practice?”  Not a lot.

I was facing the dilemma described in an interesting article called “The Hard Part” (thank you, Tony’s mom!).  In his column in the Huffington Post, Peter Greene writes about teaching: “The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:  There is never enough.  There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.”  Indeed!

I do understand that the classroom teacher has her own constraints.  She is required to teach “algebraic” for a short period of time and then assess, assess, and reassess.  How can she “individualize” the above assignment for my student when it is totally inappropriate for his current level of functioning?  He needs more opportunities to model multiplication, much less solving problems with variables.  His dilemma reminds me of my post from yesterday on “How The Brain Learns Mathematics” by David Sousa.  Sousa describes prerequisite skills for learning mathematics successfully, including the ability to visualize and manipulate mental pictures and the ability to reason deductively and inductively.  My 4th grader is particularly weak in those skills.  When will he have time to catch up?  Isn’t that what summers are for?

8 thoughts on “* Teaching: tyranny of the urgent

  1. I just have to say that I share your pain, having had the exact same tutoring experience this afternoon with the very same kinds of problems. Homework, especially homework that is not suited to the academic needs of a child, can cause more harm than the benefits the practice is supposed to provide.


  2. I know what you mean. I’m so thankful that (due in part to our teaching in many countries) my kids were home schooled using correspondence courses etc. Sometimes they would be 8th grade in one subject and only 6th in another etc. Going at their own pace in every subject is the ideal. God bless for your efforts, every little bit counts and an hour of individual attention with a teacher in tune to their needs is worth weeks of normal classroom teaching.


    • Thanks for your comments. I certainly rely on the internet to extend my support for kids when they are at home. And thanks also for your encouragement. Sometimes I feel like a drop in the bucket!


  3. This is growing in the States, we don’t witness drama in our schools in Middle East for different factors.

    Generally, we adults are too preoccupied with scolding our children. We keep looking for their defective tendencies, whether they are preschoolers, grade schoolers, or teenagers. “’Removing the beam from our eyes’ is part of the spiritual training of the teacher,” says Dr. Maria Montessori, who believed that the fundamental problem of education is the conflict between the adult and the child.

    There are two sins which tend to distort our true vision of the children. They are pride and anger. Hence, humility and patience are the opposite virtues most needed. There is a great difference between an angry man amidst his adult companions, and angry man among children. The former will arouse opposing anger in others. As a proud person, he establishes an unpleasant reputation. In this way, he is kept in check by this “social control.”

    Thus, a person in a position of undisputed authority, free from all criticisms, is in great danger of becoming a tyrant. He claims this undisputed authority as his right; and will regard any offense against it – ipso facto – as a crime. In fact, many teachers unconsciously come to regard themselves and their authority in this light. Thus, claiming dictatorial rights over the child.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is interesting to contrast different cultures and their approach to education and child development. I do think some American parents treat their children as buddies or friends, which is not an effective parental approach to child-rearing. On the other hand, I have seen teachers and parents who could not stand to have anything questioned, which is not healthy either. We all want things our way, don’t we? Thanks for sharing, Miran.


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