Jewish Journal

The Joys of Tutoring—and the Trials, Tribulations

by Michele Alperin

Posted on Aug. 10, 2006 at 8:00 pm

Being a bar/bat mitzvah tutor can be a little dangerous.

Parents expect you to be a wizard, because the kids have more important things to do. The synagogues are suspicious if you want to fiddle with their "perfect bar mitzvah" product and the cantors are nervous that people will blame them if there's a glitch in the process.

At the same time, the mothers are planning the party, the hotel, the Kiddush luncheon, the flowers. And then there's the kids, who are becoming full-blown teenagers.

Into this chaotic mess comes the tutor, trying to tread a line between the changing schedules of sports games, homework, the parents' work commitments, the kid's strengths and weaknesses and the need to jump the kid through enough hoops to achieve a "good enough" ceremony six months later.

It's not always emotionally easy -- in sometimes surprising ways.

There's the issue, for example, of tutoring the children of friends and acquaintances, which happens a lot if you work in your own synagogue. If things don't go well, it can be touchy.

What happens if the kid, whom you don't know so well, just doesn't take to you? Either you have to finesse the situation by moving the kid to another tutor or you suffer through, hoping your friend will understand.

Then there's the problem of the mysteriously struggling child. No kid is going to tell you that his parents are getting divorced, that his mother is angry at the synagogue's new policy on intermarried couples, that he has a learning disability or that, no, he hasn't practiced at all. When the parents aren't upfront about these things, they may become apparent only late in the game, when the maftir (Torah portion) is half done, the haftorah still a dream and the bar or bat mitzvah 10 weeks away. Talk about stress.

Then there's the parent -- so omnipresent as to be nearly a caricature -- who believes, and actually tells the tutor, "My kid is really smart. This bat mitzvah thing will be a cinch for her."

What parents don't always realize is all the potential challenges their smart children may face: The child may not be able to carry a tune. Or his Hebrew reading may be halting at best.

This can be a touchy thing to even bring up with parents-how can you tell a mother or father that after attending Hebrew school for X number of years, their intelligent child -- "who always makes As in school" -- mixes up some of the letters and really doesn't know most of the vowels.

Sometimes, parents have an exalted perception of a child's maturity, expecting a 12-year-old kid to assume the responsibility of practicing daily -- especially the "smart" ones. I tell the parents, "It's your job," but still, supervising the practicing often falls through the cracks.

Of course, I sometimes find myself falling into the same trap by complimenting kids who are good Hebrew readers, musically adept and fast learners. Well, wouldn't you know it -- suddenly they slack off.

Parents, though, can also be surprisingly helpful. Once I was working with an apparently mature, serious child, whom I had been told would need lots of repetition. She progressed at an achingly slow pace, assuring me every week that she was practicing.

I assumed that the problem was her learning issues -- until her father told me (with his daughter standing next to him) that, despite what she had been telling me, she wasn't practicing. After that, things were still slow, but as she invested in her work at home (or maybe finally had the confidence that she could do it on her own), she would excitedly tell me each week about the progress she had made.

Despite all of these issues, tutoring is usually very satisfying, and sometimes you become a virtual family heroine -- maybe because you got a lazy kid to work, or helped a parent to read Torah at his child's ceremony or pushed a kid to do a little extra. Whatever the reason, I love it when I hear a proud "that's my son's bar mitzvah tutor" when I approach a table at a Kiddush luncheon.

Tutoring has also taught me a lot about what it means to be a teacher. It has, in some ways, been more useful than a master's degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary and two years teaching in a Jewish day school. I used to wonder, for example, how my friend, Nancy, tutored huge numbers of kids and didn't get bored. Her reply was simple: "Each kid is different."

But I just didn't get it until I had worked with a couple dozen kids myself. "Different learning styles" is not just an educator's catchword. It describes the individuality of the learning experience.

In a classroom, where so much else is going on, I had difficulty discerning individual needs in a horde of demanding children. The obvious ones stood out -- the kids who couldn't remember the Hebrew words, or couldn't pay attention for more than 60 seconds or couldn't stay in a chair for more than 10 minutes. But the tiny differences in the ways they took in information were difficult for me to unravel.

Not true in the one-on-one intensity of the tutoring relationship, where the varying strengths and weaknesses of the kids were readily apparent and required different responses from me. Let me offer a few examples:

  • A young man whose learning issues were so severe that he attended a special school: We started a year beforehand, and I not only diagrammed the flow of each set of notes with a line that went up and down with the melody but realized that he was able to reproduce the notes better if he also followed the lines with his fingers.
  • A musical child who played the violin: I asked her to play the tropes (musical notes) at home on her instrument.
  • A musically challenged child: I used my hands a lot to show when the sound goes up, down or stays the same.
  • A girl with great difficulty reading Hebrew: I wrote out transliterations, which she memorized first and then was able to transfer to the Hebrew script.
  • A kid who could sing and read Hebrew well: I forgo the color coding of tropes (which, by the way, has become so popular that a software program is available to do it automatically) so that the child actually learns to recognize the tropes and not just the colors.

I realized something else I had learned from tutoring the other day, when I took my son out to practice driving -- his second time out, my first with him. As I calmly (except once) gave him instructions, I recognized a heightened awareness on my part of all the little things that might be difficult for him as a novice driver (a kind of hyperempathy). I was also able to tell him precisely what to watch out for and what he needed to modify. I attribute both to my bar/bat mitzvah tutoring.

My friend, Nancy, also gave me some advice - that you have to talk to the kids about what's happening in their lives -- but again, I didn't get it until I had many hours of my own experience. At first, I was all business and wasn't so great at socializing with 12-year-olds. But I've gotten better at it, and as I've improved, the tutor process has been much smoother.

But a couple of things still leave me wondering when it's all over.

The first is the absence of a thank you or even an invitation to the ceremony. Usually tutors really put out for the kids -- making lessons longer when they need it, meeting with them extra times, often at no cost. It's hard, in the end, to feel that tutoring is just another set of services that parents purchase to make their lives easier.

What I have the most difficulty understanding, though, is why so many parents vanish when the process is done. You listen to their struggles, send them to Web sites to learn about the weekly portion, answer their questions about the ceremony in specific or Judaism in general. They share deeply personal feelings about their own Jewish background. They seem excited about the bar or bat mitzvah and they even go the extra mile to learn to chant the blessings before and after reading the Torah.

And then I never see them again -- and that's tough.

What keeps me at it, though, is my appreciation of each child's individuality and my hope to reach him or her as a Jew. Maybe it will be the joking we do together, more likely the feeling of accomplishment the child gains from the process, but sometimes, just sometimes, you feel like you're planting the seed of a future committed Jew. And in the end, that's why we're all in this tutoring business -- an enterprise where the full recompense is not in dollars in this world but in mitzvah points in the next world, the olam ha-ba.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master's degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Tracker Pixel for Entry


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