What tutoring public school kids has taught me

Dindin Reyes
My unreasonable fear of children was overshadowed by the sobering need to help

My knees feel weak. My palms, sweaty. The coffee I drank just a few minutes ago tastes stale in my mouth already. I start to feel nauseous out of severe nervousness.

This is me on my first day as a tutor for public school children. I am not exaggerating.

For people like me who aren’t good with children, few things are quite as nerve-wracking as the prospect of being in a room full of them for two hours. Being the adult in charge of their education, that’s just frightening.

Kids are over energetic, hard to control, quick to bore, and most times, too observant for their own good. How do you even get them to like you? I had absolutely no idea yet I still found myself at the A-HA! Learning Center (A-HA) on that first Monday morning, about to do something I had never done before.

Students at the A-HA Learning Center get to try activities other than studying like painting and performing.

At A-HA! Learning Center, public school students from all levels of elementary and high school come for free supplementary tutoring. The kids and teenagers come from the community surrounding the center in Rizal Village in Makati and from the families living in Makati cemeteries.

Since it’s a small-scale non-governmental organization powered by volunteers, slots for students are limited and precious. To a grade level, there could be 5-20 kids per session, and one to two volunteer tutors.

Per tutoring session, all the levels together could total 40 kids in the house that A-HA calls its headquarters. Despite the numbers, A-HA is a clean, quiet, well-lit place where they can concentrate on studying.

As a volunteer, you’re given a briefing on what to look out for in observing students, what teaching methods work best, and how to deal with children with short attention spans.

Nothing could really prepare me for the real thing.

Public schools

On my first day I was assigned to teach 5th grade students – the level I was to teach for the rest of my 8 weeks at A-HA. Still grasping for straws in my head, I decided to fake it till I made it.

Each session, we would start off with doing their homework and reviewing for quizzes. After came drills in Math, Science or English – depending on what the kids felt like that day, or what the other tutors would recommend based on observation. Then, just before the kids got restless, we’d play games for 10 minutes and then go back to the books.

Sounds easy enough? Try reading that paragraph over again while imagining 20 kids all needing you at once. Now you can probably understand the sweaty palms.

One of A-HA Learning Center's 5th grade students, Kenneth, playing in between study sessions. Photo from A-HA Learning Center Facebook page.

My multi-tasking skills were put to the test having to deal with at least 10 children at a time, all with different comprehension levels, all with different strengths and weaknesses, all with different ways of learning, all with different personalities. But, before all that was the slow shock of realizing how unique each student exactly was and how much catching up each one had to do.

It’s general knowledge that the state of our public schools in the Philippines leaves much to be asked for. In normal conversation, we simplify the problem to too many students and too few teachers. But what does this really mean?

From what I’ve seen, it means students at the 5th grade level aren’t confident dividing numbers past 3 digits. It means there are 5th grade level kids who haven’t really mastered their multiplication tables. It means they memorize words and meanings in English, but have a difficult time comprehending questions that use those same exact words and meanings. It means attitude problems that start at home aren’t checked in school, and become amplified by the day. It means an unwillingness to say, “Teacher, I don’t understand.”

These problems are very real and to some extent, they existed in each student I had to deal with.

My unreasonable fear of children was overshadowed by the sobering need to help. At our orientation, I remember one of A-HA’s heads telling us that this work was important because what students didn’t understand at their grade level would only be doubled when they moved on to the next grade level. Now I understood what she meant. Self-doubt was conquered by urgency. 

It’s almost a cliche – when you volunteer, you find yourself better than you were before, more at peace. I don’t really think that’s the case. I think what really happens is you realize that the world out there is truly much bigger than you.

After 8 weeks, tutoring and everything that came with it became a habit – much like learning is a habit too. I began to realize there was nothing remotely wrong or scary about these kids, they just needed a little extra attention. As I taught, I learned that a child’s difficulty in paying attention is inversely proportional to how much attention you pour into him or her. Watch over the kids and they will flourish. 

On my last day of tutoring, one of the students opted to do her homework instead of joining in the group’s Math drills. She was tasked to write a composition in Filipino answering the question, “Why are Filipinos poor?” She seemed daunted by the task, unwilling to write anything down. I knew the feeling.

Trying to share with her the confidence I had in her abilities, I looked her in the eye and asked her what she thought. She paused for a good 10 seconds, looked down at her paper and fidgeted. Just as I was about to give her a clue to an answer, she looked up at me and said, “Because Filipino voters are uninformed. They don’t know who they should really vote for.” I was floored.

I didn’t volunteer at A-HA because I wanted to save the world. There were no questions I needed answering, just a need to spend my time more wisely. But even if I wasn’t looking for it, that fulfilling feeling of doing something completely for other people came anyway.

It’s almost a cliche – when you volunteer, you find yourself better than you were before, more at peace. I don’t really think that’s the case. I think what really happens is you realize that the world out there is truly much bigger than you think and that your everyday problems are miniscule compared to the problems of others.

When you’ve got 20 kids looking up to you, waiting on your every word because they want to become better, what is there to fret about? – Rappler.com

A-HA! is looking for volunteer tutors for the second quarter of this school year. Email ahalearningcenter@gmail.com for more information. 

Slots open for volunteering are:

MWF:  8:00-11:00 am, 3:00-6:00 pm 
Saturdays: 8:00-11:00 am, 10:00 am-1:00 pm, 1:00-5:00 pm

 The volunteer orientation is on Saturday, 3:00-5:00 pm, August 16, at 9708 C. Pililia Street, Barangay Valenzuela, Makati City.