When no Tutor is Good Enough: Uncovering an ESL Student’s Hidden Struggles

When no Tutor is Good Enough: Uncovering an ESL Student’s Hidden Struggles

A few years ago, after I had already stopped tutoring and was preparing for my maternity leave, I took on one last student. An old colleague in a new job had asked me for a favor as the student kept firing his tutors and he still had prepaid hours left for the school to complete. They had gotten him into his dream school and now they just needed to complete the contract.

The boy was a middle school student, bright, handsome, and outgoing. He had a passion for English and Western style education. He had been inspired to leave the Chinese system after experiencing fun and different English classes at his local school. His oral English teacher was entertaining, friendly and approachable—everything his Chinese counterparts were not. Naturally, the student thought the Oral English teacher was representative of all western style education. The academic agencies and wannabe-international schools, eager to have him pay up and apply, affirmed his expectations.

This was only the first problem.

When schools purposely mismanage expectations for gain
There was likely nothing wrong with any of his previous tutors. The tutoring center had a strict policy where tutors were required to follow lesson plans drafted by the academic coordinator. The academic coordinator was at another branch and completed her assessment via video conference. Not only was the student assessment report lacking, but checkpoint assessment reports were nonexistent. Finally, the lesson plans, while commensurate to the level of English education at the student’s current school, were far above his current ability.

While the student struggled to keep up with his IB English school work, he also struggled to understand his tutoring assignments. Where in the States, a student may whine and cry out for help at the slightest challenge, a Chinese student will smile and nod politely, even to a tutor. He will make educated guesses while carefully studying your expression to gauge the right answer. He would rather admit to “careless mistakes” than complete lack of understanding. This is especially true of male students.

In my experience, when male students face a male (foreign) teacher, many are too intimidated to speak up. When faced with a female teacher, they are too proud to admit confusion. Only by penetrating the student’s facade, whether gently or not-so-gently, can a tutor truly begin teaching such a student.

When the student accepts blame, but misplaces it
After a couple of lessons, a third problem surfaced. The student could not complete even the easiest homework tasks. He brought in assignments for school that were either past due, or due the following day. Each assignment had been assigned for over a week, but the student had either forgotten it, or failed to understand the requirements of the assignment. However, neither the school nor the parents wanted to use our lessons for “homework support”—that was covered by the international school’s high tuition.

At first, the student blamed time. He did not have the time management skills necessary to manage his workload while boarding. He had too much homework and not enough time. His Chinese teachers overwhelmed him with worksheets. Every single subject that once had been manageable, were no longer manageable now that they were taught in English. There were new subjects he didn’t understand, such as IB’s Theory of Knowledge. He was overwhelmed.

To top it all off, he couldn’t keep track of his homework assignments. The foreign teachers didn’t write the homework up on the whiteboard. They didn’t explicitly instruct students to copy down the homework (the way Chinese instructors do). The homeroom teacher didn’t give them a homework notebook or follow up on the student’s progress. Thus, the student, if he remembered, would hastily jot down the homework instructions on a random piece of paper, which he often lost.

Together with the parents, we decided to teach him time management, organization, and other valuable skills that fall under “how to be a (western) student”. However, after providing the student with the tools to better manage his time and assignments, I realized that no toolset was going to solve his problem.

You see, even when the student wrote down the homework, he didn’t understand the big words the teacher used and thereby couldn’t spell them in his notebook. He couldn’t read what he had written. He couldn’t find the words in the dictionary. He couldn’t understand what the assignment asked for. He didn’t know how to share thoughts on a given quote without preparation. The student was ill-equipped for the foreign teacher’s western teaching methods, but when confronted, blamed his lacking time management skills.

When the problem runs deeper than academics
Towards the end of our lessons, I discovered that the student was not, in fact, boarding full time. His parents pulled him out for more challenging math lessons and was splitting his time between school and home. He was preoccupied with his old friends, such as canceling class to buy an old classmate’s birthday present. He did not like his roommate, and, having transferred into school mid year, failed to make new friends at school. He didn’t like the arrogance of his new school mates, and wasn’t accustomed to the competitive environment of his school. He couldn’t ask anyone for help or advice, and even his teachers scorned him as too bothersome and not hardworking enough. The student struggled to fit in socially.

I realized that the student was deeply unhappy with his transfer, despite the hard work it took to get in and the initial pride he felt for being a student there. With glistening eyes, he told me of his exit strategy, of how he was sure he could not make it to the next year, and how the school was a sham. What the student had needed all this time was not a miraculous tutor who could pour knowledge into his brain, but a friend and counselor who could walk him through his emotions.

Some students, I’ve found, do not need academic tutoring. Some students just need someone to hold their hand while they figure it out all on their own.

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