My tutoring student has been more and more difficult to work with. I have never been a stickler for him finger pointing while he reads. But it seemed that he wasn’t even doing the bare minimum of what the reading program required of him. Some days he was impossible to reach. It felt like the real him was locked away under layers of poor behavior.

Anytime there was a substitute teacher his behavior was at its worst. Then there were days with nothing out of the ordinary going on and I still couldn’t get him to focus for any length of time. Feeling exasperated I told him I would time him for two minutes. The only timer I had on my phone was a stopwatch timer. So I just kept my eye on the time. He seemed extra motivated and had no idea I spotted him an extra minute or two. At least he was working.

When I got home I scoured the office for a sand timer. I found one in a game before I found the one I was looking for. No matter. The game timer was about two minutes and the other timer was well over three. I could adjust with Edward as needed.

The next time I tutored we went out in the hall as usual and I told him about the timers. He was really excited. At first. Then the timer ran out before he finished. Even though I had it hidden out of sight he knew. The timer became the focus. He could barely read, follow directions, or exist without worrying about that timer. Then the end of the world happened.

Out of nowhere he put his head in his hands.

He wouldn’t answer me.
He wouldn’t look at me.
He had completely melted down.

I have never seen a student melt down so quickly and completely. Tell me I didn’t feel like the Wicked Witch of the West. Me and my stupid timer. How did I think that was such a good idea? Why didn’t it work? What was I thinking? I told the teacher how I broke her student. She said she would find other ways for me to help him with his reading.

A few days later I came back in for another tutoring session. The fragile relationship we had was shattered. I was acutely aware of the loss of trust he had for me. Even with reading games the spell was broken. He had locked himself back inside his own head, never to venture out again.

I love tutoring. I really do. But some days I would rather be selfish with my time and just stay home. Today was one of those days. I knew I owed it to Edward to at least show up and hope for the best. I considered taking some books with me to read to him. The pain of the last great idea gone wrong kept me from grabbing any books.

If only I had. A substitute greeted me, which meant there were no alternative materials to work with. I grabbed the box by the door and Edward bluntly said, “I’m not doing that.” I tried to tell him we would do something else. Only there really is nothing in that box to do but the reading program he now flatly refuses to do.

He wouldn’t do the sight word cards. So I grabbed the white board and let him draw while I thought. The assistant principal walked by as he often does on Thursdays. He smiled at me on his way out and thanked me for helping. Hot coals on my head could not have made me feel worse.

I knew I couldn’t sit there and let Edward draw for 30 minutes. He would be better off in the classroom. But I know how eager he is to leave the classroom when there’s a sub. Besides that, he exchanged my tiny chair for a full sized chair! The little gentleman was returning.

I told him to go back and get two books to read. He came back with two science picture books, well above any first grader’s reading level. He didn’t let me read much, and I learned to skim first and spit out words that made sense rather than read the paragraph captions. We learned all kinds of fun things about bats, snakes, and spiders. The sparkle was back in his eyes. I hesitate to say the magic is back. It was a good day for rebuilding trust.

I’m still a little gun-shy about bringing in books. I may just pull the trigger and do it. This is a sweet little boy who loves to learn. He is fascinated by animals. He spent almost an entire tutoring session telling me all about the animals he saw at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I would stop him and tell him he had to finish the next section of the lesson before he could tell another story. It worked that day.

His teacher is right. He’s behind and he’s not having fun. We have to try something else to reach him. I figure my job is just to help him love reading. Whether that’s through games or books it doesn’t matter. 

The program is good. Recognizing that it’s not working for Edward is better. I don’t know what the best is. I do know that timers were the failure of all fails. I don’t expect this kid to be reading Shakespeare by the end of the year. I just want him to find joy in reading. I couldn’t care less about what is expected of me as a trained Sound Partners reading tutor. All I care about is keeping the sparkle in this little boy’s eyes.