Tutoring middle school students
The Sai Baba Center of Norwalk, Connecticut, adopted a community service project of tutoring at a middle school in Stamford, Connecticut, in Fall 2009. This middle school served students of diverse socio-economic backgrounds and was concerned with the vast disparity in academic achievement among its students.
It is a pervasive belief that students need their parents to play a supportive role at home, including assisting them with homework, if they are to succeed academically. However, the parents of many students were single mothers, struggling economically and unable to devote the time, money, and energy to focus on the kind of help their children would need to succeed in school.
The tutoring project got underway in January 2010 as a weekly, hour-long, after-school activity to help students who had been identified as not completing their homework. We were challenged in many ways in our attempts to instill discipline and get the students to focus. Their lack of motivation and discipline tested our patience and brought up feelings of frustration, as progress was very slow. Some students resisted or rebuffed our efforts outright, and we got mired in details and logistics of how to solve these problems. Some of the volunteers felt skeptical and apprehensive about continuing, feeling there was nothing they could do to change things.
Look inside, and remember the goal of selfless service
We decided to step back and do some introspection. We reminded ourselves of Sai Baba’s message that the true value of service is to transform us.
This was a test of our spiritual mettle, and these challenges were opportunities for putting into practice the spiritual values that we had learned from Sai Baba.
Once we began truly to surrender the outcome of our efforts and instead practice the “three P’s” – perseverance, patience, and purity of intention and effort – things turned around. We gradually learned to leave our expectations and assumptions at the door. We went in with a more positive attitude and a determination to engage the students in a warm loving manner, no matter what. We surrendered the outcome to God, which made us feel more relaxed. In turn, we noticed a gradual change as the students became more responsive to us.
How could we commit even more to the students?
We brainstormed and decided we needed to do even more in order to better serve the students. We approached the school management with some ideas. Finally, in September 2010, we were invited to attend the students’ morning remedial classrooms (of five to ten students each) and assist the teachers by working with the students individually or in small groups.
For a few of us, this meant arranging a late start at work, so we could spend an hour in the classroom two to three mornings a week. We also decided to work with the same class and students for the entire school year. This gave us a wonderful opportunity to observe, learn, and better understand the students we were partnered with. In this setting, the interactions improved considerably and the barriers fell away.
Over time, our faces became familiar, and a trusting rapport developed. We tried to be there for our charges in every way and opened ourselves to being friends, mentors, and elders who had their best interests at heart. We found we were better able to help the students to believe in themselves and to provide them with encouragement in every interaction. The students experienced personalized and caring tutoring. This in turn motivated them to focus on their schoolwork and improve in their academics. And, after two school years of involvement, we received excellent feedback from the school management on the impact we are having on the students.
Reflections from the volunteers
For the eight volunteers in the project, week after week, we always walked out of the school feeling grateful for the divine opportunity we have been given.
Here are a few reflections from the volunteers:
“Some weeks we were able to help a lot, and some weeks we were not needed much at all. But as long as I remembered that the time I had volunteered to be at the school was not mine, and I knew I was doing my best, I felt very happy to be there. At one time I would have felt guilty about not getting to work in New York until noon, but interestingly, everybody at work thought it was quite great that I was carrying out this tutoring project, and that made it easy for me to work around my normal schedule. So, with God’s grace, the opportunity to tutor showed me that if only I can take the first step, be happy doing it, and surrender everything to His will, then He will take charge and multiply that happiness.”
“Sai Baba often stressed that true education is not merely for making a living but for living a good life:
‘Education is for life. Life is for love. Love is for service to the nation and the world. Then there will be peace. Starting with values, you end up with peace. There can be no peace without values. When students acquire education in this manner, they will promote the well-being of the country and the world.’*
I was able to achieve this by tutoring the students at the school with the little math knowledge that I had and a whole lot of love for them. The feeling
of accomplishment within me beckoned me to go back again the year after to continue tutoring the students.”
“As the semester progressed, I got to know the kids and began to better understand the effect of the environment at home on a child’s behavior, motivation to learn, and scholastic level. All they needed was love and trust in their potential. Once they experienced that love, they blossomed and exhibited a greater degree of creativity and enthusiasm in completing their homework and making progress in their projects. Sometimes there was very little I needed to do, but I derived such joy from watching the happiness on their faces, as they felt a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, this tutoring experience was truly an eye-opener, and I learned a very valuable lesson—that love and trust can and will bring out the best in each of us. It left me with many thoughts: How wonderful it is to see the potential each child has to be creative and successful; can we not spare a few hours a week to help at least one child realize this? If only Sai Baba devotees could channel their energies on more such projects, mentoring needy children in the elementary and middle schools, so that their innate abilities are brought out. Finally, the personal gratification I got out of this brief volunteering experience was very precious. One kid whom I had helped with writing a story came up to me in the hallway the following semester and said, ‘You know, you are good,’ and walked away. What can be more gratifying than hearing that from a child!”
- Sathya Sai Baba Center of Norwalk, Connecticut
* Sri Sathya Sai Baba (11 Nov 1995), Cherish Bhaaratheeya Culture, Sathya Sai Speaks Vol 28 (35); http://www.sssbpt.info/ssspeaks/volume28/sss28-35.pdf