Every so often, I see a notice from ESRA suggesting that we volunteer to help children in school with their English. I think these notices miss the point completely.
I am a reasonably selfish person. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I see patients because I enjoy helping people learn to help themselves.
And for the last few years, working as a volunteer tutoring children in English, I have learned an awful lot.
First of all, I had never worked with children before, and for me it has been a new and exciting experience.
Second, I am learning lots of things from tutoring.
What am I learning? Firstly, I had great difficulty learning French in high school. Some of the children's difficulties in learning English clarified for me the difficulties I had in French.
You want examples? In French I could not hear the difference between some vowel sounds. That is true for many of the Israelis in English. They confuse ‘shirt’ and ‘short.’ They confuse ‘lives’ and ‘leaves.’
When I began to learn French, we conjugated verbs in seven past tenses, and we couldn’t understand when you use which tense. Doesn’t that remind you of the confusion Israeli children have with choosing which tense to use in English?
What else am I learning from tutoring? I am learning, or clarifying in my mind, how the times have changed, and the difficulties modern children face.
With the current consumer culture, with people discarding objects they own and constantly buying more, mothers and fathers work long hours. To keep their children occupied and out of mischief, the parents schedule organized activities every afternoon and every early evening for their kids. The children literally don't have time to study, do homework or read. And the curricula, whether in English or other subjects, have not been revised to take this fact into consideration.
I am learning that, despite all those clubs the children attend, they are still glued to their televisions and computers for passive activities. I have asked the elementary school children what they want to be when they grow up. The boys almost invariably want to be soccer players. But do they play soccer? No, they watch soccer matches on TV. And the girls want to be models or actresses. While the boys are watching sports, unfortunately not at a live game, but on TV, the girls are window-shopping at malls.
They are hardly doing anything to develop their minds or their bodies.
I feel like the proverbial Hans with his finger in the hole of the dike, only my dike is simple courtesy. When I work with a group of three to six children, trying to teach them not to interrupt one another is Sisyphean. They humorously comment that I am trying to teach them to behave as Anglos rather than as Israelis.
And tutoring reminded me of a saying I knew eons ago: praise the children and they will blossom. So I look to praising the children, much as I look to praising my patients when they achieve a new insight or accomplish something they hadn't thought they could do.
Perhaps I have unreasonable expectations of the Ministry of Education.
I expect English to be taught as a living language, not by translation, like Latin, Ugarit and Sanskrit. My older friends tell me that English used to be taught that way in schools when they were children.
I expect that in the secular schools children will know something about Judaism. When their workbook spelled certain Hebrew words in Roman alphabet letters, I discovered that none of the children in my group knew what a siddur, a prayer book, is.
Lastly, I am almost embarrassed by the gratitude the teachers express for the measly two hours a week I spend at school. (I have to tell you that the reason I spend only two hours is that the work is challenging, and I want to stop before my enthusiasm wanes.)
Yes, I find volunteering to tutor in school is challenging, but oh, so interesting. I am learning so much. And if you are considering becoming a tutor, don’t think of it as doing a mitzvah, a favor. Think of it as a selfish act: you gain so much from it.
If you want to volunteer to tutor, contact ESRA at 09 950 871, or email email@example.com or go on to our website www.esra.org.il