To Tutor or not to Tutor

few days ago, there was the usual seasonal piece on a Scottish news programme about exam results and the fact that, at this time of the year, parents suddenly start looking for tutors for their children (“ totally unregulated” was the shock horror addition.) There was the usual brisk young spokesman for the department of education, firmly toeing the party line about how schools can teach kids everything they need to know, while tutors only cause children stress. Well I have news for that rather smug young man. In an ideal world, schools would teach kids all they need to know. But this is a far from ideal world, and so many schools in Scotland are struggling with a multitude of problems. I know, because I was once chair of our local secondary school board. Frankly, it was a nightmare.
Not the least of our many problems was that the school was smaller than average. Teachers, not surprisingly, would use it as a stepping stone to somewhere better. Especially good teachers. Having applied for and gained a new job, many of them had to leave immediately, leaving whole classes of children in the lurch, mid term. The comparatively small size of the school also meant that subjects and, perhaps more importantly, combinations of subjects were very limited. But classes were generally crowded because the school could never afford, or even attract, enough teachers.
Our son found quite early on in his school career that he simply couldn’t cope with maths. And neither my husband, nor myself, knew enough to help him. His maths teacher was excellent – I have nothing but praise for him, as a clever, dedicated, respected man - but the class was full of people for whom primary school maths had proved something of a mystery, and he was invariably struggling to bring them all up to the required standard at once while wrestling with the discipline problems involved in “inclusion” policies, which basically meant disruption.
Since our son was a bright kid, and also no trouble in class, everyone assumed he was managing. He wasn’t. We visited the school and talked to his teacher, who was hugely sympathetic, but nothing improved. I suspect the teacher simply didn’t have enough time to cope with the volume of work needed. I bought books, and struggled to stay ahead of the game, but I couldn’t seem to sort it out for him either. There were sleepless nights, panics, tears. Only those who have gone through something similar will understand the stress involved for all concerned.
“Once I leave school” he said, “I will never, ever do any maths again.”
In despair, I contacted a friend, a school teacher whose son had had similar problems. He seemed to be doing OK now. She gave me the phone number of an elderly retired engineer who tutored schoolkids in maths and physics. We couldn’t really afford the fees, but we had been left a little money by my parents, and decided to invest some of it in tutorials. After the first session, the tutor chatted to us over tea and biscuits. “No wonder he’s struggling” he told us. “There’s a big gap in his knowledge. It makes everything difficult for him.”
At his otherwise excellent village primary school, our son had been a little slow at maths. It was the way he worked. He liked to have everything explained, and take his time, but once he understood a concept, it was firmly embedded. He was in a class of eight. Three or four of them seemed to have a natural ability with numbers. He was placed in that group, but couldn’t keep up. His teacher suggested placing him with the other little group, where he would always be top, in order to improve his confidence. It improved no end, but unfortunately he also missed out on whole chunks of knowledge. Like most kids, he needed what neither of his schools seemed able to provide –a friend who is a distinguished educationalist calls it “teaching the child, not the subject.”
During his second session with the tutor, a strange and unfamiliar sound emerged from the room where they were working. It was the sound our son laughing. Laughing over maths. Astonishing. He had never laughed over maths in his life before. At that point, I realised that whatever it took, we would carry on with the lessons.
That was some six years ago. He passed his standard grade with flying colours and got an “A” at Higher, with very little trouble, and almost no stress. The tutorials dovetailed very nicely with what he was doing at school, where his sympathetic maths teacher – fortunately – didn’t disapprove of the tutor’s methods. His tutor simply gave him the tools to enjoy his school maths. One of the high points of this time was when he was heard to say “Oh the joy of numbers!”
So whenever I hear whizz kid educational authority spokesmen firmly toeing the party line on tutoring, I reach for my pen. Don’t tell me things would have got better, because they were heading for disaster. The only sadness is that schools can’t find some way of incorporating one to one extra tutorial time into the school schedule. Teaching the kids, not the subjects. Fat chance.
As for our son, he’s in his second year at Glasgow University. What is he studying? Maths. As I watch him happily working away at sheet after sheet of numbers, symbols, equations, I remember the wee boy who vowed that he would never take maths again, and wonder just how many other people have been lost to this fascinating, but largely unsung discpline. But of course, that’s a whole other issue, and probably not one for this blog!

What's in a Name?

All my life, I've had a surname that the average English Language speaker finds horribly difficult: Czerkawska. The trouble started when everyone else at school was learning to spell Smith and Jones, whereas I was wrestling with that difficult juxtaposition of ten letters.
To be fair, I eventually married a man with a very simple surname, but by that stage, I had been writing professionally under my own name for so long that changing it seemed like madness. (Or that's what my agent at the time told me.) Besides, I like my name. It has a long and interesting history. And I learned to spell it years ago. But the problem is that although people remember it, kind of, they don't remember exactly what it is. So they say "you know, that Polish writer. The one with the funny name."
In late 2004, having written for BBC radio, television and theatre for many years I learned that my novel The Curiosity Cabinet had been shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, and was to be published by Polygon in 2005. My (new) agent and I agreed that a name change might be in order at last, and I was prepared to go along with anything reasonable. But Polygon were dismayed. We've done the publicity, they said. And we've done it under your own name. So there I was, stuck with it. I could almost hear my dear late dad chuckling. He wouldn't have approved of the change anyway.
Now, with a new year on the way, and the novel published to a certain amount of success, I've finally decided to stay with Czerkawska for the time being - although I'm well aware that there are many writers who publish under a string of different "identities". I sometimes feel like the original europerson. My father was Polish with a little bit of Hungarian thrown in, my mother was half English and half Irish. I was born in England but moved to Scotland when I was twelve. Now I'm married to a Scottish Liverpudlian, and - having travelled about a bit - still live and work in Scotland. As a full time freelance writer, I've tried my hand at all kinds of work from poems to plays and novels, always pursuing that elusive thing "my own voice". I've won the odd prize along the way. I've done quite a lot of commercial writing, working to a company brief. And of course I've taught creative writing as well. One thing I've learned, over the years, is that in searching for your own unique voice, you also have to want to communicate - and to have something reasonably interesting to say...
So all this is by way of an introduction. I'll often be writing about writing: sometimes my own and sometimes offering a bit of advice for other aspiring writers from the depths of my experience (I almost wrote "despair".)
I make no apology for the fact that my writing often has a Scottish flavour. After all, I've lived in deepest rural Scotland for many years now. But struggling to make a living in this wonderful, difficult, frustrating profession, has also given me a certain cynical perspective on all kinds of things. So I make no apology for being opinionated, and occasionally provocative. And if I can entertain a handful of people, and start a debate or two, so much the better. More later!