After weeks of recruiting tutors and practicing Zoom break-out rooms and host and co-host features, this past Tuesday I led my first ever Zoom tutoring session. The idea was pretty simple: high school students would offer free tutoring to elementary and middle school students in urban school districts. Everyone would join one Zoom call and then break out into Zoom rooms while a teacher bounced between rooms to answer questions and generally make sure everyone was on task.
It seemed like a wonderful idea. The high school students were eager to give back to their community. We practiced everything at least twice. We sent invites, solicited the names, ages, and content areas with which the students might need help. We even practiced using the Zoom “whiteboard” feature. We took turns making notes, erasing notes, and saving notes.
On the day of the first tutoring session, it became clear that we would have more tutors than students in need of tutoring on the call. Although we had carefully planned one-on-one tutoring, and even matched the aptitude of tutors with the needs of the students, it seemed not all of our students in need of tutoring would be getting on the call.
Once we got awkward introductions out of the way (and burned some time to see if more students would get on the call), I needed to figure out how to reconfigure the groupings of tutors and students. It was then that the most obvious flaw of our plan dawned on me. The tutors were all white and the urban students seeking academic help were not.
An immediate burn of shame filled me. Not only had we proven the outcome of four hundred years of systemic racism, but we also perpetuated the idea that urban students of color need something that only white people can provide. The hierarchical tutor/student relationship called out the power the white students had to offer a service the other students could not receive any other way. The whole thing felt wrong.
No one wants to come to your pity party, even those who cannot afford to decline. Manipulation, not righteousness, is the word that best describes offering a banquet to those who cannot repay you simply to secure your spot in heaven and assuage any guilt you may have about your relative wealth. I suspect most of the students in need of tutoring did not join the Zoom call because they knew their role in this was to provide a way for affluent students to “give back” and they didn’t want to be part of a charity project.
The kingdom of heaven will not be brought nearer if I simply seek to offer gifts to those who could not possibly repay me. The kingdom of heaven requires that I first ask why there are people who do not have the things they need.
I do not know where we will head next with our tutoring groups. I know the tutors are good people who want nothing more than to do the right thing and give what they can to help others. We will need to give careful thought to issues of inequality in technology and education. We will need to figure out if tutoring is the answer to the question of why some students in some school districts don’t have the resources they need to reach their full potential. That is what the kingdom of heaven demands.