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Volunteer Tutors Learn Their Own Lessons

headshot of Molly McClennen
Molly McClennen

Articles on adult literacy typically cite statistics like this, from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy: 45 percent of adults in the United States are English-language literate only at the basic level or below. The articles usually continue with examples of the many barriers limited literacy presents: barriers to education, employment, involvement in children’s education, and even to performing life’s most basic tasks, like driving, shopping or visiting the doctor. 

But as I reflect back on my years of teaching adults who struggle with reading, writing or learning English, I never remember my students for what they couldn’t do. To the contrary, I am struck by all the things I didn’t know until my students taught me: how to set a pick in basketball, how to brew tea from sassafras root, how to cook Columbian hojuelas. I now think of myself less as being confined to the traditional role of teacher, but as someone who, in equal measures, both teaches and is taught. 

Similarly, many of the volunteer tutors I work with in Waubonsee Community College’s Adult Literacy Project have told me that they learn more from their students than they feel they can offer in return. I think this is the primary, but often overlooked, reward for volunteering as a literacy tutor. Yes, our tutors assist and encourage their students as they pursue goals that require improved levels of literacy. But it is the relationship that forms between tutor and student that keeps so many of our tutors involved with the program for years — tutors whom we are proud to recognize and celebrate during this National Volunteer Month. 

Waubonsee’s Adult Literacy Project began in 1985, and several of its tutors have been working with the program almost since its inception. Project staff train volunteers to work as tutors in Waubonsee’s Adult Education classes, to tutor adult students one-on-one or to lead group tutoring sessions. Tutoring covers topics like reading, writing, math and learning English as a second language. Tutors generally work with students two hours per week at a time and public place that is convenient for them both. The Adult Literacy Project provides all materials used in tutoring. Tutors are welcome to use the tutor resource room at Waubonsee’s Aurora Campus, which includes space for one-one-one tutoring, computers and a large resource library. Project staff are always available to provide advice and instructional support to tutors and students. 

Our volunteers represent a diverse range of backgrounds, ages and professions, but they share patience, a desire to learn and an appreciation of different cultures. No prior experience in teaching or tutoring is required.

Over the past 29 years, our program has trained and matched more than 2,000 volunteers, but we have a continual need for new tutors; currently, we have a list of more than 30 students waiting to be matched. If you are interested in learning more about becoming a volunteer tutor with the Waubonsee Adult Literacy Project, please visit our website at www.waubonsee.edu/adultliteracy. You can also contact us at (630) 801-7900, ext. 4106 or mmcclennen@waubonsee.edu

Molly McClennen is Waubonsee’s Adult and Family Literacy Manager.