Eye-opening tutoring


Dr. Joann Grayson, sitting at a desk to the right of one of her tutoring students, reviewing tutoring materials

In the spring of her junior year, senior Psychology major Megan Knetemann signed up for the Tutoring At-Risk and Foster Children fieldwork class to get service hours for another class.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Knetemann admits, describing her apprehension at choosing a child to tutor.

“I was actually really nervous, because you get to choose your student, but they have to qualify for the program,” she recalls. “I chose my student and went to the house, and I’ve been with the same family ever since.”

Three semesters later, Knetemann is still in the program, and still tutoring the same high-school student she met that spring.

Dr. Joann Grayson, professor emerita of psychology, runs the Fieldwork class for tutoring at-risk and foster or adoptive children, which enables JMU students to gain experience in child psychology and advocacy while simultaneously providing a much-needed service for the community.

“Those homes have some difficulties that cause the child to be referred to us,” Grayson notes. “For the children we tutor – for some of them – it’s the first time that they’ve been successful in school.”

“My student was failing, and she got her grades up really high after I started working with her,” Knetemann says. The past three semesters have enabled her to develop a close relationship with her student while showing her the importance of the role she plays in that student’s life.

“Someone to believe in them: I think that’s what we offer most. Someone who’s like, ‘I know you can finish this homework assignment. I know that you can do that, and I expect you to.’”

The tutors meet with Grayson every three weeks or so to discuss their struggles and successes with their students.

“She really just is a good role model in general,” says Kendra Edwards, a senior who has been in the program for two semesters.  “She just works with kids so well and doesn’t seem to get frustrated with them at all, doesn’t seem to get frustrated with parents.”

The ages of the students tutored range from elementary- to high-school, but having a college role model to look up to can impact all ages.

Edwards says of her student, “A little 6-year-old who has a college kid coming in to read for them, they want to do well, and they pay attention to you, and they want to improve. They want to impress you.”

Knetemann emphasizes, “I think it’s important to be like, ‘there are cool, young people who enjoy learning.’ A big thing that I worked on with my student is that I actually wanted her to enjoy reading, and so we have a book club.”

But making strides with these students is in no way easy. Senior Kathryn Howard explains that relating to her student can be challenging when the two have such different backgrounds.

“We come from two very different worlds,” she emphasizes. “She really, really hates her homework, and school is just really difficult for her.”

Howard continues that a lot of advantages the program provides for her student go beyond just the educational.

“A lot of these kids don’t have anyone to talk to,” she explains. She states that the challenges faced by kids in foster care are different than most people expect, and that listening to their problems is important.

The tutoring experience enables the JMU students to learn a lot about themselves as well.

“I think it’s been a really humbling experience for me,” Edwards explains.  “Where I’m from, it’s pretty diverse, but I’ve never been in the house of some lower-income families or interacted with that group of people from a community.”

Grayson notes that Edwards’s experience is not unique. “I think for the JMU students, it’s the first time some of them have been in a home that might be affected by poverty or have difficulties.”

The students also gain intimate knowledge of the education system as a whole, including its failings. They work closely with teachers to effectively help students and get to hear students’ perspectives on the classroom. Knetemann says that some of her student’s classes allow students to listen to their iPods during class, enabling ample distraction.

“There’s some things that have really spurred me to be more passionate about the way we run education in the United States,” she says. “We’re really not doing a good job, and we’re doing a really big disservice to all of our students.”

But Grayson has confidence that JMU students have the capability to make a difference: “You have an educated position; put it forth and don’t be afraid to share your thoughts with the elected officials.”

Knetemann agrees. “I think JMU is really amazing in that we’re really social justice-minded. I think that as a community we can…focus some of our energy outside of the JMU community and leave the campus and help out where it’s really needed.”

For Knetemann, the experience has gone far beyond just volunteer work or class credit.

“It completely spun me 180 with what I wanted to do,” she says. She hopes to go to graduate school to study educational psychology. “The goal, the main goal, is to take the research and take the data, and apply it to social policy and hopefully change the way that we run some things to make it better.”

“It’s a really wonderful and sometimes even life-changing experience,” Grayson says. “Some of [the tutors] decide to go into education.”

This last semester of the program is proving difficult for Knetemann.

“It’s going to be really hard to graduate,” she says. “That’s actually one of the only things I’m dreading about graduation is saying goodbye to my family. It’s been a really good experience.”

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Feb. 26, 2015

By Jessica Bur (’15)

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Published: Thursday, February 26, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 29, 2017

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