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April 11, 2023

National Volunteer Week | An interview with Mary Jane, a 20-year tutor

In honor of National Volunteer Week 2023, we chatted with Mary Jane, a volunteer in Reading Partners Silicon Valley who has been tutoring for twenty years. She was one of the original tutors when Reading Partners was called YES Reading in 2003!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What’s your name, occupation, and Reading Partners region?

My name is Mary Jane Edwards and right now I’m tutoring at Milpitas Marshall Palmeroy School in Reading Partners Silicon Valley. I’m a retired ESL (English as a Second Language) adult education teacher.

How long have you been tutoring?

Well, I don’t remember the exact year when I started, but I think I have been tutoring for probably over 20 years.

You started back when Reading Partners was Yes! Reading, right?

That’s correct. I started tutoring at Bellhaven School which was in East Menlo Park, and that was the only site at that time. That’s where I started and it was called Yes! Reading.

What was Yes! Reading like?

Well, when I first started, Yes! Reading was very unstructured. Three ladies had started it because they recognized the problem of children falling behind in reading and not getting any help at the schools. And so there were a group of volunteers and we worked at the Bellhaven library, which was the school library. And I think the children were tested, or the teacher had a recommendation of what level they were at. But basically, we were on our own. I remember just choosing books from the library and trying to read them together.

And then later we had a classroom and I bought myself a first-grade phonics book, picked out lessons from there, made little flashcards, and played games with my student.

Oh, but there were certainly no plastic bags with lesson plans in them. It’s a lot more structured now. 

Why did you decide to start tutoring all those years ago?

Well, I retired from my regular job as an ESL adult education teacher. And then for a few years, I volunteered in various adult education programs. For example, I tutored GED at Valley Medical Center and other one-on-one ESL programs that were very unsatisfactory. And then actually my aerobics instructor suggested Yes! Reading. I think she was a volunteer there and she said, maybe you would enjoy working with children. So, I took some early literacy classes and I enjoyed working with children very much.

How has your tutoring experience changed over the years?

Well, the structure definitely. And then of course during COVID, that was a completely new experience to teach virtually on Zoom.

But the actual experience of working with children and helping them become better readers, that has been the same. That has not changed that much.

What’s kept you coming back to Reading Partners year after year?

I keep coming back to Reading Partners because I enjoy working with children. I love to see their progress, their curiosity, and their eagerness to learn. And I also really believe that the path out of poverty is a good education. And the first step to that is being able to read. So partly it’s enjoyment for myself, and partly it’s a more serious concern and a wish to make a difference.

What’s a fond memory you have from your time tutoring?

One of my best memories is of a little girl who was repeating first grade and she had absolutely no clue about sound-letter correspondence. When I would ask her to sound out a word, she would look up at the ceiling and we struggled along.

And then I had her for a second year. By then she was in a first-second-year combination class. And something had happened over the summer, and suddenly she understood the sounds and the letters.

We breezed through the Beginning Readers program and she made beautiful progress. I think she was close to reading at grade level by the end of second grade. A couple of years later, I had other students, and I went to pick up a student at the library. And there was a fourth-grade class in the library and all of a sudden one little girl from the fourth-grade class ran over to me and hugged me.

And she said, “Oh teacher Mary Jane, I’m now reading at grade level! I’m in fourth grade. I love reading. I’m doing very well.”

I was just absolutely thrilled by that. It was a light bulb moment.

What’s some advice you have for other tutors?

Well, if you’re just thinking about it, it’s a great experience. It’s most enjoyable. I would advise you to have a lot of patience and keep an open mind, accept the child as he or she is, not what you would wish him or her to be. And above all, have fun and enjoy the experience.

What’s your favorite book?

Well, I usually enjoy the book that I’m reading at the moment, but if I had to go back over time, I would say my favorite book was Anna Karenina. It’s really 800-plus pages, but beautifully written. And you really can’t put it down once you start. 

I read it as a very young woman. And then later in life, I saw movies that refreshed my memory. It gives you a beautiful picture of 19th-century Russian society, how women were treated, and the psychology of a woman who’s in love with someone she shouldn’t be in love with.

And there are a lot of subplots that are all very fascinating and give us a great picture of that society. So I enjoyed it. I enjoy historical novels. This isn’t exactly historical, but the background is, it gives you a very true picture of what was going on at that time. It’s one of the classics of literature, so it’s worth reading.

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