Photo of Konnie Hoffman-Ellis
Konnie Hoffman-Ellis

Self-Employed and Loving It

by Konnie Hoffman-Ellis

From the Editor: Konnie Hoffman-Ellis was a 1989 NFB scholarship winner. Can blind mothers juggle home, children, and job? You bet they can. This is the way one woman has made it work:

I've always known I wanted to be a teacher. This was made even more clear to me, though, at the age of thirteen when my sister and I began teaching our two younger brothers, who, believe it or not, were fairly willing and receptive students, even at the tender ages of two and four. Little did I know then that twelve years later I would be doing something quite similar in my own home and not in front of a classroom full of children.

I decided to give tutoring a try after completing my student teaching about six years ago. I had earned a master's degree in learning disabilities in addition to my bachelor's in elementary education, and I was anxious to put my skills to work.

However, I had found my months of working in the public school system to be a little disappointing. Because of my major in special education I was placed in a classroom that served children with developmental delays, attention deficit disorder, and various other challenges to academic growth. I found it very difficult, if not impossible, to help all these students adequately when their needs were so varied and there were so many children in the room at the same time. Also our main task seemed to be to help them complete their daily assignments from their regular classroom teachers. Unfortunately, our time was so limited that this usually amounted to little more than giving them the answers without their really understanding the material--a practice that left everyone feeling frustrated because no long-term skills could be learned or applied.

Since my student teaching ended in December, I knew it would be hard to find a job for the remainder of the year. So I decided to try my hand at tutoring until the next fall, when I already had a pretty good job prospect arranged. As things turned out, though, I liked tutoring so much that I decided to stick with the tutoring business and now plan to do so for a long time to come.

I love my job for many reasons. For one, I'm putting my college degree in education to good use, and I'm doing what I love best—working with children. Although I'm doing this using somewhat unconventional methods, what I do is more rewarding for me than teaching in the regular public school classroom. This is true for several reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that I'm my own boss and get to stay home full-time with my baby daughter. I can set my own hours and take time off whenever I wish to. I also like selecting the textbooks and worksheets from which to teach and being able to work with the kids one on one and at the best pace for each child. Perhaps the most rewarding thing about my job is seeing my students come to the point where they no longer need my services. In fact, the only disadvantage I can see to being a tutor is that the income is somewhat unstable due to the constantly fluctuating number of students.

However, in my opinion this one drawback is far outweighed by the many positives. I am always exposed to a variety of people with a great many different interests and problem areas. At my busiest time (before I became a mom, which now takes first priority) I was teaching twenty students, most of whom came at least two hours a week. The age span ranged from four to sixty-six. In addition to teaching the basics such as reading, math, and grammar, I've also taught things like algebra, computer, and creative writing. I've done everything from helping a senior citizen get her GED to working with gifted children—and everything in between.

How do I do my job? It's really quite simple. First I get the word out by various means, such as advertising in local newspapers and on radio stations. I also have brochures which I pass out whenever I get the opportunity, and I've given some of these to each of the schools in our area so that teachers can pass them on to parents if they believe the children could benefit from having a private tutor. As I become increasingly well-known, word of mouth is now my best form of advertising as my former clients give my name to others. I have also put signs advertising my business at busy intersections and on bulletin boards in public places. This has usually yielded good results.

Obviously tutoring requires lots of effort beyond the direct work with students. However, this is true for any teacher. At first I was putting in two hours of preparation time for each hour of tutoring. This time has been significantly reduced, however, since I can use the materials over and over. To save money, I did all the initial Braille transcription myself. I had a reader come in once or twice a week to read the textbooks and worksheets onto tape, which I later put into Braille. I purchased a Xerox copier so that I could use the same materials for different students.

Most of the parents I have dealt with have been very supportive and encouraging, even though some were a bit surprised at first when they learned of my blindness. The topic usually doesn't come up until they bring the child for the first appointment, but I am very open about the subject and am more than willing to explain that, though I sometimes do things differently, I accomplish the same end results.

When a student comes to me for help, the first thing I do is test to determine the grade level at which he or she currently performs. Then I assess the problem areas and find the appropriate materials with which to begin teaching. Sometimes I use the Optacon to correct papers, but I usually just have students tell me what they're doing as they work, which helps them as well as me. This method often enables them to catch and correct their own mistakes, which greatly facilitates the learning process.

After the student leaves, I write up that day's performance in a log on my computer. Every few weeks I give a copy of this report to the parents so they can see exactly what we've been doing and evaluate the progress made. I also keep track on my computer of how much each family owes me and the dates of previous payments. This makes it easy to print out bills or receipts if requested. Since I constantly have cash and checks coming in, it is necessary to keep pretty thorough records.

My job is also made easier because I have my own office, where I do my Braille transcription, computer work, and copying. I have a separate room that I use just for teaching and storing my materials. Lately I've been tutoring part-time in the evenings when my husband Bob is home to take care of our daughter Karissa, but when Dad can't be home, she loves to sit and watch me teach. She is usually very good. We plan to home school her when she gets a little older, so she'll probably have a good start on her ABC's and 1, 2, 3's by then, just by observing me teach these skills to others.

In short, I love tutoring because my creativity is continually challenged: I'm always trying to think of new and interesting ways to make what I teach fun and motivating for my students. I would recommend this job to anyone who thinks it sounds appealing, and I would be happy to discuss it further with those who have questions. Feel free to contact me at (605) 393-9512.