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Springfield Area Literacy Council volunteer Debbie Marks, right, tutors Tina Kiehl in math.
By Rich Saal | SJ-R
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Those who can, teach
By Tamara Browning

Tina Kiehl of Springfield has overcome being a high school dropout and a crack cocaine addict only to face one more obstacle to her plans to become an addiction counselor: algebra.

Kiehl only has algebra to pass to earn her associate degree online through the University of Phoenix and proceed toward a bachelor's degree in psychology. Because math is difficult for Kiehl, she's getting help from tutor Debbie Marks, a volunteer with the Springfield Area Literacy Council.

Marks is in her fourth year volunteering for SALC (formerly VIA/Literacy - Volunteers in Action) and tutors math for the group at Fishes & Loaves Outreach Ministries, 1819 Stevenson Drive.

One Monday morning, Kiehl and Marks discuss squared numbers. Kiehl defines "squared" as multiplying a number by 2. Marks corrects her by saying a squared number is multiplied by itself.

 "I am going to college. I can do anything but algebra," says Kiehl, who should have graduated from high school in 1984 but dropped out her senior year "to pursue a career in addiction."

"It's tough. Sometimes women have math anxiety," Marks says.To help Kiehl overcome her uneasiness, Marks encourages her to draw pictures to visualize word problems.

"This is just like a play on words, 'The area of a square room.' It's basically saying the square root of 225. Right?" Kiehl asks about one problem.

"Yes, very good. Well, and see, that's why I like drawing the pictures," Marks says.

Marks' tutoring speaks to how she views education.

"Everybody learns in a different way," Marks says.

"You can't do like a one-size-fits-all," she adds. "The skill of the tutor has to immediately understand that."

Accentuating the positive also helps, Marks says.

"(If) we're working through an equation and there's a step that was done in error, let's focus on what was done right, boost their confidence," Marks says.

"Then we'll circle back around where we need to make the correction. We try to celebrate the little successes."

Seeing a student smile or sit up straighter when he or she feels better about learning is rewarding, Marks says.

She tutors approximately two to three hours on Mondays and spends about the same amount of time grading assignments or preparing for the upcoming week.

Marks began tutoring when she still was working full-time.

"I had seen an article ... when they were talking about the need for volunteers with Lawrence Education," she says.

"I was still working full-time, but I've just been a huge education advocate, so I'm like, 'Well, I'll go to a meeting.' "

Marks initially tutored reading and then moved to math. She tutors mostly adult women studying for General Educational Development, or GED, tests.

"I give a lot of these adult learners a ton of credit in that they're busy people, especially the women with young families," Marks says.

"They make a big effort to come in here and crack the books, and a lot of them do the homework that I assign during the week, so it's very gratifying."

Bonnie Roberts, acting director for SALC, says that Marks has the ability to connect with her students, to encourage them, to believe in them and to be excited for them and the possibilities connected to achieving their goals.

"She can inspire in them a tenacious spirit of not giving up. Yet, at the same time, some students do disappear. Debbie expresses concern, and it is clear she feels a loss," Roberts says.

"But she keeps moving forward, helping more and more students. In Debbie's situation, though, the few that have disappeared eventually come back. Life just got too overwhelming for them.

"And, always, they want Debbie back as their tutor because she is so enjoyable to work with, believes in them and is effective in explaining the material."

During a tutoring session with Marks, Tina Kiehl admits she doesn't "like math at all."

"I'm majoring in psychology, and I'm like, 'What do I need it for?' " Kiehl says to Marks.

Says Marks: "I like math 'cause there's critical thinking skills. There's applied critical thinking, like measuring for carpeting for your house or determining interest that you would earn on savings."

At the end of the tutoring session, Kiehl says she understands what Marks has taught her.

"I'm getting a little nervous, but today, I did some algebra. I actually did it," says Kiehl, who soon will be a reading tutor for SALC.

Marks looks forward to celebrating with students when they achieve their academic goals, she says. But she also sees an opportunity for others to contribute to the community through tutoring.

"I will never understand people who are hesitant to retire since they may encounter incessant boredom or will lack for daily challenge," Marks says.

"There are so many volunteer needs in our community waiting for these people to share their talents."


Debbie Marks

Age: 54

Lives: Pawnee, born in Chicago

Family: Husband, John; sons Eric, 25, and Adam, 22 

Education: Undergraduate degree in political science/economics in 1979, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; graduate degree in public administration with a concentration in public budgeting in 1981, Sangamon State University 

Work: Retired with 32 years of state service, 25 in the Illinois Department of Transportation. Retired May 2010 as chief, Bureau of Budget and Fiscal Management.

Volunteer efforts: Tutor with Springfield Area Literacy Council. Volunteers with Daily Bread (Senior Services of Central Illinois midday meal program), Pawnee Schools and Planned Parenthood. Formerly served on Pawnee School Board. She and her husband coached several summer ball teams for their sons.

Inspiration: After spending most of her time on numbers-crunching and report preparation, Marks encountered opportunities to affect people on a more personal basis, so she "gravitated toward that to fill a sort of void."


Story published Friday, May 6, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 3 )

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