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Living with prosopagnosia.

Seeing My Students Instead of Their Faces

Tutoring with prosopagnosia: challenge, asset, or both?

I began a tutoring job recently, primarily focused around writing and life skills. My student is eager to learn, even as he struggles with a variety of issues. Based upon what I was told by his mother, I made the decision to create an agenda for the first lesson knowing it would be far more focused on me, at least initially, than on my student. I had to open up to him before I could expect him to be open with me.

I began our first conversation, as I often do, by describing my personal background and experience. It's nearly impossible to do that without spending some time discussing my prosopagnosia. I do this for many different reasons.

First, I want people to be aware of my limitations. I don't seek pity from people, but successful social and professional interactions in my life depend on some amount of help from other people. In this particular case, since I am tutoring at the student's house, the environment makes it easier for me since I do not have to find the person I am looking for. As a person with prosopagnosia, that could have been quite a challenge all by itself if we were to have met in a public location.

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Second, it presented an opportunity for my student and his mother to ask me additional questions or to discuss concerns they might have about me or about the tutoring process. I had already spoken at some length with the mother and she sounded very comfortable with me, but nothing beats a meeting in person. Email and telephone discussions only go so far, but a face to face meeting, even if I may not recognize the face, can seal the deal.

Lastly, it gives my student some behavior which I hope he will feel confident in modeling down the road. Unlike me, my student does not have prosopagnosia.

The work we have done so far focuses around reading, writing, and a lot of discussion. I am a highly verbal person, so this suits my strengths just fine. I relish being able to connect with other people on an intellectual and emotional level.

However, the challenge is that not all students are going to be like me. Some will be more verbal, and others will be more visual. Some will be shy, while others will be more outgoing. Successful teaching and tutoring requires the ability to connect with each student in a way that is most meaningful to them. Then there are the additional challenges of being a tutor with prosopagnosia, especially the possibility of mixing up students and their individual needs. I am uncomfortable with this prospect, which is why I am only seeking jobs where I can tutor one student at a time.

Another part of being a good tutor is to be able to share experiences which might be relevant to the student. The writing exercises I have proposed so far speak directly to the interests, hopes, and dreams of my student. I have also participated in the writing exercises, and have shared from my own positive experiences. Sometimes, I find it helpful to write about my experiences living with prosopagnosia.  In doing so, I have communicated with my student that even a significant challenge like prosopagnosia can be a enormous asset.  So far, he has responded very well.

These are all intellectual challenges for me. Such situations allow me to cater to the strengths that I have. Although I have prosopagnosia and can not recognize faces, I need not be obsessive about my own challenges. Instead, I focus on what I am good at, and I present the opportunity for my students to do the same. In so doing, I am certain I can help them achieve the confidence and skills that they need to achieve their own success. When that happens, not only have my students succeeded, but I have also succeeded as a tutor. In addition, I have also succeeded as a person with prosopagnosia.

©2011, Glenn Alperin

Teaser image courtesy of NSW Reference and Information Services Group.

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Glenn Alperin is a writer who has prosopagnosia.

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