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Local Reading Corps tutor Diana Coombs reflects on experiences, encourages others to apply for positions

As of Thursday, Dec. 8, Bemidji Middle School needs one math tutor and St. Philip’s Catholic School needs one early learning tutor to start in January 2023.

Diana Coombs.jpg
Diana Coombs is a Reading Corps tutor at Northern Elementary and encourages others to apply for open positions.
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BEMIDJI — Diana Coombs has worked in education for more than 30 years, including four years as a Reading Corps tutor at Northern Elementary.

Coombs earned her paraeducator degree from White Earth Tribal and Community College, after which she and her husband took part in some cross-country travel.

Originally from Minnesota, Coombs took charge of her passion and worked as a teacher’s aide in Hawaii where the couple lived for eight years. They then moved to southern California where Coombs worked with kindergarten classes and a reading tutoring program.

However, Minnesota would soon call them home again.

“We did not like the heat (in California), so we decided — if you’re comparing 110 degrees to 20 below zero — we’d rather be back in Minnesota where you can cover up and stay warm,” Coombs recalled. “Plus, our grandkids were here.”

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Coombs’ husband had plans to “semi-retire” while she wasn’t quite ready to do the same. Upon reading an article about the need for Reading Corps tutors in Bemidji area schools, Coombs jumped at the opportunity.

“I didn’t know if, coming back to Minnesota, I’d be able to get a job with a school district,” she said, “so I applied for a Reading Corps position.”

Training tutors

As part of AmeriCorps — a federal program that enrolls over 250,000 people to serve organizations across the United States — the Reading Corps, Math Corps and Early Learning Corps are three sub-groups that place tutors in schools so students in preschool through eighth grade can achieve grade-level proficiency in reading and math.

“We work with children who are just a little bit below their grade level in their testing and we have tutors who come into the schools to work with those students and give them a little extra push in their education,” said Jennifer Eck, program manager for the north-central region of Reading Corps and Math Corps, which includes the Bemidji area.

Eck’s role consists of guiding the tutors to ensure they’re meeting certain requirements as well as providing training before a tutor enters the classroom.

Coombs noted that the training is beneficial for anyone who doesn’t necessarily have her educational background or experience.

“They provide training that is really good and there’s lots of back-up if you have questions after the training,” Coombs added. “People don’t need to have my background to do tutoring and be successful and enjoy it.”

Tutors receive a two-week stipend among other benefits, depending on their weekly commitment, which can involve 18, 25 or 35 hours per week at a particular school. The schedule flexibility is just one positive of the job for Coombs and others who may consider becoming a tutor.

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“You can work pretty much full-time or you can work 18 hours a week so you’d be able to work around a college schedule,” Coombs said. “Any age can do this; a mom who just wants to get out of the house a little bit and have some exposure to kids other than her own. It just seems that anyone who enjoys being around children would find this a good use of their time.”

The perfect fit

No day is ever the same for Coombs who tutors 16 to 20 students a day, each for 20-minute blocks. Her day includes working with kindergartners on letter sounds and helping third graders with reading fluency.

“Anytime you deal with children, every day is different,” Coombs said, “which is what I like about this job.”

As a former tutor herself, Eck spoke on the range of potential tutors who could find a rewarding experience as a tutor in their own backyard.

“We’ve had people right out of high school taking a gap year between high school and college. We’ve had retirees ready to do something, and we’ve had people who have never gone into the workplace before,” Eck said. “As a tutor, you have that wonderful joy of helping children and doing something to advance the future generation.”

Eck referenced a need for Math Corps tutors this school year, for which positions haven’t historically been filled as much as Reading Corps positions in the Bemidji area.

“We’re really pushing for math this year and advancing more positions,” Eck said. “Due to the pandemic, a lot of people have stepped up. We’ve had a lot of applicants with different interests in Reading Corps and Math Corps.”

Those who are hired as tutors would be joining an experience that Coombs describes as her perfect fit.

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“I have trouble finding the words to encourage other people (to apply) because I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to do it,” she said.

With no signs of stopping, Coombs expounded on the support of Northern Elementary staff and the motivation she receives from the children she tutors.

“I’m really blessed that they are so supportive of the (tutoring programs),” Coombs left off, “but it’s absolutely the kids that keep me going. As much as I appreciate the adults at Northern, the kids are what drives me.”

The Bemidji area initially needed 13 tutoring positions filled. As of Thursday, Dec. 8, Bemidji Middle School needs one math tutor and St. Philip’s Catholic School needs one early learning tutor to start in January 2023.

Those interested can apply at join.readingandmath.org/careers-home by Wednesday, Dec. 14.

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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