SUN Staff Writer
Ernest Cata was never formally trained to be a tutor.
As a machinist in Los Alamos for 35 years, Cata showed apprentices how to run specific machines. It was Cata’s only experience teaching others before he became a tutor two-and-a-half years ago.
“That’s kind of where I got a feel for teaching,” Cata, now retired, said. “Not teaching, but kind of bringing the apprentices along and making sure that they were safe.”
Cata’s love of teaching others carried over to tutoring, and his work was recognized on June 23 by the New Mexico Literacy Board, with the Tutor of the Year Award for his work with his student, Jose Martinez.
Rather than tutor Martinez in schoolwork, Cata teaches him how to read. Martinez, who had no previous reading skills when he joined the Rio Arriba Adult Literacy Program in 2013, is now reading at a fourth-grade level, after working with Cata for two years. The free program started in 2012 and gives students one-on-one, confidential sessions with tutors on a weekly basis at the Española Library, or other public places.
“I’m not going to say I’m born for it, but it takes work on my part and it takes much more work on the readers’ (behalves),” Cata said. “Patience is my number one priority with my student.”
Cata has spent three to four hours a week for the past two years teaching Martinez to read by studying religious text, specifically, the Bible. The Program, in an effort to make sure adult readers remain motivated, lets students decide the reading they are interested in, Program Director Beverly Post said.
“I went into church and I wanted to know the word of God,” Martinez said. “My goal is to try to preach the gospel.”
Cata and Martinez still have a long way to go. Cata gave an example of children in school, who learn to read over the course of grade school.
“You’re in there for 12 years,” Cata said. “It’s an everyday thing with reading. Don’t be thinking in six months, you’re going to be a proficient reader. It takes time for us to learn that skill.”
Cata’s patience has been an important factor in developing a strong teacher-student relationship. Cata said Martinez has good and bad days.
“He has those kind of days just like you and I do,” Cata said. “When he’s on and he’s reading, I just sit back and listen to him, and I just smile to myself because he’s getting it. That’s really special to hear my student and to see the progress that he’s made.”
Cata always enjoyed reading when he was younger, which fueled his passion to teach Martinez to read.
“To take that little journey that a book can take you on, I thought to myself, people that can’t read, they miss out on those things,” Cata said. “I didn’t really expect anything other than to help an individual to enjoy the pleasures of reading, and then I found I got some satisfaction out of seeing that individual progress.”
Like Cata, many tutors in the Program do not have formal training experience. Tutors take part in a few training sessions given by instructors from the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy. Cata went in not knowing what to expect, but eventually became a tutor for tutors, as well.
“Ernest has made himself available at our tutor orientation,” Post said. “Ernest has really been a wonderful asset for our program that way.”
The Tutor of the Year Award was something that caught Cata completely off guard.
“I never really expected any kind of award or any kind of honors for helping an individual to try and better themselves,” Cata said. “It means that people volunteer their time and their effort, and have it recognized by a large group. It’s pretty special.”
While Program coordinators praise Cata for his efforts as a tutor, they are also quick to acknowledge Martinez’s openness to his involvement in the program, as well. Martinez said he knows others who don’t want to admit they can’t read, and said it’s never too late to learn.
“I’m very happy for myself for admitting I needed help,” Martinez said. “It was a great honor just to tell people.”
The Program periodically tests students on their reading level. They complete the program when they reach at a fifth or sixth grade reading level. While Martinez is coming closer to completing his goal, Cata is in no rush to finish with Martinez.
“At this point, I really enjoy working with the student I have now,” Cata said. “If it takes a year or two years, I have no problem right now committing that time.”
The Program provides free, one-on-one, confidential tutoring at the Española Public Library. If you are interested in becoming a student or tutor, call 747-6162, or visit raalp.org.