So You Want to Tutor? Prove It.

man helping boy study

This is part one of the series, “So You Want to Tutor?”

  1. Prove It
  2. Get Them Talking

One day while making my way through the campus swarm I actually noticed one of the school billboards about the Writing Center. I suddenly decided that tutoring writing was my dream job. It was this kind of far-off dream, something I could attain only if I became a Rock Star among English majors. I was confident I could do the job (to some extent), but not that I could get the job.

I can’t tell you exactly why this happened. I think I had some kind of weird vision in mind, probably involving collie dogs, coffee shops, and turtleneck sweaters. I put it on this pedestal in my mind, something that I wanted but would probably never happen. I set the dream aside, and decided to try for good grades instead.

I took advantage of some class extra credit by taking a research paper to the Writing Center for feedback. It was awful. The tutor I saw really didn’t seem to want to be there, or have any interest in helping me. They were completely wrapped up in the task of pointing out flaws and problems, which was kind of helpful, but their attitude surely wasn’t.

I was annoyed, but didn’t think too much of this experience. I chalked it up to my being a “difficult person”. The next week, however, I heard more horror stories. Students were leaving the Writing Center with nothing but frustration and anger. Some had left in tears.

This isn’t natural. Sure, it can be hard to receive critique, but that wasn’t the issue. The real issue here is that the Writing Center had somehow employed people who didn’t WANT to be helping students improve their writing. Naturally, since they didn’t want to help, they really didn’t.

No matter how difficult a person I can be, I would make a much better tutor than some of those currently working there. I was filled with anger. Not the kind that starts fights, but the kind that fuels the fire and gets stuff done. I made sure to receive very high scores on my next few papers, set to work editing some of my best stuff for a makeshift portfolio, and (after standing up straight and sucking in a long breath) forced myself to ask teachers for letters of recommendation.

Apparently there isn’t as much competition to tutor as I had believed, because I was hired for the next semester. Over Christmas Break I began reviewing my people skills. I wasn’t trying to change my entire personality in one vacation, just a bit of review on how people work and the best way to get through to them. I read books on giving honest criticism, books on people in general, and evaluated some of my more recent mistakes.

I started training, and I was extremely nervous. I mean, what can be more nerve-racking than trying to tell someone what’s wrong with their writing?

I began helping students, awkwardly at first, but you know what? I never sent anyone away in tears. Every day I got better. I picked up some good tricks from my boss, other good tutors, and my own experience. Every day I struggled with the thought, “what makes me think I’m good enough to tell people how to improve their writing?”. This was the consolation that kept me going:

Taking your writing to someone for critique is a difficult thing. Many people don’t know who to go to that will have the knowledge and sensitivity to be helpful. They should be able to bring their work to someone who genuinely wants to help: They deserve it.

I tutored writing for a few semesters, and then tutored psychology and web design after that. One semester I held my tutoring sessions just down the table from my supervisor, where she could hear all. At the end of the semester she asked me if I was considering a career in education, and if not, I should. The way she put it, I was a natural. I was quite surprised! That surely isn’t what I had thought when starting out, but you have to admit – she had credibility.

If you want to teach, tutor, or in any other way help people, don’t let yourself get intimidated by anything. Not the people who are better at it than you, not the difficulty of working with people or their children. Let your desire to help people drive you to do what is necessary to get there, because frankly – there aren’t enough tutors or teachers in the world who truly WANT to be there, and there never will be.

There are always others who are better than you at writing, photoshop, nutrition, math, grammar or woodworking. But maybe that struggling student doesn’t need the “best”, they just need someone to help them troubleshoot a problem and get unstuck. Do you want to help them?

Go for it. There’s a demand for you.

There are real benefits to tutoring;

  • You become better at your work, in the process of explaining how and why you do things.
  • You escape your own world and problems for a while, being in the moment and helping someone. For those who struggle with anxiety, there is almost nothing greater.
  • You aren’t a douche. You’re giving back, and that’s awesome.

It doesn’t really pay that much. Most students won’t thank you (though some will, and it’s the best when they do). But some students will leave your table re-energized, emboldened to approach their work again when just moments ago it had been nothing but a source of great stress. Things that had seemed impossible before are now quite simple, and they can start to tackle the problem – all because someone with a bit of experience bothered to give them a half hour.

So you want to tutor/teach? Do it. Do what it takes; It’s a righteous profession. Let those who only want the campus job go flip burgers or man a computer lab and leave the tutoring to those with a genuine interest.

photo from City Year

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