So You Want to Tutor? Get Them Talking.


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

  1. Prove It
  2. Get Them Talking

Establishing rapport, in this case, isn’t about selling knives, makeup, or used cars. It’s about breaking the ice a bit, and establishing a common ground. A bit of rapport doesn’t mean finding out their favorite ice cream and their relationship status. You’re not here to be best friends, you’re here to help.

The primary aim is to get them talking and to find out what assignment they’re working on, what class it’s for, how much time they have to devote to the project before its due, what grade they’re shooting for, and other aspects that may be piling on the stress for them.

So besides getting them talking (which is very important), it’s about arming you with the bare minimum of knowledge you’ll need to actually help the student. Rather than charging into the assignment with a red pen, ready to bleed the page, find out a bit of background. This isn’t a novel, and you only have got an hour or less, so a chunk of exposition here does just fine.

Be Aware of Entitlement

As I learned during my tutor training, there are some who will come to tutoring expecting to be given the answers. Maybe this has something to do with our lecture/notetaking format in classes, but this is not your responsibility as a tutor. Your job isn’t to know and give all the answers, but to show them as a successful student how you find the answers when you need them.

Your training may go differently, but ours focused quite a bit on this – on fighting the attitude of entitlement. I believe it was valuable training, helping put up a wall to prevent you doing things you shouldn’t.

The main problem with this training is although it may be true, and it may be helpful to know that you should “teach them to fish” rather than just giving the answers, it ultimately doesn’t help to approach a student assuming that they’re just here to get test answers from you.

Some students may have an entitlement problem, sure, but it doesn’t help to assume this. This might just be a result of not knowing to expect – especially if they haven’t tutored before, or haven’t had a good one.

It’s best to keep a balance between the two perspectives. On your end, become solid in the idea that you are here to help the students learn how to be successful students, or in other words, learn how to find the answers they need. If you only have them for up to an hour, you can’t fix their grade for them – but you can give them some tools that allow them to do this for themselves. On the other end, the social side where you, as a student, are helping a fellow student – don’t get all defensive if they ask for answers, or sit back in their seat expecting you to move the session forward.

Keep Them Talking

Many if not most students will take on this passive attitude at the beginning of a session, especially if they’re not used to having you as a tutor yet. This may tempt you to talk a lot just to get the ball rolling, but refrain. In order to “teach them to fish”, we need their participation. In fact, if we were to weigh the entire session on a verbal scale, it would probably best if they were talking 90% of the time, with you only making small remarks to direct or advise. At worst, it should be 50/50. The thing to avoid is the opposite, with you talking 90% of the time and the student only speaking the other 10%. This most likely means they aren’t engaged in what’s going on, which means the session is not as effective as it could be (if not completely useless).

Reading Aloud

One of the tricks I would use when tutoring writing was to have the student read the paper out loud. I handed them a pencil (NOT a red one) and encouraged them to make notes of changes as they found things. As they read, I would never interrupt, but simply be marking awkward passages or wording with underlines or circles, just to make note of it for later. This was very important – You’re not making editing marks, showing exactly what’s wrong, but simply highlighting the areas that need attention.

Don’t interrupt. This is important so, DON’T INTERRUPT. Most students will be just a little embarrassed at reading their paper aloud, even in a private setting, so let them work through it. If they are allowed to keep fumbling through reading their paper aloud and eventually realize they aren’t being judged for anything (not the writing, not their articulation, nothing at all), they will relax. They’ll become comfortable with the situation. And best of all, they’ll be talking.

Talking leads to participation. Participation leads to engagement. Engagement leads to LEARNING…


Baking Recipe: Success

picture of freshly-baked round loaves

When you have invented a good recipe, you write it down. You write it down because you know it works, and you might need that reminder at a later date. You also write it down because it might serve to benefit other people, or in order to mark little changes you’ve discovered along the way. That’s kind of what this blog is all about.

I love baking as an analogy not only because I worked at Great Harvest for a year and a half, but also because I just love baking. I’ve put together three ingredients to success that have always led me to great things in the past. They are the reason I have never gone more than a week or two without a job, even after the economic downturn – and I believe the same principles will eventually lead to success in other aspects of life.

First Ingredient – Work Hard and Continuously

This may seem obvious, and there’s a reason for that. Every book that was ever published was also rejected. Almost every author who was ever published didn’t publish their first written work. A piano player practices regularly for years to get good enough for professional status. That’s just how life works.

In the job-getting department, this means every day you find some new contacts, and you make at least 5 contacts. Expand your list of job openings and make 5 steps toward getting a job somewhere. That means applying online, dressing nice and walking in to check on an application, scheduling an interview, attending an interview, etc.

In the writing world, this means writing a book. It also means editing it, probably several times.

Second Ingredient – Be Cheerfully Flexible

It really irks me when plans change last second on me. At my very best, I’ll eventually remember to be cheerfully flexible. Changes happen, and you’ve got to be able to adapt to them. Why waste energy on being upset about it?

This means being able to take critique or roll with the punches. Many writers are sensitive arteests, vulnerable and even angry at the idea of an editor “ruining” their work. An already successful editor or agent knows how to take a book and make it ready for the professional world. Chances are, you don’t.

Third Ingredient – Learn to Like People

I love smart people. Literary people make some of the most fun conversationalists; they have something to say about everything, and they are so darn witty. However, it kills me how critical smart people can be. Sometimes, downright cynical and negative. It’s a natural thing, I think; we as humans tend toward our own viewpoint so strongly, we often find ourselves in a perpetual state of dislike toward others.

I was not born with the gift to be a social butterfly, and I don’t claim to be one now. I was born with passion and with honesty, however, and I’ve learned something; if I can genuinely like people, they can tell. A lot of the time, they’ll like me back. It’s actually really cool. The book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was given to me for Christmas one year by my parents. I rolled my eyes when I got it. “Wow, trying to send a subtle message here?” I thought.

It turned out to be one of the most valuable books I have ever read. It isn’t tips and tricks about how to fool people into thinking you’re different. It’s not a book on rhetoric, on using the right words to be influential. It’s not even about formulating good arguements. It’s about liking people. It’s about trying more often to see things from others’ viewpoints.

People can tell if you like people, whether it’s in person or because they’re reading your written work. For me, the trick isn’t to fool people into thinking I’m cool. It’s liking them, first.

Time for Maturity

Every great bread recipe uses an organism, sugars to feed them, salt to control them, and time to let them do their work. You can’t rush great bread. You HAVE to let it mature. Let it rise, beat it back down, and let it rise again. Put it in the oven too soon and you’ll have a brick. Take it out of the oven too soon, and you’ll have a mushy center.

Everything takes time. The trick is finding ways to track progress – mile markers you can recognize. “My first book signing” is a great way to know you’ve made it to a certain point, but “I wrote 500 words today” is a great way to tell that you’re making progress right now.