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…


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