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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tutoring is a Two-Way Street

I think all of us can agree that one of the most agonizing things to happen to a writer is to NOT be able to write. Whether we can't get our thoughts out on paper, or we can't them in order, or we just don't have any thoughts to write about; the feeling can be compared to a fish out of water. We gasp for breath. We flop around helplessly. Our one desire is to return to that which sustains us.
Late last month, my father passed away. He was relatively young (59) and we were not very close. But being the one who had to settle his estate, I found myself putting everything else in my life on the back burner. In the week I was handling the arrangements, my skills seemed to have left me. I wanted to write but my head was so clouded I couldn't get anything out. For the first time in a long time, I remembered what it was like to be a first-year student, struggling with a writing assignment. Suddenly, I found myself in need of the writing center. I needed to know how to formulate ideas, organize them and put them on paper. I think sometimes we, as tutors, forget what it's like to be on the other side of the table.
When I finally returned to the writing center, I found myself feeling anxious about having to help a student. I wasn't sure I could help, everything I knew was a jumbled mess in my brain. My first session back, was with a frequent and sometimes troubling student. I found myself unable to get my act together with this student. I got frustrated and at the end of the session, I felt like I had wasted my time as well as the student's.
I forced myself to take on more students than I was scheduled to that week. I knew the only way I was going to get back in the "WC race" again was to get back on the horse. I took each subsequent session as a time to reinvent myself as a tutor and to re-sharpen my own skills. I found myself trying different techniques in my sessions. I took on students that needed a variety of levels of help. By getting them to drive their own session and identify their own writing issues, I found that they were tutoring me! Over the last couple of weeks, I think I have learned just as much as they did.
I think it is important for each of us to remember, that we are not the be all and end all of writing. There is still much for all of us to learn. Who among us are professional or experienced enough to list ourselves among Longfellow, Hemingway or even Shakespeare? Is it any wonder so many writers turn into alcoholics?
Tutoring is a two way street. The students come in to the Writing Center for help. They feel like they are drowning. They feel like they cannot write. They feel like that goldfish who fell out of his bowl. They want to learn from us and unlock the mysteries of writing. But if the mysteries were the same for everyone, we would all write the same way! BORESVILLE!
My ultimate message here is simple: when you are tutoring your students, don't forget to tutor yourself and don't be afraid to learn something from the student. The fool is the teacher that believes he can learn nothing from the student.

5 comments:

  1. So true! I miss working at a writing center, but tutoring on my own is almost as good.

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  2. Vy Tran10:02 PM

    I completely agree with you about having a “two-way street” for tutoring. The reason why we love it so much is not only about the social connection we achieve with other tutees, it is also the inevitable knowledge we gain with each student. Since I am begininng my journey down the tutoring path, I can relate to your experiences as being a return tutor. When my first tutoring session began, I was extremely nervous and anxious about how well I was checking each procedure off the list. After the session, I soon realized that I had no social connection with the student and had learned nothing from the session because I was just going down a laundry list of steps for tutoring a student. From that mistake, I have learned to understand the student’s writing and mold my techniques with their learning style as well as sharing my thoughts from a friend-to-friend basis. Each tutoring session has its own special characteristic. Although some may not notice it, tutors are inherently learning as well as being tutored by the students through their questions and writing techniques.
    Being able to write well is not an easy task, especially when for an international student. They “gasp for breath” in finding the help they desperately yearn for. We, as tutors, must give them that one push to get them motivated to write their paper. By making them drive their own session, it allows the tutors to benefit in their weak areas of knowledge from the basic grammar skills and vocabulary to the detailed information in their essay. In order to become a good tutor, the tutor’s skills must constantly change with each student. Whether it be one month or five years of tutoring, the tutor should continuously search for new ways to improve their techniques and overall general knowledge.

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  3. Anonymous9:23 AM

    I really enjoyed this comment. It holds a lot of wisdom. Everyone knows how it feels to be a beginner at something. It is frustrating, scary, courageous, risky, and full of opportunity. Many people who come into the writing center are not beginners at writing, but they may be beginners at asking for help. Personally, I have a very hard time asking for help. I become afraid that the person will belittle me and have less respect for me. This fear has caused me to miss out on many opportunities that I could have grown from tremendiously. I believe one of the most important things a tutor can do is help the tutee find their confidence and their own unique voice. I like to tell my tutees that, “they have the answers, I am merely there to mirror their answers back to them.” Although this author is not “new” to anything in particular they speak of the fear of feeling speechless. I am relating this “speechlessness” as a way of asking for help to find one’s voice. In a sense, writing is letting one’s raw self show because it is one’s personal thoughts. We as tutor’s can learn a great deal from our tutee’s insights and thoughts. New cultures, backgrounds, and incredible stories are told during tutoring sessions. I believe each person has so much to teach others and in that sense tutoring is a huge lesson all around. The tutee helps the tutor become a better leader, while the tutor helps the tutee find formulate their opinions and find their voice. I loved the last sentence of this post, “The fool is the teacher that believes he can learn nothing from the student.” As I stated earlier, everyone has something to teach and if one is open they might get some of their own questions about a topic answered. To leave a message of my own, I believe life is a great opportunity and we should all encourage one another to become the best people we can be in every aspect of our lives: tutee, tutor, beginner, experienced, we all are learning.

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  4. Min Kim12:44 PM

    Yeah, I think I learned more as a tutor than I learned as a student. I think the position of responsibility pushed me to find out more about English and the different writing styles. My desire to help those who come in acts as a catalyst in my personal growth as a writer. I find myself exploring different writing styles and ways of effectively communicating my point. As you said, there are many different types of writers and no two writers are the same; I think being flexible is the way to be effective in the Writing Center while learning yourself. The diversity is also part of the reason I enjoy working at the Writing Center. Other than the professor, who gets to read so many different essays and thoughts? It’s an opportunity that many people don’t have. There are so many diverse people with different backgrounds and experiences in life that I can’t help but learn something new from every session. I think the Writing Center also helped me to become a more dynamic writer. When I look at the things I write now and compare it to what I had written previous to working at the WC, the difference is almost like night and day. Not necessary better or worse, but just different.

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  5. Rosetta Phan1:04 PM

    Rob, I really appreciate your insight and can relate to your experience. I had a preconceive notion that tutors were experts with all the answers. As a new tutor, that concept alone was extremely daunting. I remember my first session; I was so nervous that I ended up talking the entire time because I was the “expert.” The session was a complete wash. I knew I needed to take a different approach. Once I started interacting with the tutees with the idea that it was their session, I realized how much I was learning. I found that asking open-ended questions helped connect the tutee to his/her writing. The sessions are a two-way street. The groups of tutees we get range from all spectrums of learning and have dynamic experiences that are truly inspiring. I have learned more in my tutoring sessions than I have ever dreamed. Many times I like to refer to myself as a guide, rather than a tutor, because really I am not teaching any my tutee anything he/she doesn’t know, I am merely enhancing their abilities.
    Being able to take the role as both a peer and a tutor was completely relieving. I can use outside resources (handbooks, internet, worksheets, etc.) when I don’t know the answer. In truth, I think using other resources during the tutoring process better services the writers, because it is a real world experience. The tutees learn how to become independent and self-sufficient. As tutors, we want them to use the techniques we suggest on future assignments.
    I agree that the sessions are never static. The unique ideas and styles are what I enjoy most about tutoring. I am a firm believer that writing is a medium of expression. If someone knew all the answers then what would be the point of writing, if it could only be express in one way. Not only has this rewarding experience taught me about writing it has also taught me how to effectively communicate with others.
    Thank you Rob for sharing your experience,
    Rosetta

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