This is my first semester as a peer tutor. I've learned a lot about my job and about myself in the last seven weeks. One thing that I've learned is that our perceptions color our reactions. A week or two ago a began my day with an unexpected obstacle; a young man with suggestively violent facial tattoos entered the writing center. I suspect that the tattoos were designed to intimidate, and they performed that function rather well in my opinion.
I'm going to
admit that these thoughts ran through my head: What is this person doing
in college? What job does he hope to get with those tattoos?
I surprised myself there. I generally try to reserve judgement on people until
after I've at least spoken with them. As a tutor, I realized then, I
was doing this human being a disservice. I knew that my perception of
this student would affect how I dealt with him during our session. I did
not want to let this tutee down, so I checked my first reaction, put a
smile on my face, and shook his hand. "Hi, my name is___, " I said.
The tutee said nothing. I wasn't expecting that. I was determined to
give him a beneficial session, but I knew his non-responsiveness would
make our session very difficult. What I did not do then was ask myself
why was this person behaving in this manner. In retrospect, I had not considered the possibility that he was not the sort of person who found
themselves in a position of needing help. It takes courage. Perhaps he
was as intimidated as I was, or more so.
I brought him over to a table, sat down, and asked, "What can I do for you today?"
He slid a printout across the table toward me. It was his assignment
sheet. He still hadn't said a word to me. I looked over it. His
assignment was to write an essay about the beginning of the American
involvement in World War Two. At my writing center, we have our tutors
fill out a little card with some of the student's class info. I asked
him for that information, and he hesitantly gave it to me.
By the way, it has occurred to me that some of you might be thinking "What if he is mute?"
Well, he wasn't; I saw him speaking with our front desk personnel when he asked to see a writing tutor.
I then asked the tutee why he thought the United States entered the war. He replied by saying, "The Great Depression."
"Alright," said I, "That is a good start. What about The Great Depression caused us to enter the war?"
I let him mull it over for a little while. Eventually he looked at me pleadingly and shrugged.
"Lets look at it from a different angle, when we entered the war what happened to us?"
"We... had to build factories."
"Exactly! And people had to work in those factories, right?" He nodded.
"So do you think that helped the economy?" He nodded again. "And who
worked in those factories?" He hesitated here, and looked to me again for help.
"Well, if most of the men were fighting in the war..."
"The women worked in the factories," he said, finishing the thought.
"That's right. Now, do you think there might have been other reasons to get involved in the war," I asked.
I gave the tutee some time to think it over, eventually he said, "Because we were attacked?"
"Well, I'm not an expert on history, but I think you are on the right track here. Who attacked us?"
"Like... Pearl Harbor right," he tried.
"Well, what country attacked Pearl Harbor," I asked.
"I don't know," he replied.
"Ok, I'm going to help you out, we did get into the war because we
were attacked, but it was before Pearl Harbor. It sounds to me like you
might need to do some research to find the answers to these questions.
After we do research, it becomes much easier to write about historical
events, because we will understand the reasons behind the events. Have
you done much research yet?"
"Alright, then that should be your next step. Do you know how to search for information online," he nodded. "Okay, good."
My initial perception of this student could have completely ruined our
session. I forced myself to give him a fair chance, but in my
heart I know that I based my expectations for that session largely on
outward appearance. That student may have been the best writer I've ever
read; whether or not he has facial tattoos is irrelevant to his ability
as a writer. I began to suspect that the student was looking to me for
the answers to his essay question, but of course, I could not and would
not do that for him. In the end, I showed him basic essay structure
and talked about how to conduct research on our school's online
database. As human beings, we have limited control of our reactions; we
react to what we perceive. If instead of focusing on his appearance I had focused on his body language, I might have gone into this sessions
better prepared to help this student.