A humbling observation

At some point in your life, either recently or long ago, have you ever believed that you were exceptionally great at some skill? Hour after hour the ability would be practiced until one day someone else does the same thing, just ten time better. It is very humbling.

Yesterday I observed a tutoring session between a writing center Tutor and an amazing student. She was from Africa and spoke several languages! They both sat down and calmly went over what she wanted to do with her writing.  At that moment I became nervous, even though I was just observing. English can be very difficult to those who have not grown up surrounded by the language. The experienced tutor calmly smiled and translated what she wanted to do. "I don't know where to start. What to do."  The Tutor read aloud and broke down the instructions piece by piece, then slowly simplified each fragment so the student could understand what the assignment was really asking. I think it was a great way to approach the situation, possibly too simple for an advanced writer, perfect for one who is struggling writing English.

I was scribbling notes and examining not just what was done but how it was presented. What was just a normal meeting for the experienced tutor and the student seemed very fast paced for me. Obstacles were being overcome before I could reflect on how I personally would have approached it. The process came off as intimidating but at the same time encouraging, since I was actually learning some new strategies.  

Another one of the methods the tutor used that caught my eye, was what he mentioned when the student lost some self-confidence. "I'm not a very good writer." The paper was a personal memoir of their life. He reflected upon what he learned about the student earlier, complimenting and reflecting on; how many languages she learned, her origins, and the personal history she had given him. What makes this stand out is that it is reassurance and it works for the paper. Her spirits were lifted and her participation increased.

Observing other tutors is very interesting. I believe I know a bit about coaching others but seeing an experienced tutor in action can make me second guess myself. It can be viewed as a good thing. The experience proves that I have plenty of room to grow and develop as both a person and a tutor myself.  


  1. Reading about your observation of the session was quite enlightening. I have no experience tutoring or observing tutoring, so I am rather excited to hear about the quality tutors I may encounter or observe at our student writing center. It sounds as if the experienced tutor knew exactly how to tackle an obstacle such as tutoring a non-native English speaker/writer. I can hardly wait to observe some of these truly once in a lifetime interactions between two intelligent beings, especially when they may be of different cultures.

  2. It's interesting, but the people who know more than two languages are actually much more perceptive than if they had only one language under their belts. Don't get me wrong, you can be perceptive with only one language, but when we learn multiple languages we're learning to look at the world in different ways. There are different shades of meaning for different languages with similar words, and there might be a new word for some obscure concept, like schadenfreude (which means pleasure derived from the misfortune of others).

    There's an interesting article here about the concept:

  3. Anonymous10:11 PM

    Nice post!

    I’ll be honest—I have often thought of myself as an exceptionally good writer, one who is able happily and easily marry words with ideas. I think I’ve perhaps gained this confidence from the several writing courses I’ve taken in my still-young college career and from, like you’ve mentioned, the practice and refinement I’ve undergone during each.

    However, I find that my seemingly infallible self-assurance withers when I interact with others and their writing, and I think the reason I do so is because this interaction introduces me to ideas and abilities that exist outside of me, my control, and my capabilities. Therefore, I agree with you—working with someone can be a humbling experience.

    Yet, like you, I don’t think that being humbled is a negative thing, especially pertaining to tutoring others. When I’m humbled as a tutor, not only am I better able to see and possibly utilize ideas and approaches outside of myself, but I can also show increased respect and attentiveness to the writer and thus possibly better tutor him or her.

  4. Anonymous12:29 PM

    I completely agree that being humbled is a good thing. In fact, I'm the tutor he wrote about. I was in Kenyon's position 7 months ago, observing sessions, watching tutors who were calm, collected, insightful. Back then I had no idea I'd be where I am now. My advice for improving as a tutor is to just keep doing it: progress is nearly imperceptible, and it happens with continued practice and reflection. Also, Kenyon's a great tutor! He's recently started and he's got the quality that leads to improvement: willingness. Even though he might feel insecure, he's willing to try anyway. I also asked (and still do) for help when needed, and admitting when I don't know something has gotten me out of a few potential sticky situations. My advice, advice given to me by a friend long ago: Just do your best and that's all that matters.


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