The tutoring process

I think a lot about how best to help and support people who are looking for tutoring in my areas of expertise. I spent decades in the classroom, in addition to my many years tutoring, and I am aware how the two are different. The most obvious difference, of course, is that a class (usually) includes a grading structure, and a specific end-point–as in the end of the school term–so in a lot of ways, the stakes are much higher. Certainly, there is a kind of time pressure on work for the classroom that doesn’t necessarily apply to tutoring–though of course it can, when the tutoring is to help a student with a specific assignment. But I’ve also worked tutoring adults who are not in school but who want to become better writers, either of their own creative work or for professional purposes. For them–but also, in a perfect world, for all tutees–there is no specific end-point, and no time pressure.

In that perfect world, where there is no pressure to produce X assignment for a specific purpose and deadline, the work of tutoring can range very widely, from the most basic nuts and bolts of sentence structures and word use to ideas and developing the writer’s unique and individual voice.

But whether the tutoring takes place because a student is concerned about progress in a specific class, and we have to operate within the attendant strictures of time, or whether the person being tutored is able to just go wherever the journey leads, the most important thing is where we start. And we have to start where you, the person being tutored, are right now. I don’t mean physically, of course; I mean, we have to start with what you already know, what your skills are, what your strengths are, what knowledge you already possess. (I use the term “student” to refer to anyone I’m tutoring, regardless of that person’s level or age, because the tutoring experience is that someone is teaching and someone else is learning–and I prefer the term “student” to “learner.”)

Probably the hardest question I ask my students is, “What do you already know?” That is admittedly a difficult question to answer, unless it’s broken down into specifics, such as “do you already know what a thesis is?” or “do you know what paragraphs are, and what governs them?” But I ask the general question because the way that students answer can tell me a lot. If the student focuses on more technical aspects of writing, that ususally indicates that the student is less confident in coming up with ideas or developing them. If the student focuses on more creative aspects, that can mean that the student is a bit cavalier about the rules and regulations. But either way, how the student answers gives me a place to start.

And that’s all we need to do: start. Where we end up will make itself clear in time. Everyone works at a different pace, and needs extra support in different areas; there’s no “one size fits all” in writing, or in writing (or reading) help. So your “job” as a student is, at first, just to show up, willing to work. The rest is a journey we take together, and if we work well together, you’ll find you are very happy with where you find yourself when you decide the journey is finished.