I’ll never forget him: the student who wouldn’t get out of the car. His Mom had come up to my office pleading with me to go down to the parking lot and coax him upstairs for his tutoring session. This was a first. I’d had unmotivated students before, but this was above and beyond. I indulged his Mother and went outside, having no idea what to expect. What I saw hit me in the heart: a young man who looked more than just upset or uncooperative: he looked nervous- actually, terrified. I don’t remember our exact conversation, but somehow, I was able to convince him to come inside, assuring him we’d just hang out for an hour and maybe talk a little about the SAT. It wasn’t easy but we both survived the session.
I realize that this is an extreme example, but I can’t stress enough the importance of creating rapport in the tutor-student relationship. I remember another student who simply wouldn’t do any work. He’d made that very clear during our first session. While I admired his honesty, I still had to find a way to make his parents’ monetary investment in tutoring worthwhile. I’m not sure that we ever got on the same page, but I promise you I tried everything to get him to come around. Hopefully, he got something out of our sessions and maybe in retrospect, he realizes that it wasn’t that bad. Of course, most of the students I work with are motivated and willing when they begin tutoring. Even with these ideal students, however, it’s vital to find common ground, which will set the relationship up for success.
Here are my “essential five” for building a strong tutor-student relationship:
1. Trust – It is important for us to keep in mind that the last thing a student wants is to feel like he or she is back in school during a tutoring session. When I first started, I think I took more of a professorial approach which, unfortunately, often instilled a sense of “here’s another adult telling me what to do.” My approach has evolved over the years into much more of a coaching style. I think the feeling that we are on the same team is truly important to students, many of whom are not thrilled to be doing tutoring in the first place. You remember that time in your life when you kind of just went where your parents told you to go? That’s how a lot of them feel so the trust factor becomes very important in achieving success and making the process as smooth as possible.
2. Empathy – High school is hard. It’s stressful and fraught with challenges: academic, social, physical, mental. In the course of a student’s day, we who have not been in school in some time, can hardly imagine the stressors. We need to remember that a student who doesn’t do his homework isn’t necessarily being resistant or difficult. Let’s keep in mind all the other factors that may be going on and, in a gentle and respectful way, offer our support and understanding.
3. Patience – Tutoring sessions are not always easy. Sometimes you have a student who really, truly wants to improve, but just can’t seem to get there. It’s very easy to become frustrated. Why can’t this kid just master the strategies I’m teaching? Why can’t he bring this score up? I’ve had to remind myself to stop and breathe at times, bearing in mind that yes, a score is important, but not at the cost of the student’s emotional well-being. We can always be patient and encouraging, no matter how much our student may be struggling.
4. Flexibility – Sometimes a student just doesn’t want to hear that anecdote you use in all your sessions. Sometimes a student isn’t interested in your spiel about reading strategies. This isn’t to say that you can’t incorporate your tried and true methods, but rather that you should be willing to adapt your style according to the student’s needs. Inflexible teachers often produce disinterested students.
5. Positivity – This is a no-brainer: keep it positive. Subjects like standardized tests or physics or grammar can easily become monotonous, boring, and induce negative feelings. The tutor can keep things on an even keel by always remaining positive no matter the subject and no matter the struggles of the student. Silver linings are important when working with adolescents. Ok, you may not have gotten the score you wanted on a practice test, but certainly there were many positives. If you are the tutor, part of your role is to accentuate those.
I believe these ideas stretch well beyond student-tutor interactions. Relationships in general are based in trust, empathy, patience, flexibility, and positivity. It’s funny because when I first started doing this for a living, I think I viewed my students as less important than me. I was the teacher: I sat at the big desk; they sat at the little ones. I have this sign I got at a Goodwill store years ago that says, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” Sappy as it is, the message is a good one for instructors, or anyone who works with adolescents, to keep in mind. Over the years, I have come to view my students as more than just “students.” I really see them as peers- people with very similar anxieties and goals- and with your peers, it’s a good thing to be on the same team.
Written by Phil Lane