Today during drop-in tutoring I met with a student who told me that her brother passed away last week. Due to her brother’s death, she said that she really needed help on this paper because she has been unable to concentrate and to write clearly.
Last quarter, I edited a student’s very personal and very long paper about her life. This paper, in honest and detailed prose, described the numerous tragedies that had befallen her: abuse, drugs, murder, suicide, grief. It was heart-wrenching to read.
The point of these two anecdotes is not to scare you, nor is it to tell you that tutoring is a depressing job, because it is not. My point is that the greatest difficulty you will face during drop-in tutoring is learning how to confront and deal with people. During a very busy day, you might be meeting with up to six, seven, or eight students. These students come to you for help on their writing and they come to you for help with a problem—bad grammar, a disorganized essay, a vague thesis. You, as the drop-in tutor, are in a position of authority and you are expected fix these students’ problems to the best of your ability and to teach them how to not make the same mistakes in the future. Thus, because the act of writing is such a personal process and because many of these students’ essays contain information about their private lives, you may be placed in a situation in which you are shown a glimpse into the intimate life of a complete stranger. This is an odd thing to experience and is very disorientating when you first encounter it.
Now, I am not trying to say that you are a guidance counselor or a social worker, far from it, you are not qualified nor does the university allow you to be any of these things. What I am trying to say is that people come to you for help, and they come to you with the expectation of discretion and professionalism. Thus this contract of confidentiality between you and the student may make you exposed to certain delicate information about the person sitting across from you. And for these reasons, whether through the student’s own personal revelation or by the simple act of you doing your job and reading someone’s essay, you might be privy to information about this student’s life that you don’t quite know what to do with.
There is no “right” answer and there is no “right” way to respond to “my brother passed away last week.” Just stay calm and be honest and gentle with the student. And don’t feel obligated to find the right combination of words that will make up the perfect condolences. Be human is all, and don’t freak out. Also, don’t forget that this person is your peer and is a student at UC Santa Cruz just like you: they might be in your classes; they might be a neighbor; they might be a friend of a friend. Talk to them like they are one of the above, it will make every tutoring session much more comfortable for the student and for you. This applies not only to the types of situations that I opened this letter with, but it applies to all tutoring sessions. Making the student feel comfortable during your tutoring session should be one of your top priorities, whether you are discussing death or discussing run-on-sentences.
Just remember, no matter what you face in drop-in, just stay calm and breathe. And I promise it is not as scary as I might have just made it seem…