First, before you even start reading, take a deep breath, and slowly exhale. We all could use a few more calming breaths in our life, and keeping that in mind when you tutor can make a huge difference. When I started tutoring I had this idea that each class had a set of standards, and my job was simply to get those students to reach those standards. That was it. To see tutoring simply, I suppose that’s what it is, but especially in the social sciences, it’s not all. I am tutoring politics for the third quarter in a row, and I’m getting the feeling my tutoring is improving. A big reason for that is that I am stressing less. Part of the downside to tutoring is that you rarely get a group of students who understand everything that’s going on in the course, and just need a few clarifications. Often you will have students who are nothing short of lost, and it’s tempting to try to somehow get them caught up on 400 pages of material in the short hour you have with them. I’ve done this before; you rush through the material at a mad pace because you’ve found out that your student is that far behind, and while they nod the whole time and tell you they understand: you think you don’t have time to truly make sure they have. Because they’re that far behind. Just don’t do it. I promise, it doesn’t work. They’ve already been to lecture and to section, both of which generally end up with someone talking at them. Repeating a failing system isn’t good policy.
Focus instead on the process, on teaching study skills, and teaching them how to learn. Have your sessions share reading strategies, or their tricks for keeping up with the lecture that everyone agrees is moving too fast. Take the time to explain the foundational things, explaining why neoliberalism is bad only gets you so far if your students only have a shaky understanding of what neoliberalism is in the first place. It’s tempting to skip the foundational terms and ideas, because tests are going to ask more than that, but you can’t build very high off of shaky terms and barely hidden confusion, it will all come tumbling down at some point. Take the time to check in with everyone to make sure they really understand the things the group has just talked about, if you don’t get to step 3 and 4 that day, so be it. You only have so much time with them, acknowledge and accept that, and aim to do a few things well rather than all things (mostly) decently. Looking back at the last quarters I have tutored I know I have tried to skip over the basics, because I wanted to assume my students knew them. I started this quarter with a new strategy; any term that I think my best friend wouldn’t know (she is a human bio major), make sure to ask for a definition from the group. Don’t define it for them, let them shape the conversation. I have been surprised at times, that the terms and ideas I thought would stump my students didn’t, but terms I almost skipped over, did. It’s dangerous to shape the sessions too much because we can’t read minds. It’s easy to accidentally beat a dead horse, while skipping things you thought they knew. Focus less on covering all concepts, and work instead on critically thinking about those you do. Connect concepts, compare authors, apply ideas to the real world. The brain can only memorize so much, it’s the critical thinking skills that will allow your students to make use of what they do know, rather than drop their pens in fear when they stumble upon something they don’t know or understand.
And at the end of the day, take another deep breath. I know you are doing your best, remember that you are not the only influence in your students’ lives, if they don’t get the grades they want it’s not immediately your fault. Do what you can as well as you can, and take time to smile at your students and tell them they’re great. Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement: when was the last time someone told you your work was bad and there’s so much you need to do… and you walked away full of enthusiasm for the task ahead?