Throughout my life I’ve been told I’d make a great leader, but I’ve determined that my cooperation style is somewhere between leaders and followers—I’m a self-directing free agent who gives non-leaders more credit than to lump them all in the same two-dimensional category in a pair of binary opposites. As a person in the middle, when I find myself interacting with teammates, I try to help them take initiative themselves, rather than tell them to follow me or groom them to lead other people.
That’s a pretty good description of what a tutor does. People see teachers as leaders, and students as followers. Tutors don’t fit in either category, inhabiting the gray area in the middle of the academic power spectrum. Thankfully, in many academic programs the paradigm is shifting toward less authoritarian teaching and more empowerment of students to independently investigate the truth.
The teacher is still obviously the authority figure, though, whether she’s authoritarian about it or not. The students are inevitably always the ones being lead, whether they respond to that passively or actively.
Tutoring also has undertones of advocacy. In many cases the higher-educated the advocate, the better, especially for professionals—such as those in medicine, law, and human services—who have to know and apply a lot more theory than an academic tutor every does. But for an in-class peer tutor and a one-on-one tutor who helps students in the context of their classes—as opposed to designing supplemental mini-classes for them—I don’t think it would make me more valuable to my students if I increased the power distance between us.
With a four-year degree I’m not nearly as intimidating to undergraduate students with low academic self-confidence than if I had a graduate degree. A graduate degree would make me more similar to the teachers than the students, and for many students, teachers (or their methods) have historically been the problem. Many students like the idea that there is someone they can go to for help other than a teacher or aspiring teacher, someone with enough of an understanding to interpret “teacher-speak,” but with whom they’re safe from having to worry about being thought less of or docked points for demonstrating their lack of understanding.
The things I find the most fulfilling about tutoring are the things I wouldn’t be able to do as a classroom instructor. I see a lot of students who are “failing” because the classroom method just doesn’t work for them. It’s impossible for instructors to customize the course for every student, and that’s where tutors fit in: One of my specialties, and favorite ways to learn and help others learn, is through adaptation. As a tutor I have the freedom and challenge of adapting my method and approach for each student, to meet the goals of the individual student rather than just clarify whatever the learning outcome for a particular class is.
Image: "Highland Creek Bridge," by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Oil pastel