Each Tutor’s Most Crucial Dilemma

“Thinking back to literature tutoring days, there’s a fine line between helping students, and doing the work for them.  Students and parents are happiest only if the tutor crosses it.  How do you handle such situations?”  a fellow tutor asked me.

This is the tutor’s most crucial dilemma, in a nutshell.

Most successful long-term tutors have also been teachers.  As teachers, we want students to benefit from doing their own work.  However, as tutors, we have to remember who we are working for, if we wish to stay employed.

Most students who choose to use a tutor are not reading the required books in school anyway.  Few students are.  These days, tutors or not, I’m finding that upwards of 90 percent of students are just watching the movie, and a few students are going to Spark Notes and reading those notes, or taking those quizzes.  (Few actually read the Spark Notes well, and even fewer bother to take their quizzes.)

As a tutor, what I’m really being paid for is to make sure my students get good grades.  Parents are willing to shell out money for this, but not so much for someone who tells students that they must read on their own and who does not coach non-reading students for their tests.  So, what is a tutor to do?

Formerly as a teacher, I prided myself on getting all of my students to LOVE reading for pleasure, and to become truly interested in whatever subject we were studying.  Presently as a tutor, I pride myself on getting my non-reading students to read SOME, and to APPRECIATE what we are reading or studying.

I use all sorts of techniques to achieve these aims.  I sometimes rewrite books that use difficult language, to tell the story in simpler language.  I read these simpler rewrites with my students, and once they understand, they are sometimes motivated to read the original.  Sometimes they are unable to read the original, but at least they read SOMETHING, and learned about the story, and are able to pass a test asking them about the story.  We discuss the story and how we feel about it as we read it (even if it is in its easier version), and the students gain an appreciation for the piece of literature.

Is this acceptable?

As a tutor, I cannot take the same attitude I would take as a teacher.  As a tutor, I am coming from the perspective that students are not reading, and are not going to read.   If I can get them to read ANYTHING (even if I have to “spoon-feed” it to them), they are reading more than they would if they were not coming to me.  If I can get them to APPRECIATE the story, they are appreciating it far more that if they were not coming to me.  If they are PASSING THE TEST, they are learning far more than if they were not coming to me.

spoon-feeding students

Should we spoon-feed pupils?

So yes, I DO cross that “line” as a tutor, but I try to do it stealthily, where I sneakily make the student work and understand more than he planned to do before he came to me!

This same dilemma exists in helping with writing assignments, with math homework, and with everything else that a tutor does  As a tutor, I try to help lighten the students’ burden, while at the same time actually teaching the student on a one-to-one basis, in a way which would be impossible in a full classroom.  For example, I often do math homework problems on individual white board along with the student.  Then we compare answers.  If they are the same, we move ahead.  If they are different, we go back through the problems step-by-step to see where we diverged.  I feel students learn more this way.

I would like to hear about how others deal with this dilemma.  If you are a tutor, where do you draw the line?  If you are a teacher, what are your thoughts?  If you are a parent, what are your feelings?

-Lynne Diligent

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8 Responses to “Each Tutor’s Most Crucial Dilemma”

  1. Judy Says:

    I can only speak as a parent of a child who was tutored (for math) but I think you are on the right track, both from a practical and an ethical standpoint. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, so if rewriting reading material is the only way to engage a student, then I I say, go for it. The ‘big picture’ goal of educating a child, trumps passing a test every time in my book.

  2. Bertha Erasto Says:

    I am a lecturer, and before that I taught for several years in secondary schools. My views are:- the tutor should ensure that the learner participate fully in the learning process, to me spoon feeding is not good completely as it builds dependency. The role of the tutor is to facilitate the learning process. Therefore if both the student and the tutor will play their role as it is expected, then the learner will perfom well and the tutor will have nothing to worry about his or her employer.

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Bertha, I see that I didn’t clarify my post. In my case, I am not working for a school district, but working for private students, hired separately by each family. So it is parents and students only who are paying me. Your comment would be valid in the case of someone who is working as a tutor for a school district; the focus has to be different in that case. –Lynne Diligent

  3. Jerry Zion Says:

    My wife and I agree that it is the process of learning that we, as tutors or teachers (in a classroom) are teaching. We caution our clients about the “–can lead a horse to water, but—” scenario, and coach both parent and student on the need to engage and how to engage, selling the rewards of full-engagement with the lesson. We have many LD clients and we have several gifted clients—we find that we must get to the root cause of failure to engage, which can be fear of failure, or boredom or other things in the middle. If behavioral, or if substance-related, we must refer out to other professionals able to deal with those issues. More often than not,its fear or boredom which we are able to overcome. Students are responsible for their own work, parents are responsible for helping students develope the needed self-discipline, we coach both and model it up in our weekly, bi-weekly, or sometimes daily encounters in the classroom (whether the tutoring classroom or the larger classroom environment for learning). Creativity needed? Oh, most emphatically, yes!

  4. kathy diehl Says:

    I teach online in an afterschool program that has all kinds of students. I have a special ed certificate. Sometimes I will actually fill in the answers for a student who is stuck for some reason and I will vrbalize as I do it. Other times I say the directions and leave the area to come back once the student is finished with the work. Certain things like regrouping with subtraction need a lot of modeling and otheres just do not. There is no easy answer or simple solution teaching is interaction and you need to do what the lesson and the student need you to do.

  5. Lynne Diligent Says:

    D.C. (from LinkedIn discussion on this article): Wow. Well said. How do we balance the need of the tutor to pay bills, the needs of the students to get the grades, the need for learning, the short term goals and society’s long term needs? The answer is so simple, except it’s not. We draw the line where we can sometimes, not where we should. There are lines I’d like to draw in China, but the lines I can draw are all in the high desert here in Southern California. I’d like to inspire students, I should inspire students, but sometimes its a small victory that I can even show up in the right place to find out what they need. I should smile, sometimes I can smile, and sometimes the most recent death or breakup have me on the edge of tears. We should operate close to the limit of what is possible and excellent, and I pray we can all toe that line. But if the best someone can do on a given day is show up and perform a service to earn their keep, I’ll try to understand. I certainly should, considering that person is often me.

  6. Lynne Diligent Says:

    T.M. (from Linkedin discussion on this article) says: “I’ve always privately tutored students who attend the same school where I am employed full-time. I don’t tutor students who are currently in my classroom, which I see as a conflict of interest because they should be able to receive extra help from me before or after school for free. But my clients are former students or students referred to me by the Guidance Department and word of mouth. So I do worry about “crossing lines” because my clients’ teachers and school administrators know me, and also because I pride myself on being able to help all of my students (the ones in my classroom and the ones I work with privately) grow as independent learners – and that’s my reputation in my school community.

    The reality is that we will tutor students who struggle with the work they are assigned because they have not yet mastered the requisite skills needed to complete it. I struggle as a language arts teacher and tutor with the idea that my students have to read whole-class novels that are not at their just-right level. But there are books that all students are expected to read at certain grade levels, right? That’s the culture of most of our schools in America. So then my job at the tutor is to teach my students strategies to negotiate and understand to the best of their abilities that text as they are reading it, to discuss and write about it when they are struggling to understand, and to prepare for any other kind of assessments about the text. I wouldn’t rewrite the book for a student – that takes too much of my time and to me is not an authentic approach to the task. I mean, what do we do as adult readers when we have to read text that is too difficult for us? We don’t hire someone to rewrite it for us, right? But also it’s important to encourage our struggling readers to also be reading texts that are at the right level, for that’s the only way they will develop their skills and eventually be able to handle more complex texts independently.

    Yes, there are times when I have to be more hands-on than is comfortable for me. I used to tutor a boy whose attention-deficits at times made him absolutely unable to focus on his homework. During one session I needed to reteach him how to do parenthetical citations (because he had zoned out in class), but he kept playing around on the laptop. So I took the laptop and showed him how to do the first few parenthetical citations. Then I had him explain to me how to do it while I typed. After that, I had him complete one on his own. The next day in school, I spoke with his social studies teacher and explained that I completed the parenthetical citations in the first paragraph, and that the student and I completed the ones in the next paragraph together, so she should really assess him on his work starting in the third paragraph. His teacher thought the approach was a good one and appreciated my feedback. Had I not shared this feedback with her, it would seem that I would have crossed the line. But my intervention in this situation was a method of scaffolding instruction for the student, a way to model the work to be done, and a way to keep him on task.”

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