tutoring

Tutoring: A Lifelong Impact

On Saturday, February 17, 2018, I delivered the keynote address at RIT TutorCon 2018 at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. I was a student tutor at RIT from 2007-2010. The Academic Support Center asked me to speak about my experiences. Below is the transcript of my speech.

It’s good to be back in Ra-cha-cha! Happy Presidents’ Day weekend, and also Happy Chinese New Year! Let me get a good look at our tutors: If you are a tutor, please stand up.

[Wait for tutors to stand up.]

Great! It’s awesome to see so many of you here today. Is anyone in Computer Science?

Now, remain standing if you have been a tutor for at least one year.

[Wait for people to sit down.]

Not bad. What about two years?

[Wait for more people to sit down.]

Three? [Wait.] Four? [Wait.] Five? [Wait.]

What about ten years? Ten years of tutoring? [Give anyone who remains standing a round of applause, and then ask them to sit down.]

Ten years is a long time! A lot can happen; a lot can change. Here’s a question for you today, though: Will your tutoring make an impact in ten years? [Repeat the question for emphasis.]

Ten years ago, I was one of you. I was in my second year at RIT studying computer science, and I worked for the Academic Support Center and TRIO as a tutor for math, physics, and basically anything that was needed. I would have been sitting in your chair if we had these fancy tutoring conferences back them. Things were quite different a decade ago. Let me drop some knowledge bombs on you for the world in February 2008:

  • We were still on the iPhone 1. iPads did not exist yet.
  • Barack Obama was still seen as a surprise challenger to Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
  • The Great Recession was looming but had not yet hit.
  • The Summer Olympics were going to be held in Beijing, China. (Michael Phelps & Usain Bolt)
  • Lady Gaga had not yet released her debut album.

Now, let me contextualize this for RIT:

  • Bill Destler was still in his first year as university president.
  • RIT was still on the quarter system.
  • Park Point was being built.
  • The Simon Center (a.k.a. the “Toilet Bowl”) was being built.
  • The main drop-in study center was the “Math Lab” in Building 1, not Bates.

One thing that looks like it hasn’t changed, though, is Gracie’s. [Assume the audience will laugh.]

By the way, have they knocked down Riverknoll yet? I lived at 232 Kimball Drive. [Assume the audience will laugh or somehow respond.]

A lot happens in ten years. But, will your tutoring have an impact in ten years? Will the tutoring you do today benefit your students years from now? It should.

As college students, life is typically fast-paced. You have classes, you have papers, you have projects; quarters – excuse me, semesters – fly by; and it’s all over after about four years. And, for you, tutoring is just a part of that overall experience. It’s just a part-time job. As we saw earlier, most of you will spend only a few years tutoring before entering your career fields. Personally, I haven’t done any tutoring since 2010. It’s tempting to think that the time you spent tutoring doesn’t matter. So what if you help people finish their homework problems a few times a week? Students come and go anyway. It’s no big deal, right?

Well, if you’re here today at this tutoring conference, I’m pretty sure that tutoring is a big deal to you. You know it’s important. I’d be willing to bet that many of you would do tutoring even if you didn’t get paid – although, the pay is certainly deserved! I want you all to understand that what you do as a tutor will impact your students and will also impact you for the rest of your lives. Tutoring is a vector: I want you to see the line and not just the dot.

Your students come with a myriad of different circumstances. Some are just looking for a healthy environment for doing their homework. Maybe they’re stuck on a tricky physics brain-buster. Others struggle. Some really struggle – and may be one more failure away from academic suspension. But all students have one thing in common: they come to you because they want to do better. Whoever they are, they look to you as tutors to help them succeed. And every question you answer – or rather, every guiding question you turn back to them – puts them further down their paths to success. Today’s practice problems become tomorrow’s degrees. With you, they’ll learn not just the course material but, more importantly, they will learn how to learn. They will learn what questions to ask themselves. They will learn how to find answers using their resources. They will learn to teach themselves. Plutarch once said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.”

With my perspective of the line, I want to give you three big ways you can make your tutoring today leave an impact for a lifetime.

First, own your role. As tutors, you have a very unique role with your students: you are peers; you are not professors. That’s a big difference! Professors are experts in their fields with years of experience and dozens of publications. You, as tutors, are students yourselves, just a few more years ahead. You can relate to your students on much more common ground. You’ve taken the same courses. You’ve taken the same tests. You’ve probably even done the very same problems. One of the tutoring tricks is to always work with a student at their level – if they sit at the table, you sit; if they stand at the board, you stand; and unless you’re making a really good example, don’t stand on the table! The equal-level principle also applies to your role as a peer tutor. There’s camaraderie. There’s energy. There’s less embarrassment to ask “stupid” questions. There’s a sense that they can do it because you can do it. So own your role as a peer tutor.

Second, focus on the student and not the problem. The problem is the dot; the student is the line. Tutors aren’t there to solve the world’s problems! Nobody comes to a tutoring center to watch a tutor show off with how much they know or how fast they can solve problems. “Look at how smart I am” – NO! Let’s be real, here: the solution to any given practice problem doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how the student learned to handle problems. Did they make an attempt? Did they look at their formulas? Did they write out their work? Did they persevere when they got stuck? Let me ask you a question: Do you think that I remember specific details to any homework assignments from ten years ago? [Wait for audience response.] Nope! But, I remember that a derivative is a rate of change. And, if I had to solve a derivative again, I’d know exactly where to look in my books to figure it out. That’s how you want your students to be in ten years. Cultivate your students to become independent.

Third, build camaraderie. Your students are already your peers – make them your friends. I don’t have any fancy statistics to share, but I know anecdotally that most students become “repeat customers.” You’ll see them again, and again, and again. Whether intended or not, you will forge relationships with your students. As your tutoring shifts become part of your everyday life, so, too, do the students who show up. Treat every single one of them the way you’d want to be treated. Work to form good relationships. Work to form trust. Be honest when you don’t know something. And furthermore, build camaraderie with your fellow tutors as well! Tutors are a team – each one brings fresh eyes and unique expertise. My specialty? Discrete math and differential equations – what a combo! We, as tutors, are trained in common techniques and share the common burdens to help our students. It’s almost like we have a special, unspoken club. I still keep up with my students and my tutors. I dined with a former student on top of the Space Needle. I partied with another on New Year’s Eve. I’m attending another student’s wedding this summer. A fellow tutor came to mine. So build camaraderie with your students and your fellow tutors.

As I close, I’d like to remind you that you are all in tutoring together. For some of you, this might just be the best job you ever have. I challenge all of you today to make your tutoring count: for now, for ten years from now, and for a lifetime. Tutors don’t make bad students good – tutors make students learn to teach themselves. That is how your tutoring will make a lifelong impact. Thank you.