June 20, 2016

Talk to Me

by Methma Udawatta ‘16

Methma is a Volunteer Representative for Swearer Tutoring and Enrichment in Math and Sciences (STEMS). As a VR, Methma helps plan weekly meetings for the tutors, which are intended to provide Brown tutors with tools to work more effectively, through tutoring skills, knowledge of current education policy, discussions on the role of a tutor in a classroom, or information about the Providence Public School system. She is currently tutoring in a physics class.

When I first began tutoring for STEMS (formerly Algebra in Motion) as a naïve and enthusiastic freshman, I regarded tutoring as just another form of teaching—I focused on trying to impart knowledge on my students by answering their questions, explaining tricky math and science concepts, and helping them understand their classwork. Sometimes, I found this approach to be an effective way of connecting with and helping students in the hours we spent after school working together.

Other times, however, I felt like I had hit a brick wall.

It was these times that taught me that tutoring is about more than simply teaching concepts and explaining answers. Rather, successful tutoring comes from making meaningful connections and building relationships.

Last semester, I was tutoring in a first period Algebra I class. The teacher asked me to walk around and work with any of a few students she pointed out. It was 8 am on a Wednesday, and one of these students, one of the only older students in a class of mostly sophomores, was not at all interested in the worksheet of the day. I found him alternating between watching YouTube videos and filling out job applications on his laptop. I sat down next to him and attempted to strike up a conversation. Every question I asked was met succinctly and without enthusiasm.

“Hi, my name is Methma. What’s your name?”

“Frank.”

“How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

“What are you working on?”

“Job application.”

“Do you want to start your math worksheet with me?”

He shrugged.

All my attempts at getting Frank to talk to me, put away his laptop, and start on his math failed. Finally, I gave up and moved on to the next student. The second student was more receptive and I was able to help her understand the concepts, but I still left class that day feeling disappointed that I had not been able to get through to Frank.

The next time I came in, the teacher asked me to work with a different student, and I saw out of the corner of my eye as Frank continued to use his laptop for the extent of the class period.

The third class period, however, was when I finally made a breakthrough.

That day, I tried a different tactic. Instead of jumping straight into the math after introductions and pleasantries, I decided to try to get to know Frank a little more. I asked him about the jobs he was applying to and he started talking about his goal of becoming an anesthesiologist. We found common ground in both of our pre-medical aspirations and discovered our mutual love of the TV show “Friends.” Once we had spent a little time talking about the process of going through medical school and residencies, I was finally able to persuade him to start working on his math worksheet.

After that day, working with Frank was different. I could always start off by asking him about his progress watching the TV show before we transitioned into math. Over the course of the semester, I got to know him better as we learned together.

Too often, as tutors, we see the work that needs to be done and feel pressured to start on the math immediately. As I have come to realize, sometimes the most effective way to begin our kind of work is to pause and take a few minutes to just chat instead.

Establishing a meaningful relationship with students can work to build trust and in turn, facilitate a better understanding of the subject matter – which benefits both the tutor and the student.

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