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The ‘Mentor’ Aspect of Tutoring, Examined

I’m a somewhat nontraditional tutor in that I’m not involved in academia as a student nor in my profession; I’m a filmmaker. I make short documentaries for non-profits and socially conscious organizations. That may seem odd, but, in the world of film the ‘why’ of a project is very important, and I think that emphasis carries into tutoring as well, specifically in the 'mentoring' portion.

The who’s, what’s, when’s and how’s of tutoring are mainly logistical, and - though no doubt important - are just the framework and not the heart. Who = a student and an older, more wizened academic guide. What = ensuring the student is keeping organized, is up to date on certain concepts and information, has better study habits, and is completing their homework and studying for their exams, etc. When = whenever is scheduled. How = employing various well-thought-out strategies for guidance on learning strategies, study behaviors, and general academic know-how.

But to gel all of those together and have a student embody them is key; and the only way to do that is through close interpersonal connection. This is where the mentor portion of tutoring kicks in. You can espouse all the grade-getting, paper-writing, subject-absorbing rhetoric that you'd like, but if a student doesn’t feel involved, connected and inspired - it’ll be, if anything, a temporary solution.

The student will look to the tutor for guidance and help, but just as importantly: for challenge and inspiration - for a broadening of their perspective. The point is to transform their mindset from homework being difficult and tedious, to it being fun and enlightening. Now, often this is a tall order. But done with creativity, enthusiasm, and a certain amount of peer-pressure (the positive, beneficial kind) to encourage further grappling with the information - it can definitely be done. 

It’s the same psychological principle behind why going to the gym is so hard. If approached day to day as: ‘Do I want to go to the gym now?’ the daily question and decision saps willpower and becomes more ingrained with one's own sense of self-worth; to the degree that if you ‘fail’ to go, it feels bad and encourages giving up. But if your whole mindset shifts to think of yourself simply as: ‘the kind of person that goes to the gym’ there’s more of a focus on changing those deeper circuits in the mind, to not feel shame about missing a day and to start to change behavior because of a narrative re-wiring, and not a day-to-day willpower dilemma.

It’s the same with tutoring, if a student’s prevailing mindset is ‘I’m not a reader and I can’t do it well’ then every time they are assigned reading homework or are asked to pick up a book, there’s a sapping of willpower there, a drain on the self. To remedy that requires changing how they think about themselves - a narrative re-wiring. And that’s done through small victories that create confidence, and by a tutor/mentor jumping into the fray with them to show that it can be quite fun.  

It’s no secret that we as people inherently learn through stories. We perceive our own lives as narratives and they inform who we are and how we see the world. That narrative can sometimes be destructive as it blocks student’s potential, making them think they aren’t good at something or just don’t have it in them. Sometimes it’s difficult for parents and family members to help with this as the closeness of family bonds sometimes makes younger folks immune to their advice or prodding. Sometimes it takes the catalyst of a particularly connective teacher or an engaged parent to spur that curiosity and I think that’s our role as tutor/mentors. 

Beyond the adverbs, algebra, and accounting, tutoring is fundamentally about relationships. That connection and the emotions therein are where the learning and magic happens and are why it’s vital to be a mentor as well as a tutor. 

David G
Experienced English and History Tutor
Elon University
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