DEVELOPING THE TUTOR/LEARNER RELATIONSHIP
Facilitator vs. Teacher
Traditionally, the educational process has placed learners in a passive position. They were seen as "empty vessels" to be filled with knowledge held by the teacher. Adults, however, are people from whom we can also learn a great deal. Seeing adult learners in this way will help you to overcome differences in background and life experiences between yourself and the learner.
Rather than a traditional teacher, the tutor is a facilitator and a resource person, someone who engages the learner in dialogue, or two-way conversation. Learners must feel free to express their ideas and opinions, and to make mistakes. They should be challenged to actively participate in shaping their own learning, which requires developing a critical awareness of themselves as learners. Likewise, tutors must be open to challenges from the learners. (Arnold, et al., 1991)
How to start?
Both you and your learner(s) are likely to feel a bit (or a lot!) nervous at the first meeting. The learners may have anxieties about their ability to learn, be ashamed of their level of literacy, and have a history of negative learning experiences. They will likely lack self-esteem, and be fragile placing themselves in this vulnerable position. You may be questioning your own ability to tutor, and wondering what exactly you're supposed to do now! And you're both wondering what you'll think of each other.
Let the learner know that the purpose of the first meeting is to relax and get to know each other, to find out where the learner is at with literacy and set some goals (ie. to conduct an initial interview), and to establish a time for your work together. Make the session relaxed, comfortable, informal. Have a coffee or tea. Talk about how you feel. If you admit being nervous, the learner will begin to see you as "human", and may feel more comfortable to talk about their feelings with you.
Show genuine interest in the learner. Exchange information about your background, work, families, interests, hobbies, etc. Over time, find out everything you can about the learner. Be prepared to share information about yourself, and not to expect the learner to do all the work. It's important to show learners right from the beginning that you are willing to take the same risks you ask them to take. This will set the tone for developing a mutual relationship of sharing, trust and respect.
Ask about what they like to do, and what they feels they're good at. You can later go back to some of the things they mention, ask how they learned it, from who, why they think they were able to learn it, etc. This will give you an immediate opportunity to praise them for their accomplishments, and begin to build up their confidence right from the beginning by showing that they do have the ability to learn. It will also give you and the learner some insight into their preferred learning style, and the conditions under which she learns best.
"Explain that learners' experiences with education and their attitudes and ideas about reading and writing will affect the way you work together. Their perception of the problem, its origins, and any insights they have on the ways they learn best are some of the important contributions they bring to the program. This interview should assist you in selecting appropriate materials and activities, and provide learners with an opportunity to raise questions or to state their concerns about the program." (Ennis and Woodrow, 1992: p.130)
Ask learners about their past schooling experiences and why they think they didn't learn. This is a good way to gain some insight into the learners' background, to acknowledge that it is not their "fault" that they didn't learn, to empathize with them and show your understanding that there are many reasons why one may not have become literate as a child, and that you don't think it's because they are stupid.
You will also need to have the learners identify their goals, so you can begin lesson planning. Some learners may already be very clear about their goals, while others will need some help figuring out what the options are, and what their goals will be. You may want to just ask the learners what kind of things they are comfortable reading and writing, and what kind of things they would like to be able to read and write. Or you may want to have a variety of materials available and ask them to select some which they are comfortable reading, that they would like to be able to read, etc.
They will likely have both long-term and short-term goals. Encourage them to be specific about her needs. The long-term goals may be very broad (ie. to learn to read and write) and will need to be broken into manageable pieces. This will help prevent both of you from becoming too discouraged. In identifying short- term goals, focus on immediate day-to-day interests or needs, such as grocery shopping, filling out job applications, reading to the children, writing letters, reading and writing for work.
You may feel comfortable conducting the interview very informally, or you may wish to choose a set of questions from the list on the next page. If you use written questions, allow the learner to sit with you, and point to the words as you read the questions. This will help learners to practice identifying the words they already know, and make them feel more in control of the process.
Do some reading and writing in the very first meeting in order to give the learner an immediate sense of accomplishment. You could have learners write or dictate a few lines about themselves - using the language experience approach of writing it down for them, if necessary - and read it back with them. This can be an excellent tool to refer back to, to expand upon, delving deeper into the learner's background, further developing your relationship with them, and providing an endless variety of material for future lessons. It will also be the first item in the learner's work file, for comparison later on.
Initial Interview Questions
Ideas About Reading
Ideas About Writing
Past Learning Experiences
Concerns About This Program
Methods of Motivation and Reinforcement
Set realistic short-term goals to provide for immediate successes.
Accept learners' ideas and answers. (Butler, 1990: p.31)
Plan for success. Use materials that the learner is interested in and plan for activities that build on what they already know. (Ennis and Woodrow, 1992: p.47)
Be positive about the learner's ability to learn. Try to build confidence in the learner. Providing enough information so the learner can make the correct response. (Colvin and Root, 1986: p.63)
Make sure the learner knows the meaning of new words she learns. Unless she understands the words, and the meaning of text, she is not reading. (Colvin and Root, 1986: p.63)
Ask who, what, when, where, why and how questions as appropriate to the topic. The purpose is to learn, and to see how well the learner understands what she is reading, not to see how well she can guess the intent of "trick" questions. (Colvin and Root, 1986: p.63)
Read for enjoyment each session. Find something the learner is interested in and, if they are unable to read it easily, and therefore for enjoyment, you read it to her. If the learner has the skill, but does not read for enjoyment, read some of the material to her. Stop at an exciting part so that the learner will be interested in reading the rest to find out what happens.
Encourage risk taking. Assure the learner that it is acceptable to make mistakes and encourage them to take chances, explaining that is how we learn. (Ennis and Woodrow, 1992: p.47)
Get the learner reading independently as soon as possible, so they know they can. Have them read with book/tape sets, encouraging independent reading at a higher level and increasing vocabulary.
Praise and encourage the learner each time you have a class tutoring session. Saying 'That's great! You know a few new sight words!' rather than 'You only know a few sight words,' is like the difference between seeing a glass as half empty or half full!
Be a resource person. Your own ability as a learner can be utilized to check out something, when you are not sure of it. (Ennis and Woodrow, 1992: p.47)
Vary tutoring techniques to keep the learner engaged, to make learning fun, and to help the learner understand there are many ways of learning which don't have to be boring or painful.
Help the learner recognize how much they are learning and how much progress they have made by :
Model how you learn and help the learner become aware of how they learn. Developing an awareness of how one learns allows one to have greater control over the learning process and develop greater independence. (Ennis and Woodrow, 1992: p.47)
You can help the learner discover their voice by:
(Butler, 1990; Colvin and Root, 1986; Ennis and Woodrow, 1992; Fry, 1992; GNWT Literacy Office.)
Interpersonal communication is a skill which requires conscious practice. It includes both speaking and listening, as well as sending and receiving non-verbal messages such as gestures, facial expressions, and distance put between ourselves and others.
Communicating effectively through speaking requires making sure that the message is clear, specific and complete. A tutor providing information or instructions to a learner should speak in short sentences using simple vocabulary. Speak slowly enough, pausing between sentences, for the information to be absorbed before moving on. And ask for feedback to see if the listener interpreted the message the way it was intended.
Since the large majority of all interpersonal communication is non-verbal, it is important to be aware of how you communicate non-verbally. This includes gestures, facial expressions, body language, and the amount of space we put between ourselves and others. It is important for effective communication that our words and our non-verbal communication match, otherwise we may be sending very mixed messages.
It is also important to be aware that different forms of body language and non- verbal communication can mean different things in different cultures. Be aware that differences may exist, and observe the learners non-verbal communication
to see if you can familiarize yourself with some of the differences, and avoid sending unintended negative messages.
Another key to effective communication is active listening, which helps to ensure that a message is received correctly. According to Fretz and Paul (1994), active listening involves several components:
To listen effectively:
To listen effectively, avoid:
Some advice to tutors from
"Kindness covers a whole lot of territory and talking, like getting used to each other. I was a little shy. Try to be wide open. We sit up and talk, and it stretches your mind. Good tutors give a person a chance to ask questions about different things. Then you get the answer, and it sticks there. It is not helpful when a tutor has something on the blackboard and erases it off before you write it down. I like to be able to go over things at least twice." (Robert Easterling)
"My advice to tutors is to be very patient with their students. To help the students turn their failures into victories." (Carl Furioso)
"Someone at my job told me about this project at the Goodwill Center a while ago. When I called I didn't know what they were going to do. First thing I said was "I know I'm too old. I'm kind of ashamed." She said, "You're never too old." " (Prentis H. Wiley)
"Be prepared; have a lesson plan in mind each session. Let students make suggestions, then try to incorporate them into your lesson." (Kimberly Stern)
"The main thing is to go back over what you learn with your student; otherwise they'll probably get lost, because I'm getting lost myself. There are so many words, so it's best to go back and review all the things we worked on." (Tim Hicks)
"A really good tutor is very sincere in what they are doing or they would not be here." (Berwick Jones)
"A tutor should just work on what a person needs. A tutor shouldn't teach grown-ups like kids. Just because a grown-up don't know how to read that well doesn't mean that they're a child, like they was coming in and it was their first time learning, like little kids. You don't have to do that. You treat them like a grown-up, they learn more. You treat them like an adult, they talk to you. You treat them like a kid... hmph... they're not going to want to talk to you." (Shawn Bradford)
"Don't yell - tell in a kind way. Sometimes they might say something to make the person lose interest in learning. It's a funny feeling when you first start. It's strange to even get used to your tutor. First I kept choking up on words. When I started here, Karen asked what I wanted. I couldn't tell her. It may only have been me, but I couldn't make those decisions." (Jesse Hopson)
"A tutor should teach with kindness and consideration. Don't scold. Respect your student and encourage her." (Bertha Bames)
"I want a tutor to be patient with me when he finds out how low my reading level is. I want my tutor to be committed and show up on time or at least let me know ahead of time that he isn't going to show up. It doesn't make any difference to me who teaches me, for example, what race or sex they are, but I don't want someone who has a race problem because I won't learn anything that will help me." (Lee White)
"The tutor should know themselves. They also should know a little about the person they'll be tutoring. They should be patient and understanding and should listen. (These aren't the same.) They should also be assertive. Also, don't be phony - don't put on airs; like you care when you don't care. It's too important to the student. Don't make light of it. Another thing to remember: be honest with yourself and the student. If you don't agree, let them know because you're here to help them and they are here to help themselves. The student will respect you and you'll respect yourself. We don't want it to be the way it was in school because in school some teachers were phonies and that's why we were allowed to jump from grade to grade." (Cleo Coleman)
"If the tutor has patience with their student, the student will feel more comfortable with you and both will be able to go further in their studies. I also suggest that learning should not be all work and no play. There should be some learning games so that the student doesn't get too stressed out. You need these games so that they know learning can be fun. I think you should let the student suggest ideas for work so they feel good about themselves and you can get to know them better and you can see where their leaning ability is." (JoeAnn Knowlton)
Developing a positive and supportive relationship between the tutor and learner is critical to the learner's success. However, learners sometimes want or need support beyond what can be reasonably expected of a volunteer tutor. They may: want help with social services, or dealing with family, personal, or legal problems; ask to borrow money, bus tickets, personal belongings; expect favours, such as giving them rides or helping them get a job; or they may want to start socializing as friends or even be interested in a romantic or sexual relationship.
As you can imagine, there can be a fine line between your role as a supportive and trusted tutor, and being a counsellor, social worker or friend to the learner. But as long as the tutor continues to provide support beyond the tutoring role, they are giving the learner the message that these expectations are acceptable. The learner may continue pushing, until the relationship has gone much beyond appropriate limits.
Remember that in your role as volunteer tutor you are not a psychologist, social worker, counsellor, etc. and cannot take the risk of taking on these roles and giving advice or support that you are not qualified nor authorized to be giving. Rather than providing counselling or finding additional services and support learner the learner, it is usually more appropriate to help the learner find out how to access the services or information for themselves.
It is important to clarify with your program coordinator the role, responsibilities and boundaries of volunteer tutors. If this is not discussed in your program's orientation or training, ask the program coordinator about it. Find out, what you're supposed to do if the learner makes requests of you which are inappropriate, or simply beyond your role and/or expertise as a volunteer tutor. It may be, to some degree, a matter of comfort level on the part of the volunteer tutor to decide when to help and when to refer the learner to someone else. Ideally, the program coordinator will clarify the role of the volunteer tutor with the learner from the beginning.
Appreciating Cultural Differences
Culture is a complex system of beliefs, values, languages, life experiences ways of behaving and world view shared by a particular group of people at any given time. Culture includes the political, economic, social, and religious systems of a group of people. It also includes material aspects of life, such as songs, dances, food, dress, jewellery, types of transportation, styles of housing, decoration, architecture, and art forms.
Seen in this way, culture is something which may define distinct racial or ethnic groups, but may also define sub-cultures, such as "street" culture, "youth" culture, "prison" culture, "yuppie" culture, "arts" culture, "gay/lesbian" culture, "urban" and "rural" culture, or the sub-cultures found within specific clubs, organizations or institutions.
There are often obvious cultural differences between learners and tutors: such as education, race, socio-economic class, and place of residence (ie. inner city vs. suburbs). These differences create an immediate power imbalance between the tutor and learner. It is important to recognize these differences, and to be aware that learners "are sensitive to how [tutors] display a knowledge and appreciation of their values, life experiences, issues and concerns." (Arnold, et al., 1991: p. 156.)
It can be very helpful for a tutor to develop an awareness of the culture and background of the learner, in order to reduce tensions, and bring a greater degree of trust and understanding to their relationship. You may want to read books and articles about the learner's country, culture and language, and learn their greetings and farewells. Become familiar with a current map of their country, the religions, major holidays and some current events. You may want to read a novel, view movies or documentary films by and about people from that country or culture (ie. about immigrating to Canada, a refugee experience, attending residential school, traditional Aboriginal teachings, growing up on a First Nations reserve, a farm, prison life, street culture, single-parenthood, poverty or addictions).
Exploring both the similarities and the differences between yourself and your learner(s) can be very exciting and rewarding. The trick is in drawing out and celebrating the diversity of knowledge and experiences shared between you, which make the world a much more interesting place, and which mean you can learn from one another. It shows that you have a genuine interest in your student and an openness to share information about yourself, which contributes a great deal to creating a relationship of mutual respect. This sharing and respect will strengthen the relationship as you come to know, trust and understand each other better.
Focussing only on cultural differences between yourself and the learner(s), or between learners, carries with it the danger of stereotyping, and can give the message that one's differences make one less worthy. Despite one's membership in a particular culture or group, each person also has their own personal history, background, knowledge and life experiences. Coming from very different cultural or class backgrounds, you may think that you couldn't possibly have anything in common. However, is it possible that you both: are about the same age? have the same religion? grew up on farms? are the same gender? were an only child? love sports? movies? dancing? grew up with only one parent? travelled? have children?
If you have any of a myriad of life experiences in common, then you have some common ground from which to begin exploring both the similarities and the differences in those shared experiences. Other aspects of one's life experiences which contribute to individual culture or identity may include: race, ethnicity, language, education, social class, family size and structure (single-parent, samesex parents, nuclear or extended family); ability/disability; geographic location; place of origin; hobbies or interests, etc.
To give an example, you may think that a woman from Manitoba (whether Christian, Jewish, Aboriginal, Goddess-inspired, or atheist) would have little common ground for discussion with a Muslim man from Turkey. However, both of these people come from cultures or religions which have ways of marking major life events such as a birth, marriage or death. What are the differences and similarities in how these events are honoured? What are the roles of men, women, children, elders in these activities? What kinds of things are used in the ceremonies or celebrations and what is the significance? How long do such occasions last? What is the significance of who attends? When, where, what, why and how do things take place? Do they take place on a certain day of the week? Why? What kind of food is eaten and why? Do different people eat different things, or at different times? What kinds of gifts are given, to whom, and why? Do people cry? Who? Why?
This type of exploration can be applied to an endless array of real-life situations, can continuously strengthen the tutor/learner relationship through mutual sharing of meaningful information can reinforce for the learner that their life experiences and knowledge are interesting and valuable, and can provide a wide diversity of material for lesson planning. Caution: Be sensitive to the learner's willingness to talk about certain things. Some things which you speak openly about in your culture may be uncomfortable or even taboo subjects for the learner.
A Quick Cultural Quiz
How many of these questions can you answer about your learner's language and culture?
How many meals are usually eaten in a day?
What gestures are commonly used for greetings? Formal? Informal?
What is a typical full name?
Is it common to have pets? What kind of pets?
What numbers are regarded as lucky? Unlucky? Why?
What colours mean happiness? Mourning?
What are the three most important holidays?
How is the date written in full form? Abbreviated form?
Addresses and Telephone Numbers
How are addresses written on envelopes?
What are three subjects or actions which are generally considered to be taboo?
Traditions - An Exercise
This exercise could be used with a group or individual, to learn more about each others customs, cultures and traditions. You could begin by handing out a short description of a cultural tradition, such as a special holiday, wedding, funeral, coming-of-age ceremony, etc. Or you could begin by discussing a timely event or celebration, such as Christmas, New Year, Halloween, etc. If it is a specific holiday or type of event known to everyone in the group (le.weddings), the purpose will be to compare the differences and similarities.
For example, in all cultures, people get married. How the marriage is decided upon, the form of the actual ceremony and celebration, who attends and what they do, what people wear, gift-giving, and living arrangements following the marriage all vary depending upon the religious and cultural traditions, the community and family expectations, and the individuals who get married.
If working with a group, you could compare a number of different types of events, having each person choose a significant event from their culture, religion, community, or family. Or you could have them compare the traditions associated with a common event or holiday (birth, birthday, graduation, reaching adulthood, marriage, death, Christmas, Hanukkah, etc.). In fact, even the kinds of events which are marked with a celebration or ceremony may vary widely from one culture to another.
If working with one learner, you can explore the similarities and differences between events of your own and the learner's culture. The purpose is to identify and list some of our traditions, think of their significance, and predict what might happen if suddenly these traditions were to change.
Guide learners through thinking about the event. Think of some events, special occasions or traditions which are important to your family, community or culture. Ask learners to share their traditions with each other. As they talk, ask the group to think about how their traditions are similar and different from one another's.
You may wish to ask some of these questions:
How do they explain the differences and similarities?
You may wish to explore some more controversial questions. Should traditions be valued and upheld simply because they are tradition? Should they be questioned and re-evaluated to determine what purpose they serve? Can some traditions actually be harmful? How do we resolve conflicts resulting from a clash of cultural values and traditions? In such cases, who's traditions are more highly valued and why? (ie.. the turban issue in the Legions)
Be aware that even if a group of people "appear" to be of the same culture or race, you will find that there will always be diversity in their values, life experiences, family histories, etc. Do not assume that because a group of people appear to share the same race or cultural background that they will all be the same! This exercise will provide an opportunity for some sharing of individual backgrounds, and can provide the basis for further exploration and sharing of cultural traditions and values.
Chapter Six References
** Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit formerly Literacy and Continuing Education Branch
Arnold, Rick, Bev Burke, Carl James, D'Arcy Mart' and Barb Thomas. Educating for a Change. Between the Lines and the Doris Marshall Institute for Education and Action, Toronto. 1991.
Baker, Diane. The Literacy Tutor. Wetaskiwin PALS (Program for Adult Literacy Skills), Wetaski AB.
Butler, Maureen. Wordpower: Tutor Training Manual. Yukon Literacy Council. Whitehorse, YT. 1990.
Calamai, Peter. Broken Words: Why Five Million Canadians are Illiterate. The Southam Literacy Report. Southam Communications, Toronto. 1988.
Clarke, Mallory. Goodwill Literacy Tutor Handbook. Fifth edition. Goodwill Literacy, Seattle, WA. 1991.
Colvin, Ruth J. I Speak English: A Tutor's Guide to Teaching English. Third edition. Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. Syracuse, NY. 1986.
Colvin, Ruth J. and Jane H. Root. TUTOR: Techniques Used in the Techniques of Reading. Sixth edition. Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. Syracuse, NY. 1987.
Cypress Hills Regional College. Tutor Ways. Swift Current, SK. 1994.