Another week in which I have two back-to-back tutoring sessions during my one hour in the Writing Center. I make sure to get to the desk early and hope that my tutee isn’t already there. Maybe I’ll have some time to sit and breathe. I sit at the desk and stare into space, my legs bouncing up and down restlessly while my heart pounds in anticipation. Anxious questions run circles in my head. What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I stumble over my words? What do I do if I don’t understand the subject?
A student approaches the desk and says her name and that she has an appointment at 2:00. I recognize the name of course. I’ve looked at the appointment at least 5 times now in order to memorize the assignment summary and plan exactly how I’m going to run this session.
She follows me to the back. I ask, “Do you need a computer?” but she has a hard copy. We sit in the corner and she says that she wants to go over grammar and content.
I never know how to approach grammar requests. We’re not supposed to copy-edit, but that’s what the students usually push for. I don’t want to frustrate her. To avoid any kind of pressure, I start reading her paper aloud, feeling ridiculous. She notices where I pause to discern meaning, and now she knows that something here needs fixed. I run out of breath during the longest sentences, and I suggest cutting them down if she thinks it would be a good idea. I don’t want to seem pushy. She needs to be in charge of the decisions.
Every awkward silence makes me want to run. Every question creates another awkward silence as I struggle to think of a reply. With every reply, I wonder if what I’m saying could make sense to anyone other than me.
It’s supposed to be a 30-minute session, but after only fifteen, I can’t think of anything else to offer. I ask if she has more questions, but she shakes her head and pulls out a paper for me to sign. I tell her to please come back if she needs anything else.
I go back to the desk. My tutee waves goodbye as she leaves, and then I cringe inwardly and whine to the other tutors about what a bad tutor I am until the next student arrives. I bombard myself with more questions and comments. What if I did the session completely wrong and she gets a bad grade? What if she comes back and cusses me out? Is there anything I could’ve done differently? I should’ve told her not to remove all the lengthy sentences, but to balance them with shorter ones. I realize I completely forgot to tell her my name.
Even grad students can only handle so much stress, and social anxiety will pile itself onto your already existing stress mercilessly. I’ve helped friends and loved ones with schoolwork before, but when it came time to begin tutoring strangers, the stress really started getting to me. One Wednesday, while waiting for a student to show up for a session, I said to myself, “Relax. These are not bad or scary people. They’re students, just like you. They’re coming here to seek your help, not to berate or destroy you.”
Here are a few tips that have really helped me deal with tutoring anxiety:
Take a few deep breaths. It’s going to be a great session, and even if it’s not, one bad session isn’t going to hurt you as long as you do better on the next one. You are an English graduate student in the Writing Center. This is where you thrive.
- Don’t obsess.
Yes, it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into before you get into it, but you don’t have to plan everything you’re going to say. The students will tell you what they need, and this will allow you to ask your own questions.
- Take something away from every session.
The tutees aren’t the only ones learning here; you are, too. If you remember the strategies that work best for you and keep them in mind, you will be much less stressed over a session. For example, I like reading the students’ papers aloud because it helps them hear mistakes while also eliminating awkward silences. I’ve also realized that one of the most important things to do is read the paper alongside the assignment rubric because sometimes students lose sight of the requirements. This makes me feel more confident about helping students because it tells me exactly what the professors want from them. It might help you to write down the strategies that work best for you.
- Trust yourself.
There may be moments in which everything you know about tutoring seems to disappear from your memory when you need it the most. It hasn’t. You’ve been through the training course, and you know what to do when a student approaches you to go over grammar and content. Don’t panic. You have your Bedford Guide in your bag if you need it, but you already know everything you need to know.
If you suffer from social anxiety, tutoring is a great way to get accustomed to interacting with students, especially if you plan to become a teacher. Your tutoring strategies just might become your teaching strategies one day, so this is a good time to test your abilities and get comfortable in the teacher’s seat.
No tutor is perfect or ever will be. The only thing you can do is your best, and that will often be enough. So, have fun with your sessions, and remember that your tutee might be just as nervous as you are.