By Mike A. Shapiro
Mike worked as a tutor at the Writing Center at UW–Madison for five years, and as a coordinator for two. This fall, he is teaching first-year composition in the College of Engineering.
As Julia Dauer wrote earlier this fall, writing tutors often balance diverse instructional lives. But what happens when that balance is disrupted?
From January 2009–August 2014, I worked almost exclusively as a tutor. In those five years, I tutored thousands of students working on multiple thousands of drafts. The time I wasn’t working directly with students was spent supporting other tutors.
This fall, for the first time since 2004, I am not working as a tutor. Instead, I’m back in the classroom, teaching four sections of first-year composition. This shift leads me to a basic question: what skills, if any, transfer from tutoring to teaching?
Are teachers alchemists?
The first month I was back in the classroom, I left every class frustrated that I couldn’t pack more learning into my fifty minutes.
In the writing center, time and learning have a predictable relationship. A writer who comes in for a 30-minute conference leaves having spent about 30 minutes learning about writing. There are complexities, of course, but an expert tutor has tools that help maximize student learning.
In the classroom, the math is just different: 20 students x 50 minutes = 1,000 student-minutes per class, but I will eat this blog post if the actual result is 1,000 student-minutes of learning.
The metaphor that’s been in my head since September is alchemy.
The tutor pans for gold in a stream, and can predict how many flakes of gold will appear after a day of work. The teacher, by contrast, weaves circles around a crucible of lead, and may not know whether any of it has turned to gold after a month of incantations.
As someone who spent four years kneeling by that stream, I struggle to see how the slow accumulation of writing experience can happen at the scale of the classroom. Is there an alchemical formula by which the best classroom instructors transmute fifty minutes of class time into fifty minutes of learning?
Or is the tutor rightly skeptical of classroom alchemy? Tutoring is a privileged and resource-intensive instructional tool. Is it absurd to believe a teacher should engage twenty students in the classroom as much as a tutor engages students in the writing center?
What does learning look like?
There is also the problem of telepathy.
A tutor needn’t guess how much a writer has learned. As tutors, we invite the writer to answer questions, apply techniques, or put some words on the page. These checks help the tutor gauge understanding, and if the writer comes in for several weeks in a row these accumulated conversations can reveal the student’s growth.
In the classroom, the check-in is trickier. Does everyone understand? Of course they understand. Are there questions? There are no questions. Can they apply the process on their own, or in small groups, or as a class? Two or four or six students will rise to the challenge, and everyone else will be silent. They may understand everything, but I’ll only find out when their papers come in.
I recognize that what appears to be a problem with checking student learning isn’t as meaningful as it may seem. Tutoring taught me that students learn iteratively and through regular contextual practice. But it is difficult to go from the transparency of the tutorial check-in to the ambiguity and telepathy of the classroom.
Preach this, practice that
In cover letters and interviews, I argue that tutoring shapes the attitude and practice I bring to the classroom:
- Tutoring writers from varied academic disciplines and with varied backgrounds taught me what needs students bring with them into the classroom.
- Talking with students one at a time taught me to avoid compositional formulas and apothegms, and allowed me to develop a more personal vocabulary for talking about writing.
- Working alongside students as they wrote and rewrote their papers taught me that learning happens between the student and the page, not between the student and the lectern.
But for all these honest expressions of what I learned as a tutor, everything reverted when I got back to the classroom. I offer simplistic formulas for good paragraphs and sentences, fail to recognize my students’ diverse academic interests and backgrounds, and use little of my scant classroom time to get students writing.
Should tutoring skills transfer?
If four years of tutoring reshaped my ideals without shaking my habits, might this mean that skills can’t transfer from the tutor’s desk to the instructor’s classroom?
Clyde Moneyhun and Patti Hanlon-Baker (2012) investigate the teacher/tutor divide from the other direction. They ask how experienced classroom instructors’ teaching changes when they join a tutoring staff.
They found that experienced classroom instructors became strong tutors in the writing center, but when the same instructors met with their own students all the ideals of collaborative writing instruction vanished.
Is teaching so different from tutoring that expecting skills to transfer from one to the other is like expecting your skill as a bicyclist to help you become a better bus driver? After all, teachers and tutors have substantially different jobs.
Moneyhun and Hanlon-Baker conclude (spoiler alert) that skills can and should transfer from the writing center to the classroom, but that the act of transfer must be active and intentional.
What might transfer look like?
Two weeks ago, I caught myself teaching a lesson that violated my tutor’s sense of how writers learn. The topic was how researchers discover their readers’ expectations and needs, and work to meet those needs.
After that class, I guessed—here’s the telepathy—that the concept was too broad or vague to feel relevant. So the next day I put students to work discovering what readers needed to know. In five-minute bursts, pairs of students shared research topics with each other and interviewed their readers to discover what they needed.
This return to the conversation between writer and reader was more than active transfer of techniques that worked in the writing center. It suggested a different kind of alchemy: a transformation of students from writers into tutors.
The skeptical instructor
This experience, with many others in the last ten weeks, taught me something I should have known from years of tutoring. It is difficult to apply an abstract concept learned in one context to another context, even if it looks similar. Transfer is not intuitive or automatic, but active and difficult.
One of the consequences of going from the writing center to the classroom has been, at least for these first two months, a skepticism about the work of teaching. It has been difficult for me, as a tutor in teacher’s clothing, to see how twenty students en masse can learn something as practice-oriented as writing.
This skepticism may be the most important skill I learned as a tutor.
In the writing center, it is exactly when a particular tutorial move feels easy or right that the tutor must step back and ask whether it is leading to student learning. The work of teaching may be the work of skeptics who challenge, test, revise, and improve every interactive strategy we bring to the classroom.
When the tutor meets with students for conference after conference, tutee after tutee, they have a clear opportunity to reflect and grow. Teachers in the crucible of a classroom must create that opportunity for themselves.
Questions for you
I worry that this post exposes not what tutoring has taught me, but what I have failed to learn. Perhaps I am surrounded by thousands of
alchemists who have discovered the transmutative properties of the classroom. What does my simplistic or naive view of the problem of tutor-to-teacher transfer omit? What victories have you had in the classroom that you feel you may owe to you expertise as a tutor?