The following is a little essay i wrote when I was trying to work out for myself what it is to be a good tutor. It is long for a forum post, and not 100% complete but here goes:
I have been an English tutor in many different situations, for example, in high schools, on-line, in private language schools, or freelance. As a tutor, I have two roles. On one hand, I need to correct errors, suggest phrases and vocabulary, and correct pronunciation. This is straightforward. On the other hand, I need to make sure that there is pleasure in the interaction so that the learner is not bored or irritated, and will want to come back for more. When I am in a receptive mood, creating a pleasurable interaction is easy in any situation. Other peoples’ stories seem interesting. Conversation flows. Debate is goodhearted and sometimes results in a better understanding of an issue. However, tutoring is a job, too. Whatever mood I am in, I must tutor because I have been promised a sum of money. The student is a client.
In a lot of paid work, this doesn’t pose a problem because, either you are not dealing directly with people, or you are dealing with colleagues but not with customers. Even if you are dealing with customers, it is often with a specific, predetermined, and mutually understood goal in mind. For example, completing a sale, providing technical support, or explaining a bill. In all of the above, you can just quietly get the work done and for the most part everyone will be satisfied. In the case of tutoring, however, part of your job is to energise the conversation, if not be out and out entertaining, even when you are in a bad mood. How should I animate the interaction when I have to tutor after spending a sleepless night soothing a teething baby? How about when I am feeling depressed ? What about when I am just not feeling inspired? To put it more formally: As a tutor, how does one create a pleasurable or at least a dynamic interaction in the most efficient way?
An easy-to-access source of conversational energy is changing the subject. Conversation topics are evanescent. As soon as you realise you have got a hot topic going, it is time to anticipate introducing a new topic. One of the most common mistakes I have made as a tutor has been to hold on to a topic too long because I felt interested in it. In those cases, I start prompting students to say more, or start expressing a strong opinion on it hoping that others will be provoked to take a contrary position. In both cases I am met with apathy disguised as very brief attempts to answer my questions. At that point I realise that I should have launched into a new topic a while ago.
Another source of conversational enthusiasm is to provoke debate. This can sometimes be touchy because the perception of winning and losing accompanies debate, and people are concerned with losing face. On the other hand, defending a personal position can get people out of their shell and emotionally involved in the conversation. I often consider a tutoring session a success if i have been able to foster a good-natured debate among the participants.
The most powerful source of conversational energy that I can pinpoint is novelty. People are naturally drawn to new things, whether it be a current news story or the perspective of an unknown foreign culture on a universal subject like cuisine or marriage. Students often say they enjoy group discussions because they can hear about a lot different points of view. The attraction is even greater when they can associate the new information to their current worldview and thus slightly modify it. A Japanese person will likely be more interested in learning about a New Guinean marriage festival than New Guinean cannibalism because marriage, in a more general sense, is a concept they have some experience of, whereas cannibalism is not.
Now that we have identified some sources of conversational energy and pleasure, the question remains, how do we deliberately introduce this into the tutoring session even when we are not spontaneously motivated to tutor that day.
Perhaps the source of conversational energy that it easiest to deliberately introduce is changing the subject. For me, the key is to brainstorm topics within the general theme before the tutoring session begins and write them down as a list of possible questions. Afterward, scan the questions and highlight those that seem the most resonant given the group make up. As a result, I am ready to use questions at any time to change the topic, and more generally I am aware of a lot of the possible topics withing the theme that I can segue to. It usually better to ask questions containing concrete examples and that explicitly require imagination rather than memory or knowledge to answer. For example “What would you do if you were fired from your job at GM and you lived in Detroit, a city with a 19% unemployment rate?” is better than, “Have you ever been fired?” It allows the learner to articulate his feelings in the safe zone of the hypothetical, knowing he will not be held personally responsible for anything he says.
A more difficult element to deliberately introduce is novelty, or more precisely, novelty that links to the general backgrounds of the students. This is especially true when you have been tutoring the same group of people over a period of a few weeks. After a while, you start to find that, left to chance, interactions will quickly get into familiar patterns. You learn that student X will have a conservative opinion on any topic related to politics. You can predict that students Y and Z will always agree with one another because they are both from a culture that values (the appearance of) harmony. These patterns can sometimes become self-fulfilling prophesies because each group member develops an image within the group and it is easier to stay within that image while participating. So if a member is known to be a conservative within the group, they might automatically take conservative points of view on most topics. Or if a student is known to agree with the majority opinion of the group, they will gradually find it easier just to follow that pattern as a group member rather than try to convey their real opinion to the group.
Therefore, it is not only necessary to think of off-the-wall topics. More important is to present the topic in a way that prevent the old stagnant patterns from happening. The best way to do that is to link the topic to the background of the student. For example,I think one of the more successful group discussions I have had was about immigration Since one of the themes that quickly become cliché in my sessions revolves around travel, it was easy to to see the links between immigration–a new topic—and what everybody already knew about each other’s travels–an old topic. Another topic, Animal Rights, was also a good choice based on the fact that animals are a part of everyone’s lives, whether we eat, wear, or keep them as pets. Consequently, it is useful to keep a file on the personal experiences that each group member has chosen to reveal to the group, so that you can more readily steer the conversation to new information that clearly links to known information.
Provoking debate is the hardest yet can be the most rewarding way to energise a conversation. In conversations with native speakers, a good way to stimulate debate is to take an extreme and unpopular stand on an issue from the outset. For example, calling for a complete ban on gay marriage or stating that all meat eaters are immoral. However. this tactic is less likely to work with learners of English because they haven’t had time to warm to the issue and thus activate some of the essential vocabulary needed to speak about it. It is also a touchy issue because speakers of English as a second language are probably keenly aware of their own perceived inadequacy in the language. Asking them to defend a personally held position in the second language only adds a layer of stress.
A more effective way to create debate with learners is to wait for someone to take a position on a subject and suggest a a concrete application of that position that has negative or unexpected consequences. For example, if someone suggests that eating meat is wrong because it takes away the life of the animals being eaten, you could say that the large scale harvest of vegetables takes the life of many unsuspecting mammals that live in cultivated fields. In this case you can expect the learner to have some vocabulary at the tip of his tongue to further clarify his position since he voluntarily stated the initial position.
Another way to provoke debate is to take a common topic, and try to rigourously articulate your own position on it. Once I did this on the subject of food and eating by writing a detailed paper on it and publishing it in a blog. A common topic coupled with a relatively well developed and unique perspective will breathe life into the conversation as people naturally will try to express their own opinion on a subject that they feel makes up a fundamental part of their life experience.
Perhaps the easiest way to provoke debate is simply ask the learner is they want to clarify a position they have taken. For example, asking: “Is that all?” or “Would you like to say more on the topic?” This simple and direct tutoring tactic has an additional relaxing effect of letting all of the learners know that they will be given the chance to rethink or clarify their statements after they have made them.