December 11, 2020
2020 has radically changed how many of us do life. We have learned that nearly everything from friendships to work to school can be mediated through Zoom or some other online platform. As a peer tutor, I have had to adapt to both the role of facilitator and the role of a student, and the unique world of “distance tutoring” has challenged me to change my approach to both my tutoring sessions and my own classes.
My embedded tutoring students were not just starting their first university semester online during a pandemic; they were also international students and many of them were not even living in Canada. Being an international student can be isolating enough, but these students did not even have opportunities to meet and spend time with other TWU students. What I began to realize in our weekly sessions was that for many of them, our appointments were the only one-on-one interaction they had with another TWU student. Instead of focusing solely on the tutoring aspect of being a peer tutor, this semester encouraged me to focus on the peer aspect. Being a peer means working together, and to work together effectively, it is important to know something about the other student. In my first appointment with each student, before they had any major writing assignments, I asked the students questions about their hobbies and experiences and I shared some of my own. I wanted them to be able to relate to me as a fellow student, as someone that could share the university experience with them. As the semester went on, instead of immediately jumping into the assignment we were working on that day, I spent a couple minutes checking in with the students, asking how their other classes were going, engaging in some small talk. In our last appointments, I encouraged each of my students with the improvement I had seen in their work throughout the semester. I wanted them to know that their efforts were valued and seen and that they were a real part of the TWU academic community.
While the embedded tutoring experience and most of the general tutoring sessions I did this semester were very positive, there were some challenges to “distance tutoring”. One of the unique difficulties of the online environment was that some students would come on with their videos turned off. It was a struggle to tell if the student was engaged, if they were actively listening to my feedback, or if they were motivated to improve their work. However, I realized that I did exactly the same thing in some of my classes. I entered the class, with my mic muted and my video off, listened to the class, and left. This is not active participation, and the frustration of experiencing this in tutoring sessions challenged me to engage more actively in my own classes. I could not ask students to do something that I was not willing to do myself. However, it does require vulnerability. Why is it difficult for students who have no trouble walking into a classroom to turn on their videos? In a classroom, the professor looks into a mass of students. Only when a student speaks up do they emerge from their anonymity and draw the individual attention of their classmates and their professor. In a Zoom room, the professor and each student appear as equal participants. They each occupy equally sized little rectangles on the screen. Students not only see the professor, but they also see the other students’ faces and look into their worlds. In one class, I was the only student in a class of twenty to keep my video on. Yes, it was awkward to know that besides my professor, I was the only person to look at, but I empathized with my professor. I did not want him to feel that he was speaking into a world of unknown listeners. I wanted him to feel that he was talking to a real person. I know that my professors want their words to matter, just as I want to see that my words in a tutoring session have some impact on a student’s writing.