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  • Writer's pictureKelly Adams

The Essential Skill I Learned While Tutoring


teacher is helping student with a homework problem

A few months ago I began tutoring as a way to earn some extra cash. I tutor mathematics from middle school to college. Most of my clients are foster students or "at-risk" youth, for the non-profit corporation that I work for. Many who don't have a stable life. They may be in between group or foster homes. Some might not have a good relationship with their family. I tutor about 3 times a week. There's one essential skill I've discovered which is the key to not only an increase in grades but building a relationship with a student. It isn't teaching, an extensive knowledge of the subject matter or even patience. Those are necessary but not the most important.


The essential skill I discovered is listening.


There's a caveat. Most of us don't know how to listen. We think we do. Listening isn't about passively hearing someone, it's not only about being silent while a person speaks. It's about actively hearing what they're saying. But how do you do this?

  • Not passive - you're asking questions that promote insight, they may challenge old assumptions but in a constructive way;

  • Positive experience - if you want someone to continue conversing with you, make the experience a positive one, help them feel supported;

  • Cooperative conversation - feedback flows smoothly in both directions, there may be criticism but it's about helping the other person, not negativity;

  • Defer judgement - you're allowing the person to finish what they're saying before asking questions, and not interrupting; and

  • Honesty - be honest with the person, don't try to be someone you're not, people don't like to be lied to.

Most of the students I work with don't live in a good environment. They may have a strained relationship with their family and may not have a supportive network. One of my students educational advocates (which are professional advocates who work with "at risk" students and advocate for their educational needs), said for many of these students they don't have an adult figure who cares about how they're doing in school. Often the people they work with in the system have to work with many students (which isn't a criticism on the workers but a reality of the system). They may feel like there's no one there for them individually. Most of them just want someone to talk to.


By listening to my tutoring students, they're more likely to open up. As a note there's more to building a relationship than listening. It also requires patience, compassion, and communication. But listening is the first step towards building a relationship with someone who is reluctant to trust anyone. It helps build a relationship and they're more willing to work on school. Thus their grades improve.


If you're having trouble working with someone. Try listening first before anything. Try to understand and emphasize with them. It will only help you.


Disclaimer: Please note I'm not a social worker, psychologist, or have any innate knowledge of the foster care system in America. I am not here to criticize the foster care system or those who work in it. I am writing this post from my own perspective and my thoughts are my own. I'm not representing the tutoring company I work for. This is only a reflection of my experience.

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