As a tutor, how do I communicate with underprivileged, urban high school students?
January 15, 2012 8:39 PM   Subscribe

As a tutor, how do I communicate with underprivileged, urban high school students?

I am about to be hired by a company that provides free tutoring to students of underperforming districts through funding from the No Child Left Behind legislation. The goals of this company are to help students pass the California High School Exit Exam, and to aid in college and career readiness.

I am a 19 year old college student interested in going into teaching. I am excited by the prospect of gaining experience in the education field with this position, but very nervous about the position itself. I tutored K-5 students in an affluent area for several years, but that was easy. In our orientation, we were told that many of these high school students would be reluctant to come to tutoring, and that we may have to hunt them down and bring them in. They emphasized heavily the need to build a relationship with our students in order to encourage attendance and facilitate learning.

I can be socially awkward and come off as a bit cold. In addition, I am a sensitive person and quite frankly, I have a thin skin. My defense mechanism is to be sort of detached, hence the (perceived) coldness. I genuinely like people, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it. I have a feeling I will have a particularly hard time communicating with urban youth. It’s just not a culture I am familiar with.

So, how should I behave to gain these students respect and help them learn? I am nervous about my ability to build relationships and communicate effectively with these students, and would really appreciate feedback specifically about working with students from an underprivileged, urban environment. I will be focusing on improving reading and writing skills, by the way. Thanks!
posted by efsrous to Education (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in a really similar boat (just started teaching sex-ed to underprivileged eight graders, also a college student), so I'll definitely be watching this thread to see where it goes. This thread is more focused on classroom management, but it might be worth a read; I thought it had some worthwhile stuff.
posted by kylej at 8:52 PM on January 15, 2012

Treat them the way you wanted to be treated as a high school student. Having tutored in the DC public schools, they weren't any different than any other students I've met anywhere else. Some weren't always prepared, so bring extra writing utensils and practice workbooks. Ask them about their plans after high school. Show them a college brochure or trade school brochure. Treat them with respect.

If you don't interact easily with people, are you sure teaching/tutoring is for you? Perhaps you should practice how to project friendliness and warmth to people. I highly recommend practicing public speaking through Toastmasters, even for one on one interaction.
posted by anniecat at 8:56 PM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can't speak much for the older students, but I worked as a literacy tutor in an inner city elementary school with high poverty. I will offer a starting point: work on growing a thicker layer of skin. Especially at first, they may really hate coming to work with you and let you know it. Don't take it personally and remain consistent in your interactions with them. Don't let them see you sweat, and genuinely try to find something in each of them to get curious about and admire. One of my most troubled cases who started bawling, crawled under my desk, and would not come out at our first session ended up writing me an "I love you" note at the end of the year -- and more importantly, met her reading goal -- and I seriously attribute the bond to when I started complimenting her clothing and hair styles early in the year. Young children are quicker to work toward the approval of adults than high schoolers, though, so I look forward to reading more age specific comments.
posted by acertainseason at 9:01 PM on January 15, 2012

The "hunt them down and bring them in" sentence scares the heck out of me... that's not what a tutor does, and that's not how you build a relationship. "bring them in" by making the tutoring session a place they want to be. Make sure the environment is positive, clean, inviting. Make sure that they feel welcome. Materials, lessons, activities need to be interesting...challenging, but not frustrating.

My program works with at-risk urban youth, and, as stated, the "relationship" piece is the critical component.

The key to making this work is that you base the relationship on honesty, sincerity, and caring. Kids know if you care, they know if you're BSing them. Age, gender, ethnicity have little to do with it.

Be consistent in how you treat them, be consistent in your expectations. Make sure they know what the routine is and stick with it.

You don't need to be their "friend", in fact that will just make your job more difficult.

Don't take anything personal, and, when the tension gets high for some reason, it's OK to say "I need to think about this." before you respond to a behavior or statement, and allow them the same space if they need it.

Good for you for taking this on...and good luck!

posted by HuronBob at 9:05 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I work with a population of students similar to what you are describing. Here is what I have found to be most important:

- Allow your students to start each day fresh. Never, ever hold grudges. Even if they were horrible and uninterested the day before, let them know that today, this day, is a new start.

- You don't have to be outgoing, but you should always be warm and kind. Smile.

- Know that your students are not frustrated with you; they are frustrated with the fact that they don't read and write as well as their peers. They have seen their classmates take and pass a test that they cannot. They have spent years feeling behind. They will not be excited or grateful to be enrolled in a required tutoring program. Acknowledging these things makes your job a whole lot easier.

- Focus on the positives: a student shows up on time? Fantastic! A student who never turns in any work finally does something? Wonderful! Give genuine, sincere, and frequent praise. Create opportunities for success. If you know that a student will be unable or unwilling to write an entire essay, then, for the love of all that is holy, do not assign an entire essay. Instead, show the student how to create an outline, then give them ten minutes to recreate the outline using a different question prompt. Voila! Opportunity for success created.

- The students you are working with may struggle to follow directions. Make sure you are always clear about what you want a student to complete or do. If possible, use more than one method of delivery (e.g. write the instructions on the board, tell the students as a group, then reinforce the guidelines by individually asking students to talk about the assignment).

- Remember that your students are people with lives and problems. Sometimes they will feel as though their problems are insurmountable. The problems they bring to tutoring may be something as small as an unreturned text. It could be something as big as finding out that their younger sister is being sexually abused by their mother's boyfriend. Both problems may manifest themselves in the same way: not showing up / showing up, putting head on desk / showing up, acting out. You can't solve these problems. What you can do is create a healthy working atmosphere that respects and acknowledges the stressors that your students are experiencing. Saying something like, "Wow, I'm so sorry - it seems like you've had a rough day," can go a long way when it comes to building relationships and getting students back on task.

- Start each session by asking some variation of this, "How are you? Tell me about your day." Then, really listen to the answers. Ask follow-up questions. Take a vested interest in learning about your students. If a student tells you that she has to babysit for her little brother when she gets home from school, remember to ask her about her brother the next time that you meet with her.

- This one seems little, but it really matters: always spell and pronounce your students' names correctly. Particularly if they have a name that is unusual.

- Bring positive energy to each tutoring session. Your students, whether they realize it or not, will eventually begin to mirror your tone. If you are low-key and uninterested, they will be low-key and uninterested. If you are positive about learning, positive about the upcoming tests and positive about their progress, they will, on some level, begin to adopt your way of thinking.

- Don't be afraid to use physical rewards. I have worked with adult students who loved getting stickers and notes on their papers. If you've had a great week with a couple of students, bring them all a can of their favorite soda.

- Set consistent, achievable expectations. Let your students know that you believe that they can be successful. Be understanding, but hold students accountable. Great teaching is about balance.

- Make sure that you get support if you are feeling overwhelmed. You're not alone.

Good luck to you . . . you'll do great!
posted by WaspEnterprises at 10:22 PM on January 15, 2012 [31 favorites]

treat them with respect.

don't talk down to them or use their "lingo".

don't assume they're stupid. some of them may have undiagnosed learning disabilities or genuinely never have been taught things they "should" know by that grade level.

be kind. always. even when disciplining or reprimanding. always be kind.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:41 PM on January 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

WaspEnterprises has it down.

Try not to be nervous, that will create mutual discomfort right away. Pretend you are like a doctor in a way, you have a role to fill and it's not that of 'friend'. You may be sort of tutor-friends later but that's not your initial goal. Be kind, try to be curious about their lives like 'how's it going?' And remember what they say, whether it was their birthday or whether their dog was sick and ask about it later.

The most important thing WaspEnterprises said was is that 'everyday is a new day'. And that is definitely a great thing..both parties will be able to start over each week.

I teach the same sort of high school population (urban, underprivileged) and it is hard but they are surprising with both their openness and their forgiveness.

Just be yourself, don't act unnatural for you and you will be fine!
posted by bquarters at 10:59 PM on January 15, 2012

I am nervous about my ability to build relationships and communicate effectively with these students
My background is in rural areas of developing countries and not the inner city, but experience tells that it helps to find a common ground to work from, to talk about things that you both have in common, that everyone can have in common (family, pets, favorite TV show, too much homework, what have you).

In contrast, topics that isolate you and your experiences from them are counter-productive. Compare the above topics with things like: "my brand new car" and "my favorite sport is skiing." It's not that you have to hide these experiences, but you should judge what will build a relationship, and what will shut them down. (I can't forget one student who showed pictures of herself in the pilot seat of an airplane. Then, she explains that it's the government's plane, and she got to be there because she studied hard and participated in a ROTC program!)

Anyway, reading & writing is a great subject to work this kind of information into, as it allows you to participate or lead by example. They get to know you as a person, in exchange you learn from their writing, and you get to drive home the point of your lesson.
posted by whatzit at 11:23 PM on January 15, 2012

From what you said I'm guessing that you'll struggle with this at the beginning, no matter how prepared you are.

I hope that when the chips are down, and a whole weeks' students have sat in front of your meticulously planned lessons telling you to go F yourself, that you can manage to frame this as a learning experience and not as a failure.

All of these students need to learn, that even if they feel they have messed up over and over again throughout their schooling, it's within their power this time around to pull it together and make a go of it.

This is something you also need to learn, that even if you feel you have messed up this tutoring gig over and over, and one of the students has made you go and cry in a cupboard, you are intelligent, you can learn and if you keep at it long enough and keep learning you will figure out how to do it. I suspect if you ask any of the older well respected teachers, they will tell you that they went through the exact same experience themselves when they started.

Don't let it get you down.
posted by emilyw at 2:24 AM on January 16, 2012

Great advice so far, so I won't repeat, but two suggestions that have worked from my experience working with reluctant learners are:

- Where will you do this tutoring? If you can do it somewhere relaxed and comfortable, like on a couch or living room setting, students might be less reluctant. I taught reading and reasoned that no one really goes home and reads for pleasure at a table; they lay on the bed, or sit comfortably on a couch. My students dug the idea of sitting on couches.

-In terms of learning materials, if you don't have specific content to teach, but are teaching reading skills like comprehension and vocabulary, consider using the internet to print up articles about things that might be relevant to the students. Prepare a brief interest survey for the students and try to find materials based on those interests. Whether it's skateboarding, a favorite hip hop artist, or an article on pets, if the student is interested, they'll participate more.

Lots of students lose interest because, "I'll never need this in the real world." So use materials they will need once they graduate. One subject high school students like to learn about is money. Consider using materials that show how taxes are taken out of a paycheck, or a sale at a favorite store to teach percents. There are lots of math concepts you can teach from "real life" money situations that many students appreciate and therefore are more open to learning.

Finally, it can't be said enough - do not take things personally. If they act out, they are NOT personally mad/angry at you, efsrous, they are mad at what you represent. So yeah, it's an uphill battle, but if you use the advice in this thread, you're off to a great start. Good luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 5:32 AM on January 16, 2012

This previous thread also had classroom management information, and links to other threads. I really like WaspEnterprises' advice above.

About "we may have to hunt them down and bring them in": Can you do this with food? One way at our school that we lure the kids who are least likely to attend the clubs and events that would be great for them is with food - get them to school on time with Breakfast Club; Book Clubs have pizza lunch; Literacy Events have really good baked desserts... and judging by the number of high school students I see frequenting the Starbucks next to their school (even if it seems evil to do this), if you showed up to remind the kid it's time for tutoring with a fancy Starbucks 4,000 calorie coffe with all the extra toppings in your hand, they'd follow you like Snoopy follows his food bowl (and I figure they get caffeine in all the other stuff they drink anyway...).

I'd also suggest, if you have the time, to see if you can get any classroom volunteer hours in a school. Watching an experienced teacher command attention (rather than demand attention) and use positive reinforcement and use pattern interrupts and other techniques in classroom management (even how they position themselves in the room) and relate to kids on an individual as well as classroom basis is a think of beauty when it works - and a lesson if it doesn't.

As far as the urban component goes - my best advice is don't judge. At our school, one parent goes on and on about how some of the third and fourth graders have better cell phones than she has - and it needs to be gently pointed out that they don't go to daycare any more; that's their babysitter and how they contact their folks because they're alone after school on the playground some days for three hours or more; phones are cheap or free if you get the right plans and they don't have landlines; they don't tend to be the kids that get expensive food; extra sports, music lessons or camps that cost money, etc. If they're wearing expensive clothing, it doesn't mean they have a closet full, just a few special pieces. So, if you see something that pulls you up short and you start thinking "Hey...", realize that there are probably a host of reasons for what you're seeing that you can't know about.
posted by peagood at 6:51 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Former middle school sped, now high school sped-science teacher here. Not going to repeat the great advice above, but I do want to add that there will be some kids who, no matter how hard you work and how awesome you are, etc., are going to hate school and by extension, be pretty nasty to you.

You can't let those kids get you down and you can't take it personally. You will not connect with every kid and you have to be okay with that.
posted by kinetic at 9:39 AM on January 16, 2012

Since the focus of the tutoring is on college-readiness and passing exit exams, take the time to find out what your students' post high school plans are. In my opinion, test-prep and skill building isn't 100% fun times, so you'll need to remind your students that it's all part of achieving their goals.

There's a lot of great advice above. I've been a high school teacher for 11 years, the first 9 of which were in an urban school with a ton of at-risk students. It took me at least 3 years of full-time teaching to feel somewhat competent, and maybe 2 more years to truly develop a thick skin. So, don't worry if you don't feel like an instant success!
posted by shrabster at 9:57 AM on January 16, 2012

WaspEnterprises has it. The only thing I would contradict (if even that) is, be careful what you ask about, and be aware of what you have to do with that information. If they tell you they have commited or been the victim of a crime, what are you going to do? Find out if you are covered by any legislation.

For gods sakes, don't try to be cool or street, or anything that you may not be. Be yourself and be humble. If I am going to be really honest I think you are a little close in age for this to go crazy-smooth immediately, but I think it could work out really well for you all. Don't be afraid to admit what you need, "Bob, I need some kinda answer when I ask a question, even if it's just "uhu" or I think you haven't heard and I start repeating myself, can you help me out with that?". Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know everything, it builds trust that the stuff you know, you really know", "Jeeze Bob, that's a hell of a good question... you've got me stumped, will we go online and see what we can find?".

That every day be a brand new day is probably the most key though. They turned up 20 minutes late? "Good to see you Bob, I'm glad you're here". Many of them know if they fuck up enough you will leave them alone, just like everyone else has. They will push you away again and again, to see if you stick it out. That doesn't mean you ignore it entirely, but a little later, maybe you walk with them to the subway and say "You know Bob, I wonder if you need to take an earlier train to our meetings, we could get a little more done" or even see if he wants to switch the time forward by 20 minutes. Nothing necessarily stopping you saying that when he comes late, it makes you feel like you are last on his list of things he wants to do.

Start getting ok with the idea that you might never see the results of your work. I wish I could find the research, but anecdotal evidence supports that when somone makes a turnabout or change in their lives, and they are asked "What made you do it", the answer lies with somone years in their past, but that the penny has finally dropped.
You are changing lives, regardless of whether you see it now, or somone else sees it in a couple of years time. That has to be enough for you.
posted by Iteki at 11:39 AM on January 16, 2012

"Don't be nervous," is hard advice to follow. You will be nervous. You are working with people that come from a very different background than yours, it can feel ackward at first. I work with low-income african-american students, I am a middle-class white woman. Here is my advice:

*Be yourself. The best way to build relationships is not to convince them you are cool - they know you're not. The best way to build relationships is to be kind and positive and express interest in them as people.

*Don't take anything personally. Their bad moods, foot-dragging, tardiness - none of it is about you. Even when it is directed at you.

*Don't assume much about their background knowledge. You will find that they are probably missing some pretty basic skills. With any lesson, always be prepared to start with the most basic level, then quickly build up to more advanced work.

*On the other hand, don't assume that they are lacking in intelligence. Intelligence manifests in many ways. Some of my students are wonderful speakers but poor writers. Some have excellent spatial sense but poor arithmetic skills, etc. Figure out what they are good at and use that to help you build a bridge to their weaknesses.

*There is no room for wishful thinking in teaching. If you have an instinct that a particular lesson might not go over well, follow your gut. Prepare for all possibilities. Figure out what you need to do to set them up for success, and figure out what you might need to do if a lesson isn't going well.

*Figure out meaningful ways to communicate with them about their progress. Success is the best motivator. When they feel successful they will work hard.
posted by mai at 2:23 PM on January 16, 2012

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