Two women meeting
Photo by Mimi Thian

Building trusting tutoring relationships

Practical tips on establishing an effective working relationship with your learners

TutorBloom Staff · Mar 14, 2021 · 5 min read

When you first meet a learner it is important to create a two way, amicable relationship, so that a few sessions down the line it might sound like this:

"Hey Mark, how's it been? I remember last week you telling me you were going to be slammed with calc. Did you get through it?"

"Thanks Sabrina. I am exhausted. I feel like I've spent more time scouring through notes and examples in the past 4 days than I did the entire last semester. I'm so glad I asked you to re-explain definite and indefinite integrals again. I felt like an idiot asking in class because everyone talks about it as if they're basic concepts, and they just didn't make sense to me the way the book and teacher explained them."

"Ha, you'd be surprised how many students spend a whole semester in their first calc class and don't understand some foundational concepts, and they pay for it later with more tutoring or even having to retake a course."

"Well, I paid in lost sleep and coffee. Anyway, I'm feeling better about my test tomorrow. Can we review the study guide I got in class today?"

The learner must feel comfortable asking risky questions. You, the tutor, have to treat those questions with sensitivity and constructively move the learner down a path to understanding. You build a good relationship with your learner to help him or her meet their goals, and at the same time you're rewarding yourself. The feeling that comes from helping someone else feel successful is addicting, and it moves you to be better.

In this evolving environment there are risks for you and the learner, primarily time. Treat this time, your first sessions, with care. It's the most valuable time you have.

Building relationships with learners is rewarding

As an educator I am not always aware of how I build relationships. One day they just happen because I have had the luxury of time to build trust. These are the best connections to make. One day, a learner sends you an email and says, "I didn't know who to ask for help in this class, but you've always helped before." These are the moments I live for. They are the moments when I know that all of my work has made a difference for this student. Instead of doing nothing, this learner has reached out and begun to use his or her tools, asking questions, taking control.

However, when I am offering training or working with a temporary group of students, or it's the beginning of the year, when I only have a couple of hours or even minutes to work with a group, I can't just wait for the relationship to happen. I've got to be deliberate, and I can't put it off until later. Having a first meeting that isn't tethered to a fee gives a tutor the freedom to start this process.

Start working on the relationship early

Relationship building is a skill, so if you're not a natural, you're going to have to be deliberate too. What do you do?

Assess the situation. If a learner is coming to you, they have most likely already experienced some level of frustration with the content. One powerful trust-building opportunity you have is lending a sympathetic ear when your learner expresses frustration with the material. Make sure your first conversation is as much about leaving your learner with the feeling that this isn't going to be just another situation where math makes them feel dumb and writing cramps their hands and ego.

You can also take this time to get to know your learner a little and start looking for commonalities or connections you can make to help make some difficult content more relevant. And again, doing this takes some time, but the time spent now will pay off in the end with more efficient and meaningful sessions.

Two women meeting
Photo by Mimi Thian

Create an early win

It is really easy to pack your first session with a huge, spectacular agenda. However, start by making some very short, easily attainable goals. Set your first meeting up so you can identify at least one issue that you can solve. You want your learner to walk away thinking, "I had a question. I've got an answer. I've learned something."

Ask specific questions about what they already know. Many people when asked this question will automatically say they know nothing which is never the truth. You're going to have to walk them through this. If they don't offer anything, pose questions like "Where would you start?"; "What's the first step you would take?"; "Which terms are you unfamiliar with?"

But it is also okay to ask, "If there was one thing that I could help you with right now, what would that be?" Your goal is to solve a problem. Not all of the problems, just one, and that should be your goal for every session.

This is why I suggest you keep the first meeting short and low risk. Make it manageable for you and the learner.

Meet the learner where they are

You are an expert. In your first meeting, you are already making assessments of your learner's knowledge and confidence with the subject. As stated before, don't push this. If your learner needs vocabulary and sentence frames for topic sentences, not lessons on logic and propaganda analysis, give them vocabulary and sentence frames for topic sentences.

It is okay to anticipate for the learner what they might really need and not know it yet, but you've got to acknowledge the learner's understanding of their own frustrations. They are real. When they are comfortable with your approach and your openness to listen to what they want, they'll be open to a more critical look at where their misunderstandings lie.

Learn how to pronounce their name

I can't emphasize this enough. People frame themselves around names. Take the time to use the right one. Refrain from using nicknames unless one is offered or approximations. In my classes I have used the essay "Names and Nombres" by Julia Alvarez in many different contexts, but the main message is the most important message.

By the time I was in high school, I was a popular kid, and it showed in my name. Friends called me Jules or Hey Jude, and once a group of trouble making friends my mother forbade me to hang out with called me Alcatraz. I was Hoo-lee-tah only to Mami and Papi and uncles and aunts who came over to eat sancocho on Sunday afternoons.

Julia Alvarez, "Names and Nombres"

Get to know your learner and start with their name. It will start you out on the proverbial right foot. It helps with trust. It shows you care.

Building tutoring relationships with students takes guidance

As the tutor, you want to make a difference in the first sessions and you want your relationship to grow so that each successive meeting builds trust and knowledge.

In a perfect world, you and your learner will hit it off and the conversations, concepts, knowledge, and understanding will flow back and forth, and it will be a perfect match. In the beginning give yourself and the learner time to start the process of learning about each other. Give your learner some options: "I think this is going to work out great. Reach out to me in the next day or two to let me know how you feel about continuing, so I can work you into my schedule," or "You've asked some great questions, let me know if you have any more, and we'll move forward from there," or if you're feeling confident "I've got some ideas about the concerns you've expressed, let schedule our next meeting and get started right away."