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On Responsibility, Yours and Your Tutee's

Two conversations I have had with tutors motivated me to share my thoughts on responsibility in tutoring relationships.

The First Situation

The first conversation: A group tutor came to me, clearly upset. She was tutoring two students at once. In the middle of a session, one tutee burst out angrily that the tutor was paying more attention to the other tutee, that she (the angry tutee) was not getting her questions answered, etc. The tutor managed to calm the tutee down, and the three calmly discussed each other’s feelings and the reason the tutor often responded to one tutee’s questions before the other’s. One tutee’s questions were often more basic and, therefore, answering them was necessary to prepare to answer the other tutee’s questions. At session’s end, the angry tutee felt better having shared her concern, and she agreed to be more patient. The tutor voiced her understanding of the need to meet both tutees’ needs.

In response, I asked the tutor what had upset her. She was mainly concerned that the tutee’s outburst caused a scene in tutoring center and that it reflected badly on her tutoring performance. I suggested that we separate the two issues, outburst and tutoring performance, and discuss her performance first.

The tutor felt she was working with the pair of students effectively. In general, more basic questions must have answers before higher level questions so the latter can be understood by both tutees. Also, the tutor frequently asked the tutees to answer each other questions and otherwise worked to involve both tutees productively throughout the sessions. We then discussed how she chose to end the session by calm discussion, how the tutees might feel better about the sessions, and she agreed that this conversation was necessary and would improve future sessions. The angry tutee’s problem was resolved.

There was still the angry tutee’s outburst, for which the tutor felt somehow responsible. But a few simple questions put the tutor at ease. Did the tutor choose to handle the problem by blowing up? No, the tutee did. Was the tutee an adult capable of a full range of choices in the situation? Yes. In fact, in this case, the tutee was much older than the tutor. Could the tutee have made a different choice about how to handle the situation? Yes, she could have chosen to talk with the tutor privately before or after the session. Once the tutee made the wrong choice, did the tutor work effectively to solve both problems? Yes, she calmed the tutee down, engaged both tutees in a productive discussion, and ended the session positively. Should the tutor accept any responsibility for the tutee’s outburst? No, tutors cannot control their tutee’s behavior. They can discuss and try to motivate behavior, but they cannot control it. College students are adults, and they choose their own actions.

The Second Situation

The second conversation: A tutor working one-on-one with a tutee could not get him to work at home. The tutee would work only during the sessions. The tutor had explained to the tutee how more learning would occur if the tutee came prepared for the sessions, but the tutee would not do it. On one or two occasions, the tutor managed to coax the tutee to prepare something for the sessions, and on these occasions they agreed that the sessions were more productive, but in general, the tutee would work only in the sessions. Thus, the tutor shared with me how she felt unproductive.

Again, a few simple questions offered the tutor another perspective: Did the tutor discuss with the tutee the benefits of his working outside the sessions? Yes, they discussed this during the first session, after which the tutee said he had no time to do so. Did the tutee understand that the sessions would be more productive and that he would learn more if he worked outside the sessions? Yes, the tutor specifically discussed this with the tutee. Is the tutor responsible for the tutee’s decision not to work outside the sessions? No, she can try to motivate, but she cannot choose for the student, who is an adult capable of choosing his own actions. What can the tutor do? She should continue to gently encourage the student to work outside the sessions, and she should work to make the sessions as productive as possible, given the tutee’s decision.


Tutors (like all people) can control their own actions only. They can draw upon all their skill and resources to make sessions as productive as possible. Among their skill and resources should be methods of motivating their tutees to perform. However, while they can motivate, they cannot control their tutees’ actions and, therefore, they cannot accept responsibility for their tutees.

Incidentally, along with accepting no control over a tutee’s choice of actions, tutors must also avoid judging their tutee’s choices. Tutors must accept that tutee’s make choices for reasons they believe are valid.


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