Tutoring Is Learning

I love to travel to international destinations and experience different cultures. I learn so much about the world (and myself) when I travel. But tutoring English and writing brings the world to me. The students at Seattle’s community colleges come from all over the world and they offer me a peek into their cultures that expands my worldview.

For example, I worked with a woman from Korea who was writing an essay about technology and how it has changed our lives. She described being a child at the end of the Korean War when schools were functioning again. Her school supplies included one pencil that had to last all year and paper that was brown and lumpy. I suggested she use this story to introduce her essay and offer this contrast of her meager supplies to the wealth of options, including various computer devices, that students now have at their fingertips.

Last week, I learned a new word “Chindo” from a student’s essay. This refers to someone Chinese born and raised in Indonesia. Unfortunately, there are cultural tensions between Chindos and native Indonesians.

Istanbul mosqueOne day I sat down with a student wearing a burqa. I had worked with students wearing a hijab, a head scarf covering the hair, neck, and shoulders, but leaving the individual woman’s face still visible. A burqa is a different matter. It hides a woman’s face with only a narrow opening for her eyes–just wide enough for her to see and navigate through the world. I could see her eyes, eyelids, and perhaps a bit of her eyebrows. Black-robed and black-veiled, a woman in a burqa is conspicuous on American streets, in American public spaces.

As a tutor, I hesitated for a few seconds as this was my first encounter with someone dressed like this. It was a conversation session to help her practice English. She had a pleasant voice, but I felt initially disoriented; I was talking to someone whose face I couldn’t see. It was strange to sit and talk with someone without seeing her mouth. (I wondered how she ate.) As an information gatherer, I automatically look for visual clues that can help me understand another person. In this case, they were not available. I couldn’t see any body language, facial expressions, jewelry, hairstyle, clothing, tattoos, and so on.

As I wrote this, I thought this was the first time I had talked to a woman completely covered up like this, but then I remembered the nuns who ran some private schools in Honolulu. Their faces were not covered, but certainly their heads and bodies were. And yet, I did not perceive them as being unusual or ominous.

The student told me she was married and studying English in order to attend graduate school in the U.S. I guessed she was twenty-something. I looked at her pretty soft brown eyes and noticed her frameless glasses. I learned she was from Saudi Arabia and had an infant daughter. She struggled with expressing herself in English, but was respectful, intelligent, and determined to improve her English. After my brief culture shock, the tutoring session proceeded as usual.

Later, I realized a deeper discomfort. Her attire made her repression visible to me. The woman herself was rendered invisible—a person with no visual identity, no shape to indicate her body or limbs, no suggestion of natural curves or personality. This reminded me of my own personal history and the larger cultural history of women—how we have been made invisible, how secular and religious laws and customs have disadvantaged and suppressed women. I felt the heat of anger in my body. No woman should be constrained and limited.

However, I also felt curious. I went online to research the hijab and burqa. I learned there are variations in different parts of the world, and there’s a specific name for the scarf that covers a woman’s face: niqab. Also, both Muslim men and women are supposed to dress modestly. However, modesty is strictly imposed on women: women should cover their heads and bodies in public; they must not bring attention to themselves and risk tempting men. The responsibility for temptation falls entirely on women because apparently men have no self-control. While the burqa erases a woman, women who wear the hijab can at least choose scarves that are colorful and printed in various designs, and I suppose she can wear a different scarf every day if she chooses.

Most women enjoy fussing with their hair, experimenting with various styles and colors, and going to the salon. It’s a form of self-expression. Therefore, it’s difficult for me, a woman fortunate to have choices about hair-styling, to imagine having to cover up my tresses every day.

Clothing is another means of self-expression. To be denied this freedom is unthinkable to those of us who have grown up with fashion magazines. We take for granted that when we are in public, we will see a variety of people dressed in all manners of styles that we find attractive or not, making judgements accordingly. So, when we see women constrained and restricted in their attire in public, it’s shocking. On the other hand, more modesty in clothing would not be a bad thing in American culture although there’s certainly a difference between modesty by choice and patriarchal control. I realize that in the privacy of their homes, these women don’t remain hidden. Burqas and hijabs are only worn when they leave their homes and go into public spaces.

I wonder what Muslim women required to wear hijabs and burqas think of the clothing choices we American women wear in public. I wonder what they see.

Tutoring Writing and English

It’s definitely Fall. The days are getting shorter and cooler. The leaves are falling. Flannel sheets are on the bed. Sweaters and fleece are ready to go. And of course, school is back in full swing, and I’m tutoring writing and English at the community colleges.

As a writer, I am humbled by this work. Writing is difficult for everyone, even native English speakers. The language is treacherous. I myself am constantly learning something new.

Most of my students are non-native English speakers, either immigrants or international students of all ages and from every continent. I am awed by their courage and determination in learning English to improve their lives and following their dream for an education thousands of miles away from home, family, culture, and everything that’s familiar to them. Often, this is a huge leap–their first time away from wherever they call home.

Yes, they are extremely challenged. Articles. Verb forms. Idioms. Prepositions. Pronunciation. So many rules and so many exceptions. So much coming at them every day, tumbling over them like bushels of autumn leaves. But they show up for tutoring to get help, sometimes daily.

Like I said, tutoring is humbling. It reminds me how difficult English and writing is.


I have to say, tutoring is demanding work, more than I realized. The tutor’s brain is constantly shifting gears to adjust to each student’s needs. It’s a good mental work-out because we meet with a different student every thirty minutes to assist them with their essays or personal statements for applying to a university or whatever they need help with.

In this brief time, we greet the student, review the teacher’s assignment, scan the draft they have brought,  assess whether they are following the guidelines for the assignment, and evaluate their proficiency in expressing their thoughts on the page. We are encouraging, but at the same time, we need to point out the areas that need more work, whether it’s at the sentence level, paragraph level, or the general organization. Because tutors offer students information to learning the rules of writing and English, it is often challenging to communicate “the lesson” in a way that the student can understand.

Tutors don’t “fix” the student’s writing; instead, we give them information that they can understand and apply themselves. Instead of a quick fix, this process is collaborative between tutor and student. It’s a conversation with both parties needing time to process information. As such, thirty minutes can quickly evaporate, and waiting until the last minute to come in for help will be frustrating for everyone.

Students often use electronic dictionaries, whose accuracy can be questionable, especially translating from one language to another. Many inexperienced writers believe that using fancy words improves their essays. They don’t. Often these words don’t make sense in the sentence, and when I ask the student to define the word, they cannot. They pluck a word from these dictionaries without understanding that synonyms often have nuances in their meanings that make them inappropriate for what the student wants to express. This only confirms that the English language is complicated and very difficult to learn; I get these lessons every day, and my heart just goes out to these students. I wish I could make learning easier for them, but there are no short-cuts.

They are not only working on their writing skills, but also on their speaking skills, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Each of these areas is extremely challenging. I remind them that mistakes are natural. Learning something new requires practice, practice, and more practice. Effective writing requires more than one or two drafts. And I invite them back to visit us again, as often as they need to.

We tutors are here for them. In every season.