Example Tutoring /Coaching Session

Example of a 2003 middle-school tutoring and academic coaching session using IFS (“parts”) language and my commitment (and struggle!) to see my students as whole people, not just schoolwork producers.  This story is presented to you with the approval and permission of a student of four years.

H is sitting on his bed, not looking excited to begin studying. But it’s time to start! My “Let’s get it done NOW!” parts are ready to take control—I’m the tutor, I’m here, therefore it’s time to work! They see my student as a problem to be solved:  he’s not jumping up and down to begin working, so those parts of me think I better cajole him by promising, “We’ll have fun!” or menace him by warning, “We have to work NOW!”

Happily, after ten years of tutoring, I can listen to my “Let’s get it done NOW!” part without allowing it to totally take control of me or my students—at least at the beginning of a tutoring session. I have a larger goal in mind:  How can we begin to engage with his schoolwork in a way that respects him? First, by not insisting that his only value is his ability to produce schoolwork. So instead of talking about school at all, I do what appears to be nothing. I just look at him: a 13 year old, built for activity and movement, who’s been sitting still in a classroom for forty minutes at a time learning English, math, reading, social studies, and science. Now I’m insisting he spend MORE time doing MORE of the same.  I begin to relate to what a bummer I represent.

As if he is a tuning fork and my job is to get in perfect tune, I begin allowing myself to settle in to his reality. He’s strumming on his guitar.  Hey, he just started playing last month, and he’s sounding good! As I tune in to him, I tune out the voices in my mind that insist, “We better start working NOW!” I ask questions about the guitar; I really listen to both the music and the answers. I start learning new things about myself. Parts of me wish I could play the electric guitar—so I say so. He lets me try it!  Pulling the strap over my head, I’m amazed by the new perspective I have on his life. I feel sooo cool with this guitar strapped over my shoulder, no wonder he’s always messing with it! I would too if I had one! In my body, I can feel the allure the guitar has for him, and the parts of me that think, “That guitar is a distraction from schoolwork” are drowned out by the parts of me that are EXPERIENCING this guitar!

After handing the guitar back to him, he shows me a few more pieces of songs he’s learned. Now that I feel more in tune with him, I start asking about school. I begin going over a recent math test. “H, wow, look at this. Without this one simple mistake, you would have had a hundred! I would have done the same thing, I have that same part that makes the simplest mistakes!!  So what was going on that kept you from catching it?”

“I dunno…”

Looking back, I can see that I started asking about schoolwork too soon, and that my “test correction” parts became a bit overactive in their zeal to glean every last lesson learned from any and all mistakes made on his recent tests and quizzes. However, H is the tuning fork, and he lets me know that I’m not in tune with him. As my “test correction” parts persist in ploughing forward with an analysis of every aspect of his recent grades, I have to ask each question about three times because he’s still very actively playing the guitar.

Finally, H comes up with a compromise between his desire to be seen for who he is— a guitar player— and who my “test correction” part sees him as— a grade-analysis machine that inputs errors, processes strategies for self-correction, and outputs higher scores the next time. He devises the guitar-communication method: one loud, crazy strum for “NO,” two gentle strums for “YES,” and slowly plucking each string in turn for “maybe.” I ask yes or no questions:  “So, on this math test, were careless errors one of the main problems?” Two gentle strums. “Were there any other things you could have done differently besides really paying attention to careless errors and checking your answers?” One loud, crazy strum. “Can you tell me anything more about it?”  One loud, crazy strum. Okay, next test…  after going through this process four times, for another test, a quiz and a graded writing assignment, I have some parts that begin to get frustrated.  The part of me that really likes the guitar is still pretty active, but so is the test-correction part—so I can’t hear what even more parts are saying.  I start to lose my focus on H, so I know what to do:  own it.

“H, I have some parts that are coming up right now but I don’t know why. I’m having a hard time focusing.”

He stops playing the guitar and says, “I know what it is. They think I can’t focus because I’m playing the guitar. Most people would say, “H, stop playing the guitar!!!” He mimics an aggressive, annoyed tone.

I say, “I don’t know. I really like the guitar-communication system, I just can’t focus, and I don’t know why.”

H unplugs the amp cord from his light-blue electric guitar and gets up off the bed. He says, “Well, we better start studying anyway.”  So we do.

We spent twenty minutes playing the guitar and going over tests using the ‘guitar-communication method.’  We spent the next forty minutes studying intensely. He was engaged and focused, as well as relaxed and willing to study.

I think forty minutes of studying in a positive, relaxed, engaged way is far more productive than sixty minutes of coerced, tense, uninspired studying. Kids are always singing the tune of who they are… I strive to ask myself:  “Am I singing in tune?”  Singing in harmony creates music instead of noise. I believe that being in tune can help create the music of mutual learning instead of the noise of compulsory studying.