Your Tutor is in the Country

What Inner Resources a Calm Tutor Brings to the Table

by Joshua Myrvaagnes

When asked to contribute blog entries to this site, I had a feeling of excitement about getting to share about my work in a way that ordinarily I have not had occasion to do. There is so much more that goes into the work of tutoring than is visible to the student, and even less is visible to the parent, who is rarely present, but might have more perspective and capacity to appreciate the art of this work. So what I am going to share here is both very personal and very different from what one might expect to hear from a tutor.

And this was not what I had planned to talk about, at all. Ordinarily I would not discuss this, but simply go about using it quietly, hoping its usefulness will be felt without calling too much attention to itself. However, when I asked myself what to talk about in my article this week, an image immediately came to mind, with great force and emotion, of a place I will describe below. And I knew this was what was right to talk about.

Early on in embarking on the path of tutoring I asked the creative part of my psyche for an intuition about how to proceed. The answer I got was an image of extreme peacefulness of a scene in the countryside, a stone wall with trees beyond it, open grass among them, perfect balance. There will hills around this area, covered in taller, thicker grass, and a sensation of perfect balance to the surroundings, as if the rhythm of one who lived here would automatically be influenced by it to feel much simpler and much freer. The feeling was so expansive and energizing that I had the thought, “I feel as if I were actually in the country at this moment, rather than in the city. If only I could give this feeling to my students, they would benefit tremendously by being given a breath of fresh air in this way, and would in that calm environment be able to think so much more clearly.”

But how to go about this?

I’d love to be able to tell you that I know exactly how to do this, and that I am able to reproduce in my students the exact feeling of peacefulness, expansiveness, and clarity that I am able to experience myself. To cut and paste the image, as it were, from my mind’s eye into theirs. But I’d be lying if I said I had the answers at this time to these questions of how to go about this. I believe this belief that one can simply “cut and paste” is a delusion that teachers have been wrestling with since the time of Socrates and before.

I do, however, know what not to do.

I know that if I tell a student to picture himself or herself in the country, many will simply feel manipulated or resistant. It’s out of the flow, and I can feel it. I have tried out on one occasion a guided visualization for a student diagnosed with ADHD, but it seemed not to be very effective for his subsequent performance. And anyway my gut feeling has said not to push anything. So instead I confine myself to asking questions, since asking questions opens the way for the student to focus in a certain way without attempting to require this. It is essential when I work that I respect the natural flow of interest or indifference.

I also have the strong sense that any question that asks a student to focus too far away from her/his immediate state of tension does little, and only a more general question, more open-ended, can be of use to the student. On occasion I can provide a question; but it is far more important that I be sensitive to the flow of the lesson and the direction of the students’ energy and interest. Forcing anything will always backfire.

But more than what it does for the student, I want to talk about how this affects me, how it adds to my capacity to be present, since this is the area I can speak about with most certainty.

Many factors contribute to the distraction I could feel, were it not for the tools I have for responding to the situation, when I go to a students’ house to tutor: I have found my way, often in an unfamiliar neighborhood by way of complex transportation systems; I am sitting in a stranger’s house; I am expected to deliver a result even though I do not have control over the effort the student chooses or does not choose to make; I am working for someone who is not paying me yet am paid by someone who is not present and only assesses my work at a remove; etc. One part of how I respond to these stimuli is to ask myself what my intuitive brain is telling me in this moment. And the response generally has always been a place in nature, somewhat more peaceful than my physical surroundings although rarely one as vivid as the countryside image above, yet nevertheless one which gives a measure of ease in the moment, allowing me to be more clear-headed and present.

It is my strong belief, and is evidenced by my experience, that my alertness to and sensitivity to the subtle nuances of my students’ thinking is of great value to the student. The student will experience being validated rather than violated (to borrow a phrase from the book on management consulting and thinking, Breaking the Rules, by Kurt Wright) in these more subtle areas of her/his thinking.

My body language too communicates what I am really thinking about you, more than my words. My body language–whether serene or agitated–accounts for much of communication (I have heard a commonly quoted figure of 93%–that only 7% of communication is verbal). I can attest to the importance of this for my own learning. And as a tutor, I can either be a steady reminder of the possibility of remaining very calm in the midst of the work, or I can reinforce the message that agitation is the only available response. The constant, nonverbal reinforcement of the idea that calm is possible has been of enormous value to me in my learning, and I strongly believe it provides an environment conducive to high level learning for my students. One student wrote a piece shortly after we began working together in which he described feeling for the first time that a work of human creation rivaled the creations of nature; I am convinced that for him to share, even perhaps to access, this thought, I had to be doing my part in the partnership (and at least not doing harm).

Lastly, more often than the state I happen to be in during a lesson, my ability to respond to critical moments–my readiness to move into a state of openness–is the offering I bring to the table. Having prepared the neural pathways for accessing a state of pastoral peacefulness, I am prepared for those critical moments. In being “heard” with openness, a student learns to trust his/her own inner resources more fully. This is what I found most essential to my growth as a writer and thinker.

Another answer I have at this time to the question of how to provide an optimal environment for clarity of focus to my students is that I can talk about what I envision in an article such as this present one, to bring awareness of this idea to the parents of the student. Too many parents I have witnessed are stressed themselves and under great time pressures; many do not have the time or emotional reserves to be present and hear at an extremely high level. And even those who arefeeling calm enough to be very present can benefit from the reminder of what it feels like to be in the country. Perhaps this can help bring some ease into the parents’ day, and can facilitate their supporting more access to clarity for the students as they go about envisioning how best to support the students’ development.

Again, this subject contains more unanswered questions than answers, but I know strongly and clearly the value of asking these questions, and also that the beginning of the answers is already helping me serve my students with greater precision than if I had not put the focus into this line of inquiry.

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