Agony aunt

September 15, 2000

Term is starting and a new tutor group is about to walk through the door. How can I strike up a fruitful working relationship with my students and yet keep my distance?

Martin Greenhow Senior tutor Mathematical sciences Brunel University


Students will have heard of the tutorial system but - not having read the students' handbook or any other paperwork - their image of the relationship as teacher-pupil or parent-child will probably need straightening out.

At your first meeting with freshers, do not just stick out your hand and say "hello". Make sure they know what to call you and vice-versa. One needs to be aware of touch (shaking hands) and other taboos such as being alone in a room with someone of the opposite sex, so do not ask tutees to close your office door if they have left it open.

Do not expect freshers to pour out their troubles from day one: you will not have the background to deal with them if they do. Stick to the mundane. Do they have somewhere to live? Do they understand the timetables? Can they use the computer system?

Your department will have guidelines on the tutorial system so that each party knows what to expect. Go through this briefly with your tutee, making sure they know where to get any help they might need straight away.

Exchange contact details and those of the senior tutor or another academic who can act as tutor when you are away. Pick up on an item of interest from their Ucas forms and ask them about it; this will show that you know who they are and take an interest.

Finally, make an appointment to see them again in a few weeks (but tell them they don't need to wait until then to resolve anything urgent). This second meeting is important: students rarely drop out in levels two and three, but do so far too often in level one. This meeting should build a relationship, assess initial adjustment and motivation problems, note academic or practical difficulties, ensure that students know where to find the help they need and identify any students at risk of withdrawing or failing.

Tutors will need to follow up any agreed action with the tutee and could refer difficult cases to other support staff. It is a good idea to have coffee and tissues to hand.

A meaningful relationship should be modelled on a professional concern to maximise the tutee's academic potential. To achieve this, I suggest the following threshold tutor duties, beyond which other support services should be called on: * Support in academic matters such as making module choices or course changes

* Advice on study skills and assessment and examination techniques

* Support on non-academic matters such as personal development and careers, but refer to specialist support services early

* Help to negotiate the system, particularly in the recording of mitigating circumstances

* An additional check of the student's records at exam boards

* References

* Reasonable accessibility during office hours and within three working days at the tutee's request; otherwise to see the student at least twice a semester.

Can tutors develop a fruitful working relationship with their tutees and keep their distance? I doubt it: teaching is about involvement and commitment. Taking tutees through their undergraduate careers brings yet more responsibilities - but it is always satisfying and usually a lot of fun.

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