The Voices in My Head

Pass the Torch† is a peer tutoring program, that matches students who have demonstrated success in Mathematics and English classes with students who need tutoring support. The students are matched into study teams with one tutor and one tutee that meet twice per week for tutoring sessions.  The Foothill counselor who developed the program, Dr. Jean Thomas, felt strongly that the tutors needed to be supported and advised by an instructor from the discipline.  So, since Pass the Torch began more than 20 years ago, tutor training has been an important component of the program.  I’ve had the great fortune of being able to teach the tutor training class for about half of the years that I’ve been teaching at Foothill.

The tutoring training class covers a variety of topics.  Early in the quarter we discuss professionalism, boundaries, and expectations.  This discussion helps the tutors to be able to serve in the role as a tutor and be able to clearly define the boundaries between being a tutor and being a Foothill student.  The tutors then learn about using the socratic method as a technique to help students complete a problem without doing the work for the student. This seminar-style class also covers topics related to learning styles, empathy, motivation and effective study skills.  During class discussions the tutors talk about their own experiences as students and we discuss how these topics can lead to better tutoring and increased engagement in the learning process for the tutee.  The conversations are candid and I learn a lot about the student experience at Foothill. I am certain that teaching the tutor training class has helped me to become a better instructor.

The week-9 topic of discussion for the tutor training class this quarter was about the language of responsibility and is based on material from Skip Downing’s “On Course.” I start the discussion by telling the tutors that that I’ve seen 3 different student reactions to getting a failing grade on an exam:

Reaction 1: The student gets very sad and withdrawn.  The student says things like, “I’m never going to be able to do this.” Or “I’m really not a math person.” Or “I’m not sure why I bothered studying, I’m never going to be able to pass math.” Or “I guess college isn’t for me.”

Reaction 2: The student gets very angry and blames me.  The student says things like, “This exam was nothing like the homework and that’s not fair.” or “It’s stupid to have vocabulary on the exam, this is a math class not and English class.” or “This exam was way harder than anything you showed us in class, and that’s not fair.” or “This whole class is stupid, why do I have to take math.”

Reaction 3: The student is really concerned and seeks help.  The student says things like, “I thought I studied for this exam, but maybe I focused on the wrong things, what can I do to be better prepared next time?” Or “I think I need to get some extra help, what’s the best way to do that?”

After I finish my description of the three reactions I ask the tutors which of the three students described above is likely to go on and pass the class. Unanimously the tutors think that only the third student has a good chance of being able to pass the course.  Skip Downing’s materials give names to these three reactions.  The first two are referred to as victim voices: the first is the inner critic and the second is the inner defender.  The last is called the creator voice or the inner guide. I share this language with the tutors, to give us labels to use in our follow-up discussion, We all also acknowledge that it can hard to have the third reaction, even if it is the one that will help lead to success. which starts with me asking the tutors if they have tutored students who have had reactions similar to those listed above.  We then talk about the needs of a student who is using one of the victim voices, and possible ways to help that student switch to using the creator voice.

One of the tutors in the class this quarter did some tutoring when she was in high school.  We’ll call her Mandy (not her real name). Mandy tutored a student that she describes as having had a very strong inner defender.  She tried to help the student to see that perhaps the teacher wasn’t completely to blame for the difficulties. Mandy then found that the student she was tutoring got very defensive and started to blame her as well.  Mandy wanted my help and advice on how to approach such a student.   We discussed the need to really listen to what the student says, and make sure the student feels heard and then try to get the student to take the first step in using the creator voice. Since so much depends on the particular student and situation, the discussion went in circles. In the end neither of us felt like we’d come up with a solid plan to help.  Another one of the tutors offered that a tutor might not be able to help a student with such strong feelings.  Definitely not a very satisfying conclusion.

After class I was still pondering the question of how to really reach students who use either of the victim voices.  That led to me thinking about how I hear and used to hear these voices in my own head.  I have a very loud inner critic, my inner defender is meek and my inner guide is usually ready to take on a fight.  But, it hasn’t always been that way when it comes to student.  Before participating in the “On Course” training and learning about these victim and creator voices, I used to feel that I had less agency in effecting my student’s success.  In a way I had a big inner defender when it came to students.  I couldn’t make students do their homework.  I couldn’t make students come to class.  I couldn’t make students study.  So, how much could I really increase student success? But after learning about “On Course,” more often then not, I notice that this train of thought doesn’t help me or my students and I ask myself if I can design assignments and activities differently, if I can provide different resources, or if I can reach out to my students in different ways. I still find that I occasionally have a strong inner defender, but I hope my creator voice can continue to put up a good fight.

†The Pass the Torch Program at Foothill College was started by counselor Dr. Jean Thomas, with the aide of a grant from FIPSE*.  As a counselor Dr. Thomas saw many students come through her office, some struggling and some being very success.  She had a vision of being able to match them together into teams, that would benefit both students.  The struggling students would get assistance to help them pass their course and the successful students would gain valuable experience for their resumes and transcripts.  Dr. Thomas worked tirelessly to make Pass the Torch a reality, and continued to work with the program and students until her passing in June 2005.  You can read more about Dr. Thomas at





2 thoughts on “The Voices in My Head

  1. I really like your discussion of the victim voice and the creator voice. We are trained in our fields, and we learn a lot through our teaching. But our direct learning is filtered through our own experiences to date. I really appreciate professional development because it has already been curated and it asks us to consider teaching through the filter of someone trained in a different field than our own; maybe psychology or sociology or education. I’ve heard about On Course, but I’ve never taken it. Do you know if we’ve ever brought it to Foothill?

    • We did have an On Course training at Foothill sometime between 2001 and 2003, and some others went to the training at other locations. It’s one of the best professional development seminars that I’ve ever done.

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