A Reluctant Professor. A Grateful Coach

ellen readingFor more than thirty years, I have earned a living – and even a few modest awards – as a writer and editor.

But when I was in middle school, when achievement tests became the standard by which writing and reading skills were determined, low scores indicated that I was struggling with reading comprehension. A teacher-parent huddle sealed the deal and I was sent to work with a tutor.

That’s how it felt at the time anyway.

At 13 and 14, with bad teeth and stringy hair, there was already plenty for me to be embarrassed about, but I remember being mortified about having to be tutored because I wanted to think of myself as a smart girl. And smart girls didn’t need tutors.

But the initial feeling didn’t last beyond my first session. The tutor turned out to be an amiable woman who very swiftly taught me to identify the unique way I absorbed information and how to organize it into words. More poignantly, I see now, she guided me in honoring my individual learning process. She was gentle but firm. Persistent but patient.

My test scores and grades improved after my tutoring sessions, but I was never a stellar student in high school. When I could choose courses in college and graduate school, I fared better. By then I had found my thing and that thing was reading and writing, the very things in which I struggled as a middle-schooler.

I never set out to teach writing. Frankly, it never occurred to me to teach anything at all. I believed I was firmly planted in publishing as a writer and editor. But a director of religious education whom I knew and respected seemed to believe that I had what it took and asked me to teach. I remember saying no the first time she asked. Teach? Me? The B student who needed tutoring? You’ve got to be kidding. A year later, she asked again. She was serious – and I was up for a challenge at the time –  so I gave it a go. And I liked it. A lot. Soon after, a former journalism professor asked me to coach a few students and not long after that, I was hired to teach my first university course.

As a university professor of writing for fifteen years now, I’ve only recently become aware that my teaching approach is borne out of those one-to-one sessions with that tutor. In a room full of students, my inclination is to lean to the individuals because that’s how I found the best stuff inside of me. I first came to understand and respect my own working process in a quiet, private space, working one-to-one in a room with no windows and one witness.

As a consequence, I have become hyper-aware of how each of us processes information differently. Some of us like to hear ourselves speak in the circle. Some of us would rather listen. Some of us read it and get it right there on the spot. Some of us need to read it over many times, away from the classroom, on our own.

Though I still love to teach groups – the energy in a circle of people can be electric and empowering  – working with people individually speaks to my heart. It can be incredibly potent. Like fertilizer for a writer’s growth. And, it’s also personal. In a way, I owe my career to that tutor, who gently pulled and tugged at me while simultaneously holding a mirror so I could see what was inside.

Which, I now recognize, is what I strive for when I work with people one to one.

In January, I am launching three new coaching programs that reflect what I’ve learned over the past decade about how people work. Each program is designed to remove roadblocks to help a person reach a writing goal, while honoring the individuality and uniqueness of that person’s pace and style.

Whether it’s communicating better at work, writing a personal statement a degree application, improving written academic assignments, publishing an essay or writing a book, I have developed coaching scenarios to fit each mission and budget. Whether we work together in a room, face to face, or via technology, I know how to get that great stuff that’s inside a person to show itself on the outside. 

New Coaching Programs for 2018*

Plan to Page (One month)

  • business writing boost at the workplace
  • grade improvement for reading and writing at school
  • completion of a long-form academic writing assignment
  • personal essay for college or graduate school admission
  • preparing an essay for literary publication submission

Path to Publication (Three months)

  • outline for a book-length project
  • family story to the page (to or with an aging family member)

Memoir in Twelve Moons (One year)

Full Moon (weekly) or Half Moon (twice monthly)

  • complete a draft of a memoir or personal narrative collection

*Weekly unless otherwise noted.

To learn more about how these programs could fit your writing goals, email me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com to schedule a free conversation.

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Photos courtesy of the Blum family, taken sometime in the early 1970s.


4 thoughts on “A Reluctant Professor. A Grateful Coach

  1. Loved your post. Loved the way you cultivated your weakness as your strength with the help of your tutor. We all have been deeply grateful and indebted to someone in our lives who didn’t give up on us and kept pushing us to become the person we are. My story resonates with yours around your school year I was a very shy student and one of my teachers honed my skill in public speaking and benefited a lot from it.I’m really an amateur in this blogging field just started my poetry blogging site two months back but got great response from the fellow bloggers and readers. Thanks for posting ans sharing your experience.

  2. I worked in a Writing Center and taught basic writing for 20 years, and fortunately it didn’t take me too long to figure out that the more I adapted tutoring techniques to teaching in the classroom, the more productive the classes became.. And weekly conferences with my own students, even if only for 10 minutes, usually revealed more about their struggles and pressures and insecurities — all the stuff that derailed their writing — than any other approach. Teaching requires, I found, constantly developing and revising the most effective persona in the classroom, where it was all too easy to slip into being the “boss.” In the individual meetings, I could relax more and be a mentor. No hiding in a one-on-one session, for the student or the teacher. Students who acted up in class, usually as means of masking their insecurity, were much more attentive and cooperative in my office, which in turn, gradually led to more cooperation in the classroom. I think it was a matter of developing trust: they learned to trust that I wouldn’t embarrass them in the classroom, and I learned to trust that they wouldn’t upstage or disrupt the class. Some semesters that took longer than others, but when it finally clicked, the experience was a gratifying one.

    1. Beautifully said, Tom. Being relaxed, building trust and not relying on being “the boss” are like the “secrets” of good teaching. Not qualities we talk about much around pedagogy. Thank you for this!

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