Managing the Emotional Well-being of Tutors and Students in a Middle-Eastern Writing Center

Landscape image of palm trees and institutional buildtings

Vol. 3 No. 4 (Summer 2022)

This post is from the 2022 CWCA/ACCR annual conference virtual poster session. – Stevie Bell and Brian Hotson, 2022 CWCA/ACCR conference co-chairs

By Maria Eleftheriou, Tamanna Taher, Alaa Itani, Konstantina Spyropoulou, & Zahraa Al-Dawood, The American University of Sharjah

As part of an effort to address writing issues, the American University of Sharjah (AUS) located in the United Arab Emirates established a writing center with a peer-tutoring program in 2004. The Writing Center conducts approximately 3500 appointments a year and has a staff of 30 undergraduate tutors and four graduate tutors. In this video, we describe how our Writing Center responded to the emotional challenges presented by the pandemic. We present our story through a variety of clips which illustrate the ongoing process of introducing emotional intelligence training in our program: the discussions that emphasized the importance of emotions in the teaching and learning process, the role-playing activities and readings we incorporated into our training program, the opportunities tutors are given to discuss strategies for avoiding burn-out and our developing ability to create a safe and supportive atmosphere in our Writing Center.

Before The Pandemic

In March 2020, Our Writing Center at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates was thriving. Our large open room on the ground floor of the university’s library was alive with the activity and conversations of our students and peer tutors. Student art, provocative images, writing tips and literary figures were displayed on the walls. The natural light beaming through our large windows allowed the plants on our bookshelves to thrive. Students waiting for their sessions relaxed in comfortable chairs with red heart-shaped pillows while they read the Ink Blot, our newsletter, and munched on candy and chocolates. The ambiance of this space contributed to the dynamic spirit that animated our writing center. Our tutors recognized this space as their place and many of them considered it a “second home.”

Shifting to Online Tutorials

When our writing center shifted to online tutorials due to the pandemic, as the writing center director, I was concerned about the challenges this change would pose for our multilingual tutors and students. To my surprise, our tutors quickly adapted to online tutoring, and they became increasingly adept at adjusting their tutoring skills for the online format. Although the dynamic writing center community we’d created in our physical writing center disappeared, we did our best to create a virtual support system through WhatsApp groups: safe spaces where tutors can share their experiences and feel supported by their colleagues.

It was on our staff WhatsApp group a few months into the pandemic that Aya, one of peer tutors said, “Hey guys, just wondering what to do with a tutee is stressed and crying…(like right off the bat)?”

Aya’s colleagues rushed to her assistance. One tutor who had handled a similar situation said, “I suggested counseling, but she already tried and it was already booked – I didn’t know what to do after that other than just listen.”

I felt compelled to provide guidance, but I wasn’t sure how. I realized I did not have the requisite knowledge or expertise to advise on situations that involved intense emotions. In our semester-long, credit-bearing tutor training course, we spent some time discussing writing center work as affective labor, but we did not explicitly address how to handle tutees’ emotions during tutorial sessions.

It took the pandemic to reveal that emotions form a large part of the learning process that occurs in the Writing Center. Through collaborations with students and colleagues, our writing center started the process of implementing emotional well-being management training into our program.

In addition to consulting scholarship in emotional well-being, my first step was to ask two writing center tutors, Tamanna and Alaa, both psychology majors with experience and knowledge in emotional intelligence and empathy, to design and conduct a workshop for the staff.


Part 1: Empathy

The workshop began with a disclaimer– if the tutee seems especially distressed, tutors do not have the authority to counsel and should refer tutees to appropriate services; of course, in other cases, such as when a tutee simply needs to vent about a bad grade or another stressor in their life, tutors can temporarily assume the role of an empathetic listener – this is where the importance of ‘peer’ tutoring is highlighted. However, this disclaimer was important to show tutors how to set boundaries between their roles as active listeners and their obligation to refer to appropriate services when necessary. 

The main content of the workshop began by synthesizing definitions of empathy as guided by psychological literature, citing early definitions provided by Carl Rogers who defined empathy as the capacity to recognise and share feelings experienced by others to more present conceptualizations of empathy as a learned skill. What the absence of affective empathy is basically to me, is the ability to not only perceive, but also communicate that perception back to the person. So what I mean by perceive is, ok, you are now aware of another person’s situation, you are aware of their surroundings, you’re tuned into what they are going through, but that is not enough to practice affective empathy. What you also need to be able to do, and this is where most of us stumble, is being able to use non-verbal and verbal communication to show this person that you care and that you’re empathizing with them. And for the rest of the slides, this is what I’m going to walk you through: how to use effective non-verbal and verbal communication.

Practicing non-verbal empathy is not that hard, it is pretty intuitive actually, but it is something we need to tell ourselves over and over again. So the “do’s” of nonverbal empathy, they’re quite simple: It’s maintaining eye contact with the person and this can be practiced, whether you’re on video call, or in person. Obviously, these are probably going to be more relevant when you’re back in person and hopefully most of you are going to get to experience that before you graduate. So yeah, maintaining eye contact really improves that connection that you’re feeling with the other person; it helps them feel that you’re tuned into their conversation and what they’re saying. I struggled with eye contact for a very long time. And the way I started practicing it because it’s very much required,  I started focusing on the nose of the person. Some of you might have heard of this trick. So the person really can’t tell the difference if you’re making eye contact or focusing on their nose, it looks the same. So if you struggle with eye contact, like I do, try doing that, try starting off with that and eventually you’ll be able to just make eye contact. Another thing you can do is nod your head. It’s a very reassuring gesture. It just shows them and encourages them to go on with what they’re saying, and that you are interested in what they’re saying. And one last thing that you can do is smile.  It’s so important, it’s warm, it’s encouraging, it’s all of the above. And a lot of us when talking, we forget to do that. But like a lot of therapists, you’ll notice if you’ve ever seen mock therapy or any other kind of counseling sessions online, you’ll see that they’re always smiling.  So they’re always nodding, they’re always smiling. So it makes for a very encouraging environment. And another thing I’ve noticed which I haven’t put in here but I’m gonna add right now, is something they recently taught us in one of our professional development courses for psychology. And they were saying that if you’re video conferencing with someone and you want to show that you are interested in what the other person is saying, you should lean into the camera. So don’t sit back like this or like, you know, just flop flop around. Like the person will realize that you are not interested. So, lean into the camera. It’s like making eye contact but through video call.  

And the “don’ts” of non-verbal empathy are just as simple, hopefully. These are quite intuitive to you. So there are things like “don’t sigh when you’re talking to someone”.  No matter how frustrated you are, I know certain sessions can be very very frustrating,but don’t let that sigh come across to your tutee. It’s very discouraging and they’re just not going to want to go on with the session, probably. So don’t sigh. Don’t roll your eyes. I struggle with this because I’m just a person -if anyone of you are friends with me in real life you know- I naturally roll my eyes a lot. I don’t mean it. It just happens. It’s hard to control but you really need to consciously focus on not rolling your eyes. Again it’s very discouraging. It’s like the opposite of what nodding your head does. And lastly, do not check your watch or your phone. It’s just that’s just rude. That’s not even empathy anymore. This is just basic social etiquette, so don’t do that. Your tutee will probably be very very discouraged. 

And now for practicing verbal empathy. So this is probably more relevant to us online. It’s things you can practice right now in your sessions this week. So this is as simple as just asking questions. So these things are things you already do. You already ask your tutees if If they’re not being responsive, you tell them: “Oh, I’m curious about this essay. Tell me a bit more” to get them to open up. I know a lot of us already use these strategies, so empathy is very intuitive. A lot of us use it. Like I said, that’s why a lot of us are high in empathy, but it’s a matter of making it a conscious practice. So yeah. Things like “I’m curious about this paper.” or “Can you tell me more about this  paragraph?” Like it will get your tutee to open up to you more and be more aware of their own needs. And then, the main thing about verbal empathy– this is the most recent technique in verbal empathy, and it’s called reflective listening or you guys might have heard it as active listening. So what reflective or active listening is best illustrated by an example that I came up with. So imagine your tutee Ahmad comes into a session and he just comes in complaining. He’s like “I’m having a hard time understanding this assignment and I’m super frustrated with this course and I’m scared that I’m going to fail”. So now you have two options: You either look at Ahmad and you say: “So what you’re saying is that you are overwhelmed by this course, particularly this assignment and are scared it will cause you to fail”. Or, you say:  “Oh, that sounds tough. Let’s begin working with the session and see what I can help you with”. Basically the answer according to reflective and active listening is number one. So basically paraphrasing back to Ahmad what he said, really really helps. I know it’s kind of surprising because you’re not adding anything to the conversation. You’re just literally repeating what he said to you, but it really helps a person for them to know that you have understood what they’ve said, you have processed it and you have been able to say it back to them in your own words. It just shows that you had a very deep understanding of what they said and that you were consciously present when they were saying it. So number one is one of the most highly effective verbal and empathy strategies in research. So yeah, it’s number one. I know it’s a bit surprising because I’ve used number two a lot.  A lot of us do. It’s just, it seems like the right thing to do in a session like “okay, they are stressed out, let’s move on, let’s see what I can help them with”. But sometimes you do need to take that little moment to sit with them and just help them go through whatever they’re feeling. This is the perfect way to do it without actually getting into that counseling side. So yeah, try practicing number one more. I know. Number two is not wrong. It’s just, it brushes over their emotions and it won’t help you build that empathetic connection with them. 

After discussing how to incorporate empathy into our tutorials, we asked for two volunteers to conduct a mock session – one played the role of a distressed tutee, the other played the role of an empathetic tutor, and my colleague played the role of a non-empathetic tutor. An essential feature of this activity was that tutors could employ non-verbal and verbal empathy at their own pace: they were not provided with a script. My colleague played the role of a non-empathetic tutor to emphasize contrast between the two tutors, however, the mock session can and perhaps should be done with all volunteers, to bolster effectiveness. After the mock tutorial activity, we asked the volunteer tutee to share how she felt while sitting through the two tutoring styles. This reflection session was the most important aspect of this exercise.

I just felt like… if a tutor said that to me in real life, I would just cry. That’s just so embarrassing. I’m just pouring my heart out, and the tutor is like: “Hmm.. sounds tough, let’s move on.” 

So that’s very similar to that second answer, that I had up on the example, the “Oh, that sounds tough but let’s begin with our session”. Do you see what it does? It is actually very powerful for the person sharing. It might not seem that bad to us at the moment, but I think I can tell right now like it sucks, basically.  


Part 2: Well-being and Burnout 

In the second part of our workshop, we discussed the steps tutors should take into consideration when they are faced with an emotional tutee. First, we talked about identifying the emotion the tutee is feeling, what the common emotions we see at the writing center are, and how to assess whether this emotion is temporary or a sign of a deeper issue.

These steps included how to maintain tutorial boundaries if an emotional session escalates and the student loses control. We emphasized that the role of the tutor in these situations is not to counsel tutees. Instead, based on Driscoll & Wells (2020), we recommended that tutors integrate tutee emotions into the session, acknowledging, accepting, and encouraging emotions regardless of their valence.

Handling emotional outbreaks of tutees occasionally is only one aspect of the emotional labor managed by tutors in writing centers, and the workshop acknowledged this and discussed other aspects of emotional labor at the writing center.

Considering the emotional demands of being a peer tutor at a writing center, we weren’t surprised to hear tutors expressing feelings of burnout. Part of the workshop focused on understanding what burnout is, how it arises, and ways in which tutors and writing center directors can work to mitigate it, both individually as tutors and collectively as writing center faculty. During the workshop, some tutors expressed feeling overwhelmed, not being able to balance writing center work with studies and family life, and not liking that they have to suppress their feelings during tutoring, putting on a plastic face. In response to their concerns, we discussed how to maintain tutor-tutee boundaries as well as professional-personal boundaries, We also discussed how to balance between positivity and authenticity, and how to be engaged in the writing center community.

Another question I had was, you know, in sessions usually, we have to remain optimistic or like seem happy, you know…  we give off that impression for tutees usually. But I feel like it’s very mentally draining… Because I’d be just tired or, you know, get into a session with the tutee, put on a fake smile or whatever and be like “hi, how are you doing? How’s everything” for an hour straight and sometimes twice a day, and I feel like that’s very mentally draining and honestly I haven’t found the way around it except like just power through it.

So there’s one thing that I do if I’ve had a critical day or a bad day with a midterm maybe… I start off the conversation with “Oh, this happened today with me like, I had a bad midterm” or “I had a bad week”, anything, I say anything and they just laugh with me or tell me that they had a bad midterm as well. And I think I say:“if I sound a little bit off in between it’s not because of you, but because I’ve had a bad day.” And so far it’s ok. It’s been fine. They’ve been considerate and empathetic towards me. So that’s been working for me. I’ve not held it back, because I don’t want them to misunderstand me. I think that they’re able to notice that, and tell from my voice sometimes that something is not ok.

Tutoring Scenarios

Informal feedback from the tutors suggested that the workshop was well-received. Tutors appreciated the guidance in approaching emotional tutees and the opportunity to discuss their own emotions. I was fortunate to have many of my tutors interested in this topic and volunteer to participate in the design of emotional well-being training activities. Two senior tutors, Konstantina and Zahraa, created tutorial scenarios so their colleagues could practice applying the strategies they had learned in the workshop.  


Scenarios From the Perspective of a Student Observer 

Bad Scenario

(Emotional Tutee, Unempathetic Tutor)

Tutee: (T) 

Tutor: (U)

T: Hi

U: Nice to meet you. How are you?

T: I’m stressed, honestly, because I have this paper due tonight and I have a midterm tomorrow and I haven’t really started working on the paper…

U: Oh it’s due tonight? Sounds tough. Ok, what’s your paper about?

T: Well, I haven’t really thought about it that much, because-

U: Ok, but.. So what are the assignment requirements?

T: Well, it’s an argumentative essay and I still haven’t chosen a topic. This is really embarrassing…I feel like… ah… I don’t know what to write about and I feel like I’m going to fail this…

U: No, no, you’re not going to fail, it’s going to be alright. You got this. Tell you what, let’s find some topics together alright? So… what topics are you interested in?

T: Actually, I am even confused about what an argumentative essay is.

U: Didn’t your professor explain it? 

T: Well maybe, but I was just so tired and I couldn’t get myself out of bed that day to attend class so I really don’t know what he said. 

U: Ok, yeah… I feel you. It’s that point of the semester and we are all really stressed out. Uh, we can talk about an argumentative essay in just a sec, but first let’s just–

T: Can you really help me? Because the paper is due tonight. And I haven’t chosen a topic yet and I feel like… will I have enough time? Because… I’m thinking I should’t submit this assignment…. 

U: No, no, you can do it. Let’s just take advantage of this session now because we’ve already wasted some time.

T: Okay. I feel disappointed though because I tried so hard on the first one and I still didn’t get a good grade and he didn’t like it. So, this one stresses me out a lot, because, what if he doesn’t like it again… and I still don’t have time and I feel like this one’s going to be even worse…and… I’m sorry..

U:  Ok, ok, it’s fine. Just take a few deep breaths. No need to panic. I understand how you are feeling, but you came to the writing center so we need to start working on it right now. So let’s find a topic, create an outline so that you can at least start writing and hopefully submit tonight. 

T: Okay…

What was wrong with this session?

  • Heavy note that this is not going to go well. 
  • The tutee came in stressed, and is still stressed.
  • Tutor stresses tutee out even more and rushed the session
  • Tutee-overwhelmed, Tutor-uninterested, not listening to their concerns, dismissive.
  • Tutor did not help with feeling relaxed and confident and did not show she was listening. 
  • Tutor gave empty instead of practical advice.
  • (no eye contact, sitting at the back of the chair, inattentive, sighing, looking at watch)

Changes in Training

In addition to the activities we’ve described so far, I invited my colleague from the Department of English, Dr. Tammy Gregersen, who has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals and contributed numerous chapters in positive psychology and who had recently published the book, Teacher Wellbeing, to talk to the staff. Tammy offered some tips for self-care to the tutors including creating micro-moments of positivity such as enjoying a cup of coffee during a busy day, engaging in activities of generosity and kindness and making sure to participate in physical activity. She defined emotional labor and advised tutors to handle stressful emotions through actions and activities.

Emotional labor is that idea that we have that we have to always as professionals–you’re professional tutors in the writing center–. You always have to put on a happy face. Even if you’re angry, even if you’re frustrated, if you’re annoyed, you still have to put on that happy face. Okay? That emotional labor is not necessarily harmful. Okay, because we do it. We are in a service profession and it’s part of what we do. It’s part of being professional, right? But when does that become harmful? It becomes harmful when we suppress our authentic emotions and experience dissonance between what we really feel and what we believe we are permitted to or should display emotionally. So, this is when it’s just coming on, it’s piling on, and it’s piling on, it’s piling on answer actually feel the frustration of having to wear that mask. So what do we do about it? Number one, dealing with the stressful emotion. We distinguish it and we label it, just like we did the emotion… with the emotional labor, we do the same thing. We distinguish it and we label it. Okay. Then we observe it. “Okay, know what? It’s here, I’m going to let it go.” But then, letting it go means something else too. Because you are going to suffer this time and time again, you are going to continue in your professional role, you need to be able to forecast it: “in what situations do I feel this?” and then recognize when it’s coming on again. And then you identify the patterns. And when you can identify the patterns, then you can actually step back and say, “Okay, self, this is emotional labor, okay, I can distinguish it. I am already feeling anger and frustration, but I’m putting on this happy face–I’m gonna let this go and it’s coming because I’ve got this kind of pattern coming up” Okay?  When you see these patterns coming and going, you’re gonna be able to deal with them a lot better, because you’re gonna know it’s there. There’s something about that awareness and being able to handle it out here rather than bottling it up inside. And this is almost the last slide: self-compassion. This is Kristen Neath and she says this: “treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion, we would show to a good friend or even a stranger for that matter”. We need to be kinder to ourselves. I’m going to show you how to get this done. I want you to do a self-compassion journal. If you’re feeling like you’re putting too much on yourself or you’re trying to counsel a student who’s putting too much on themselves, who are really down on themselves, I want you to tell them to do this. I want you or the person you’re counseling to write down anything that caused the negative emotion or something which you’re judging yourself about. Then, I want you to consider how you would respond to that experience if you were the most generous and kindest friend. So, what if it was your friend, who was experiencing that. Not you. How would you respond to your best friend? Write that down. And that’s how you need to be compassionate towards yourself, because I’ll tell you something, sometimes we are our worst enemies. We are our own worst enemies because we don’t show ourselves the same compassion that we show the people that we love. So, the next time you start getting down on yourself or you see a student doing that, have them write it down and then write to themselves as if they are writing to their best friend. 

The workshop and the mock tutorial activity in addition to readings covering emotional wellbeing in the Writing Center are now a part of the curriculum for our peer-tutor training course. Ken Nielson’s “There may have been other stuff going on” published in 2018 was already on our reading list. In this chapter, he describes the writing center as a “safe house” where tutors perform affective labor and he outlines strategies for understanding and supporting students. In addition to this reading, I added Mills’ “Preparing for emotional sessions” published in 2011. Even though this article is over a decade old, it offers helpful, practical advice for tutors on how to handle emotional tutees during sessions such as offering a tissue, suggesting a small break or sharing a moment where they lost control in front of a professor or someone else.  

In addition to the readings added to the syllabus of our peer-tutoring course, the Driscoll and Well’s article “Tutoring the whole person” published in 2020, has informed my teaching of this topic. In our tutor training course, I discuss their holistic approach to education by focusing on tutoring the whole person. They also mention that part of emotional intelligence training  should inform tutors what resources on campus may be available to help students. This prompted me to reach out to the counseling services in our university and invite them to meet with staff next semester. They are the most qualified to advise tutors on how to identify the difference between when emotions can be worked with productively in a writing center setting and when counseling or mental health services are needed. The book Wellness and Care in Writing Center Work published in 2020 is also an excellent resource, which emphasizes the importance of recognizing and understanding the complex emotional labors experienced by tutors. It recommends helpful activities to alleviate tutor burn-out such as meditation and mindfulness as well as staff game nights and writing circles.

Since we returned face-to-face in January 2022, we’ve been facing a new set of challenges. Our writing center is no longer the dynamic community it once was. Our space is not as lively because many tutors and students prefer to meet online. While students appreciate the convenience of online learning, it is important to remember the advantages of in-person learning, and the role it plays in enhancing the emotional wellbeing of students as they navigate their way through evolving challenges, personal and academic. The way in which the Writing Center adapted and met the challenges during the pandemic indicates that we are sufficiently flexible to learn from that experience as we gradually return to in person learning in our Center. I am open to the idea that the Center’s former community may not revert to what it was and may take on a different form, but whatever shape it takes, I now recognize the importance of prioritizing emotional wellbeing in writing center work. By supporting and mitigating the emotional labor performed by our tutors, writing center directors can transform their centers into “communities of care”, and will be better able to prepare tutors to successfully navigate the evolving challenges and demands of the writing center. 


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