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Algebra Tears

Friday, December 4th, 2009

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time one of my students broke down and cried during a tutoring session. I was working with a ninth grader who was struggling in her Algebra II class. She had a great teacher, but she’d gone to a “progressive” elementary school where she’d never learned to do long division—apparently the school’s philosophy was that students would just “figure it out.”

We were seated at an enormous wooden table in the beautiful Boston Public Library. Her math book was opened in front of us, and her enormous backpack rested on a nearby chair. I think we were working on completing the square, which challenges many students. We’d been working on it for several sessions, and my student became extremely frustrated.

Basically, she told me she didn’t want to go on, and didn’t want to do any more work. And then she started to cry. I started to panic. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to “act professional”? Should we take a break? Weren’t her parents paying me a lot of money to have her do math? I couldn’t just sit here and let her NOT do math!

In my panic, I started to ask her a series of idiotic questions, and the conversation went something like this:
“What will happen if you don’t finish this homework assignment?”
“I won’t understand the material.”
“And then when you take the test, what will happen?”
“I won’t do well.”
“And then what kind of grade will you get?”
“I’ll probably fail.”
“And then what will happen?”
“I’ll probably have to take the class again.”
Wow, talk about encouraging my student to visualize failure! Then I said something even more totally idiotic like, “If you don’t want to repeat Algebra 2, then we need to work on completing the square right now.”

Things continued in this vein until it was time to walk down to the lobby of the library where her parents picked her up.

Afterwards, I was so confused about what had happened. I was afraid that I had totally blown it and that this student would probably never want to talk to me again. And obviously I wasn’t a good tutor for her if she cried on me during tutoring.

I pre-emptively called her Mom and explained that the session hadn’t gone so well and that the student had cried. The Mom actually told me that that was a good sign—that her daughter would only cry in front of someone who she really trusted!

In my next meeting with the student, I apologized and told her I was sorry that I had stressed her out. Paradoxically, from that session onward, my student’s attitude toward math totally changed.

It was almost like the breakdown set the stage for a breakthrough. After weeks of struggling with the completing the square, she found an awesome new way to approaching it using a drawing of a square (more on that later). Even though none of my previous explanations had clicked, this approach made immediate intuitive sense to her. And we spent another great year and a half working on math together.

Looking back on how I handled her crying in tutoring, I feel like it was one of my lowest points as a tutor. Obviously it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we took a break, or even if my student ended up repeating the class.

If I could live that moment again, I would have handled it totally differently—asked my student if she wanted a hug, packed up, and taken her to Starbucks. I’m amazed that our relationship wasn’t ruined by my insensitive response to her algebra tears. And I’m grateful to my student, for forgiving me for my ineptness, having the guts to keep going after that session, and teaching me a huge lesson about how to handle breakdowns.

3 Comments on “Algebra Tears”

  • […] Posts: I cried myself to sleep over my algebra homework Algebra Tears “I Think I See A Mathematician!” Tagged In: algebra > failure > geometry Topics: […]

  • Diana Forrest on November 18th 4:18 pm

    I don’t think you responded incorrectly. I struggle with math and I think having a tutor that would be hard one me would be exactly what I needed. I don’t think you reminding her of why she was coming to you for help (because she didn’t want to fail) was cold hearted. 🙂

  • Rebecca Zook on November 28th 10:00 pm

    Dear Diana, Thanks so much for your comment! It’s great to “meet” you here! I so appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts!

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