Looking back at how I responded so insensitively to my student who cried during our tutoring session, I’m stunned by my in-the-moment lack of compassion. Because… I cried myself to sleep over my algebra homework throughout most of eighth grade! It’s still vivid in my mind: sitting on my twin bed with my algebra book in my childhood bedroom, with its pink hearts and flowers wallpaper, struggling to finish my homework and crying with sheer frustration.
I loved math as much as any other subject until I hit 6th grade and was introduced to pre-algebra for the first time. Isolating for a variable, balancing an equation, the order of operations—none of this made any sense to me. I would go to my teacher for help, and he would patiently try to explain it to me, but it still didn’t make any sense. I made the same mistakes over and over and over without gaining any understanding or insight.
I have absolutely no memories of seventh grade math, but eighth grade math burns in my memory: sitting in class, trying to do the problems, approaching my teacher’s desk, asking him to explain it to me, dutifully nodding even though I still really didn’t understand, returning to my desk, and feeling overtaken by numb despair.
I’m not sure if his explanations didn’t make sense to me because he always explained everything the same way, or if he had a variety of explanations but none of them clicked with my learning style. He was a sweet, patient man, but his explanations did not help me to learn.
Now that I’m a math tutor, when I remember all those eighth grade nights, crying myself to sleep over my algebra book, I ask myself, why didn’t I think of getting a tutor? I never thought about asking anyone but my math teacher for help. I didn’t ask my friends, I didn’t ask my parents, I didn’t ask other teachers. It never even crossed my mind to try to switch to another teacher, or get another book. Why?
Maybe I wasn’t aware that these options were available. Or maybe I felt somewhere deep inside that, as a student who had a passion for learning and a capable reputation, asking for a tutor would be an admission of defeat. Or maybe it seemed “easier” to think of those nights of algebra tears as isolated incidents instead of taking on the “larger project” of trying to find a better solution for myself.
But paradoxically, I think this experience made me a better tutor. Many of the students who come to me might be completely frustrated and far behind. Maybe they don’t have anyone else they can turn to for help. Maybe they’ve never found a textbook that works with their brain. Maybe they are crying themselves to sleep over their algebra homework. Just like I did.