Teaching: A Learning Experience

The first time I ever tutored, I felt like a fraud.

I walked through the front door and promptly felt my insecurity hit me in the face, asking me how I could presume to be able to teach someone else when I was so average myself.

I started tutoring because my friend and I studied for our chemistry tests together, and frequently tried to explain the material to each other. She casually commented that I would be good at teaching, and now, tutoring is something that I can’t imagine myself without; I’m still in denial that this fall, I will have to leave the twin girls who were my first ever subjects.

But the first time I tutored for them, I didn’t feel I would love it at all. I felt awkward, and also afraid that I would be revealed in my ignorance. For what did I know about teaching? I myself tended not to learn things in a completely academic way. I found that my mind would close soundly shut like a book, at the sight of Greek symbols and derivatives, and I hated pouring over the chapters of a book according to some worksheet that a teacher handed out.

So I learned on my own terms. I sought ways to understand the difficult concepts in a way that made sense to me, and I liked to read the books liberally, letting the words hit my mind and leave their impressions, unsullied by expectations. But I hardly thought that this mindset would impress these two eighth grade girls, who needed help with their algebra worksheets.

I soon found that my own insecurity would be the least of my troubles. The girls fed on each others’ energy, and often wanted only to finish their homework as quickly as possible. At first, I tried in vain to explain the concepts behind the problems they solved; my attempts were met with polite stares, and minds that easily tuned my fumbling explanations out.

If I’m being honest, I did not try as hard as I should have. I would grow frustrated, and wonder if it would be the worst thing if I just fed them answers, because I was so obviously incapable of imparting on them any new knowledge.

I thought about my own educational experience, and those precious moments when I would suddenly understand something always beyond my comprehension. Something unreachable, that abruptly made itself known to me. In that split instant, I would feel like the world itself in all its entirely was accessible, that all its secrets could belong to me. That’s a wonderful feeling, and I wanted to leave my twins with this feeling. I was frustrated every time I failed to do so.

One day, one of the girls was sick, so her sister and I sat alone with some linear functions. Without her sister there, she was much more quiet and diligent, and timidly attempted each problem. When she reached a problem that was too difficult, she looked at me with this fear that I understood so completely that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t recognized it before.

It’s the fear of trying, and still failing.

There’s no worse feeling than giving something your all, and still being incapable of achieving it. It’s easy to say that one should try his or her hardest at all times, but for a middle schooler, the world is full of things just beyond reach. It is a sweet belief to think that if she really, really put her mind to it, even the most difficult task would be achievable. And it’s scary to think that there are some things that aren’t.

I know myself that sometimes it is tempting to not try at all, rather than to face the fear that I may not be capable of doing something. How many times had I looked at graphs of derivatives, and wondered if I should even bother trying to learn it, when in the process, I might lose some self-assurance?

This was my real task: to give these girls the confidence they needed. Not to help them with their math homework, but to make them realize that they were capable of discerning the most indecipherable concepts on their own.

Not to teach them to memorize equations, but give them the confidence necessary to tackle any problems they faced.

Not to instruct them on the properties of functions, but to instill in them the enduring love for learning that I had developed during my school years.

I had struggled myself, and thought it impossible to succeed. I’d had to explain things to myself in ways other than strictly academic, and this gave me a knack for conveying complicated concepts in colloquial terms. I knew the fear of facing down a difficult question, and the tendency to want to give up trying, so I could break through the mental barriers that the girls put up for themselves.

It touched me that the girls looked up to me and thought me a role model. I worked to improve not only their math skills but also their self-image. I never hesitated to point out to them the ease with which they had conquered a seemingly insurmountable problem. And I’ve known few happinesses greater than the one I felt when they ecstatically told me that, for the first time, they both had A’s in their math classes.

I’m so lucky to have had the chance to tutor because it has taught me so much about myself. I will be attending my dream school in the fall of 2017, and I have no doubt that it will be just as scary as it will be exciting. I will be greatly challenged, and at times, discouraged. If I had never tutored, I think I would have been easily made to feel inferior to my peers; after tutoring, I know there is nothing to be ashamed of.

I will be in the company of students much more capable than me: perhaps more intelligent, more athletic, or more sociable. But I hope there will be no one more willing to try, eager to learn, and enthusiastic to live.

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