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The Student's Gift

Updated on February 15, 2012

In 2003 I decided to go back to school. I was ready and looked forward to the learning experience. As I moved through my courses just learning was not enough. I needed to do something with what I was learning. I decided to become a Peer Tutor. Tutoring was a natural fit for me. Helping others to comprehend material they were struggling with or just helping the worried student that understood the material but did not necessarily have the confidence to believe they did was a pleasure.

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One student in particular has stayed with me over the years. She was in her forties with the dream of becoming a nurse. She had a vivacious personality and was determined to make her dream reality. When she came to me she was on her third attempt at Math-0500. Math-0500 is the most basic math available on the college level. It does not even you applicable college credit. It covers basic arithmetic, fundamental mathematical rules, basic word problems, fractions, etc. In a nut shell it is everything we learn in first through fourth/fifth grade. For many it is the math we take for granted every single day. For her it was the boogeyman.

Our very first tutoring session was spent doing very little math. She was easily frustrated with the basics such as carrying a 1 when adding 13 + 19 = ?. I knew there was a lot going on under the surface so I started to ask her questions. Before long her whole back story surrounding math came forward.


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The predominant issue surrounded a lacked confidence in herself concerning math. She came from a background where she was told girls "couldn't do math" and that girls "weren't good at math." These statements are bad enough in their own right. What was worse is they were told to a developing child from individuals she trusted to tell her the truth. This lead to her believing these falsehoods, internalizing them, thereby creating a constant discordant symphony every time she had to do math. Once I was armed with this information we could move forward.

The first place we started was with self confidence and re patterning her unconscious dialogue. Until those falsehood she was told surrounding math as a child and through her teenage years moving forward was going to be a challenge. We set some simple ground rules.

  1. No negative or limiting language. Instead of saying "I can't do this" which would increase her frustration and anxiety we started using language such as "I can do this. What are my rules to follow?" This would allow something structured to refocus on. In turn she could then move through the challenge instead of crumbing before it.
  2. It was alright not to understand or remember everything right away. She had this thought in her head if she did not remember or understand something right away there was something wrong.
  3. Take time to laugh. Learning should be fun, not painful.

As we implemented our strategies over the course of the next several weeks she began to smile while doing what was once a tear evoking, anxiety producing, task. When she started becoming overwhelmed she learned to slow herself down, take a deep breath, remind herself she was capable and that those who told her she couldn't do math were wrong and did not know what they were talking about.

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When the time came for her to go and take her first test she was nervous. I reminded her she had the tools, knew how to use them and had proven through her practice work she was fully able to use them with confident understanding. That night we parted company with her heading off for a good nights sleep before taking the test the next morning.

A week later she came in for her next tutoring session. I had every confidence she did well and asked her how she made out. What happened next surprised me and touched me even to today.

Her eyes started to fill with tears. As she spoke tears began gently rolling down her face. She said "My entire life I believed that I couldn't do math. My parents, my family, even my teachers told me it was ok, 'girls just aren't good at math. Don't worry about it.' They would just give me a "C" and pass me on. I believed that it was because I was a girl and I actually thought it was nice of my teachers to pass me. For all these years I struggled and when I came in here for help, on my fourth try at this class, I had told myself if I fail it again then it's a sign I'm just not meant to be a nurse. Bill, I got a 91!!! I have never, in my entire life gotten a 91 in math. I was lucky to have gotten a 71 but a 91?! Thank you. Thank you for making me stop believing in what I was told and helping me to believe in me."

By the time she finished speaking it was all I could do not to cry myself. To see her so happy, not with a grade, with herself, was a genuine privileged. In that moment I realized the trust she had given to me through her learning process. She reminded me of just how powerful our words and actions towards others can be whether we intend it or not. In those few moments our roles had reversed and she became the teacher's teacher.

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