(A frizzy haired student sits down with a middle-aged professional tutor to do some mathematics.)
“Which problem would you like to work on first?,” asks the tutor.
“Number 52. It’s even so the answer isn’t in the back,” replies the student.
“Okay. Let’s take a look.”
(Five or 10 minutes pass while the tutor struggles to solve the problem.)
“You know, I think if I spent 10 minutes thinking about this problem I could probably figure it out too,” the student observes.
I wish I could tell you I was the frizzy haired student in the above story. In some ways the story is true. I was tutored in mathematics when I was a high school student. I wasn’t a bad student in mathematics, but I wasn’t getting the A that I wanted. In some ways the story is untrue. I never actually walked out of a tutoring session. But I often wanted to! I always assumed it was the tutor’s job to know how to solve every question that I brought to them immediately. So I was always disappointed when it took them a long time to solve the problem.
Let’s take an aside here for a second. I believed that 5-10 minutes on a hard problem was too long. I wanted instant gratification! Who doesn’t? My school teacher can solve things instantly, why can’t my tutor? This is a really common assumption for mathematics students. Thankfully, this assumption is challenged by going to tutoring. As the student, you are more aware of how much time things take (cause you are paying for it!) and you start to notice that math takes time! Okay, back to my childhood tutoring assumptions.
Sometimes I thought, and continue to think, that tutors are not as prepared as they should be for the work they are doing. But, on the other hand, I realize that tutoring mathematics is really hard. I should know- I’ve been doing it for the past five years. There are lots of little techniques that are specific to certain authors and complicated uses of the methods taught in each section. I solve this by being selective about my students so that I know that I can help them in the specific course they are taking. I wonder how many smart students have disappointing experiences with tutoring. Is it because they expect instant answers or because their professional tutor is not sufficiently well trained?