Thought provoking exchanges on Taoism, Chinese Astrology, Mathematics, Education, GAIA -- our planet, and of course, Sillyness.

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Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Monday, October 09, 2006


[N.B. CEGEPs (Colleges d'Education Général et Professionelle) are junior colleges in the province of Québec. The education is free and consists of either a 2 year course leading to university or a 3 year technical training course which leads (or should lead) directly into the work world.]

In late December, during exam time in the Cegeps and high schools, I had a lot of calls from parents and students who were desperate for help but had waited too long to act. By the time they called upon me for help the situation was beyond salvation. There wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that their kid would pass his math course. In some cases they'd hesitated for lack of funds, but in others I get the feeling that they hesitated because there's something inherently disturbing about having to pay a private tutor to teach your kid something he's supposed to be taught in the public school system. You're paying taxes in order to provide adequate public schooling and so somehow you feel gypped. Why should you have to pay more? And how do you know how and where to find a good tutor? After all, if the school system can't provide your child with good teachers, how are you supposed to?
So you get all worked up over the unfairness of the situation, but that doesn't help your kid learn math. Even if you do eventually launch some sort of campaign to make changes in the school system, your child needs help right now! -- so let's look at some answers to the question "why hire a math tutor?"

The obvious reason is to get a pass in that final exam and save the semester. I've had a number of students this fall who were failing their statistics course, who took the advice of their teacher and booked a few sessions with me. Georgia spent 6 hours here over the course of a week. She called me a few days after her exam and said she got 80% as a final mark. This young woman was failing her math course one week before the exam and she ended up with an 80% final mark. Can you imagine how good she feels about herself? When she left after the 6th hour of tutoring, she said "Tammy, I've learned more Stats from you in 6 hours than I did from my math teacher in 15 weeks at 5 hours a week." And you can believe it! She did!
Why? Why could this young woman -- a serious student, who used to be good in math, who went to all her classes, did all her homework and took notes religiously -- why could she learn enough Statistics to pass a final exam on the entire course from a good tutor in 6 hours when she'd been failing for the entire semester? Many reasons.
Some students just can't operate at 100% in a crowded classroom. Distractions such as noises, smells, neon lighting, proximity to extremely attractive adolescent members of the opposite sex added to the fact that they can't stand the way the teacher talks make it pretty hard to concentrate on differential calculus. Cegeps and High Schools are "busy" places and it's a well researched fact that learning best occurs in a quiet, calm environment with a little Mozart for atmosphere.
Tutoring sessions are one on one, or one on two situations with no distractions. I won't even answer my phone during a tutoring session and, when I have adult students, I insist that they turn off their cell phones and beepers so that the lesson isn't disturbed. When you go to a tutor, you go for one thing: a math lesson. When you go to school, be it high school or cegep, you go for many reasons. You go to socialize with your friends as well as attend classes -- and from some of the calls I got, it's obvious that certain cegepians are only there for the party. I'll bet some of them have no idea they're supposed to go to class. For such kids it's no use hiring a tutor -- they need a strict Nanny. But for kids like Georgia, it's the best thing you can do for them.
Learning takes all the concentration one can muster and a sensitive individual can't tune out the messages his mind and body are monitoring because his eyes are burning, his lips and throat are dry, and his breathing apparatus is all fouled up from the stale air in the sealed building where he attends his classes. Did you know that the majority of our Cegeps are in buildings famous for their efforts at recycling germs? I've never seen so many sick teens in my entire life! When I taught at the Cegep de Sept-Iles, I sometimes got the feeling I was working in the tuberculosis ward -- I heard so much coughing and hacking going on around me! Any of you who work in these sick buildings know they are appropriately named. Anytime I had to spend more than 4 consecutive hours in the place, I developed a migraine. Not only are you breathing stale, microbe infested air, but every rhythmic cycle in your body is being assaulted by the low intensity pounding generated by the air pumps in the ceiling. Sounds like an environment that's really conducive to learning, don't you think? At your tutor's house, the windows open, it's quiet, the air is clean, and there are no distractions. For an hour or two a week, you get to study without a headache. Imagine that!
The privacy aspect of a tutoring session is an advantage for self conscious individuals who, when in a crowded classroom, spend too much of their concentration wondering what everyone else is thinking of them, so they're unable to learn. They don't even have the time to get interested in the subject being taught because they're so very uncomfortable in the classroom milieu. I admit that this is not often the case but it does happen. Such a student can benefit twofold from some tutoring sessions. Once he's good at the subject, he won't have to feel so self-conscious in the classroom, for he will have gained confidence in himself. One ever present side effect of overcoming a learning problem is self confidence and pride.
In other cases, bright students who learn best on their own from good text books or correspondence courses sometimes need a guide to help them over the rough spots. Good students sometimes (especially in Math) run into a terrible teacher, (and there are many of them out there,) and they start to fall behind. Math is a continuum. You can't learn things out of sequence because everything new is based on what went before. It's not like history or psychology where you can study the history of 12th century England without knowing what was going on in China at the time, or you can study Freud's theories without knowing what Carl Jung was up to. Such students generally need an hour of one on one tutoring a week just to keep their marks up to par -- and good marks in math are important. Math marks are used as a primary measure of a student's ability when he applies to the university of his choice. Why let one lousy teacher spoil a good student's taste for math and his chances of getting into the university program he wants?
The major advantage of a few "one on one" tutoring sessions is that at exam time, you can review the course in a situation where you can ask all the questions you have, because no one else is there to ask questions. You are the center of attention. All your questions can be answered because the teacher is there just for you. She doesn't have to respond to the questions of 35 other people. She's all yours and your success is the one and only focus of the meeting. You don't have to worry that you'll ask a stupid question and your classmates will laugh at you, so you'll probably ask that question and get an explanation rather than not asking and not learning.
Finally, the best reason to hire a tutor is that a tutor's reputation depends on his or her ability and success rate. Teachers hired by the public school system don't have to care if any of their students pass the course since they have job security and standardized salaries. I know of many Cegep math teachers who have no idea how to teach math. They're often excellent mathematicians, but have no inkling of how to communicate their knowledge to their students. These people have no fear of losing their jobs or of not having students in their classes, whereas a bad tutor will soon find that he/she has no students, because once his/her students recognize that they're not getting any help from the private sessions, they won't return. A tutor's reputation is founded on word of mouth and once it gets out that the tutor isn't any better than the classroom teacher, why bother to pay a tutor?

Once you do decide to hire a math tutor, ask the guidance councilors at his/her school to recommend someone. Good tutors generally contact the local schools when they establish their services and the guidance councilors will be able to recommend someone that is not only competent but also nearby. You can also find competent help through web sites such as Tutor Nation or, specifically in Québec at Remember, hiring a good math tutor to help your child over some rough spots in his/her learning curve, could be the most valuable education support you offer him/her.
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