Sunday, November 30, 2014

What *Wild* and Cheryl Strayed Taught Me about Tutoring

The Park on Parker Lane

Wild the movie opens this Friday, and I cannot WAIT to see it!

For those of you who might not be familiar with Wild the book, Wild is the story of a young woman whose life and and family have crumbled.  The author and main character of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, was 22 years old when she lost her mother.  In the wake of her mother’s death, her family life, including her marriage, dissolved.  Cheryl was like a planet without a sun, drifting aimlessly and dangerously, trying to find comfort through travel and sex and heroin.  She gradually descends to a bottom so dark that she feels blindly compelled to take action, to reclaim her life.  In a moment of pure genius or stupidity (or maybe both!), she decides to spend one summer walking the Pacific Crest Trail, a wilderness trail that runs along the American west coast, from Mexico to Canada.  The trailer for the movie knocked my socks off, and the book was excellent.  I’m thrilled to see the story brought to life on the big screen!

What I want to talk about today is a comment that Cheryl Strayed made during one of her many Wild book events.  She told us that when she started walking the Pacific Crest Trail, she didn’t know what she was doing.  She was woefully unprepared for the rigors of long-distance hiking.  But, she said, the trail taught her how to hike it.  The trail was her teacher.

That line.  The trail was her teacher.  Change one word, and that’s my story this year: the student was her teacher.  When I started tutoring, I figured I was in pretty good shape with my biology knowledge.  After all, I’d finished a neuroscience PhD program and spent four years working as a scientist in a world-class lab.  Surely I knew enough to be a good tutor.  And yet, looking back now, the amount of knowledge that I did not have is an avalanche compared to the snowflakes I had when I started tutoring.

But every student with whom I have worked has been my teacher.  Every student has taught me something about this work.  I’ve learned that every genetics student will ask me about three-point crosses.  Every high school chemistry student will ask me about dimensional analysis.  At a deeper level, I’ve learned when to go into full-on teacher mode and when to ask my student to solve problems.  I’ve learned more new-to-me biology and chemistry that I ever imagined I would as a tutor.  And I keep learning, because I realize now that I’ll always be learning more about these subjects.  I’ll always be asking myself, “How can I be a better teacher to my students?  How can I help them with their biggest challenges?  How can I provide genuine encouragement and helpful feedback?”

Truly, my students have been my best teachers.  Through our conversations, I’ve learned where my knowledge is lacking.  I’ve learned that I really enjoy teaching geometry, even though I still don’t consider myself a geometry tutor.  (That will probably change very soon.)  I’ve learned that I want to understand how to incorporate calculus into my chemistry knowledge—something I never did as an undergrad biochem major.  And I’ve learned that my tutoring is a collaborative process—my students and I co-create the experience.  We’re in it together, this learning thing.

It’s an incredible gift to be able to share one’s love for learning with other people.  With their generosity and grace, my students have given me so many blessings.  All I can really say is thank you.  I hope they know how special they are to me.

Turtle at the Pond    

PS  The photos in this post are from a park in my neighborhood, not the Pacific Crest Trail.  For now, I dream of hiking part of it myself.

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