Life lessons and mathematics

The challenges and rewards of tutoring students in mathematics

by Dennis Herrera
2019, bachelor of arts degree, major in mathematics
2019, bachelor of science degree, major in computer science

I started teaching math in February 2018. I was in one of Professor Jackson’s classes, and he announced to the class that he was looking for tutors to volunteer at College Place High School. I’ve always been interested in education so I gladly offered to go with him. We went every Tuesday for two hours. The teacher taught the material and then the remaining time we walked around the room and asked if anybody needed help.

Teaching those more basic math skills came naturally. These students were learning the material for the first time. It’s not second nature to everyone. I made sure to gauge my teaching to their level in a way where I was not assuming they knew everything already.

Especially with math, many people have a hard time with the concepts. And it’s important because the core concepts build on each other. If they don’t know one concept, they’re going to get left behind on the other ones, and it’s really hard to catch up if they don’t know the previous material.

Testing myself
About a month after I started tutoring, they offered me a job four days a week, Monday through Thursday. At one point I was doing that, and I was doing peer tutoring for the university while taking 16 credits. I was like, “I’ll try to see how much I can handle.” At the end it was getting pretty stressful, but I was testing myself to see how much I could load onto myself. I definitely enjoyed it.

Teaching was something I was always interested in. I started off majoring in math because it was just something I was good at. Then one of my professors suggested that I consider majoring in computer science. Since I tested out of Spanish and the math and computer science majors were pretty well connected, my advisor said if I took 16 credits every quarter I could do both majors in four years. I just had to not fail anything.

After graduation I’m going to complete an internship as a developer at Integra, which is part of Smith Technologies. They mainly work with the tech side of handling big data for pharmacies.

I have the ability to learn new things. In my field, that’s exciting. A lot of people are scared of the unknown, but to me it is exciting because anything’s possible. It’s easy to get stuck in a routine. Sometimes routines are fine, but it’s nice to know that not everything lasts, because you can always build something better or do something better.

I love to teach. The ability to help someone learn something is one of the greatest feelings. Ultimately, I do one day want to teach. I think once I get established financially, then I can settle down and teach.

The big math question
The question that students often ask about math is “Why are we learning this? I’m not going to use the Pythagorean Theorem anywhere in my life.” I guess there are several answers to that. One is that math is more of a mindset. You’re learning how to solve problems; you’re not just learning how to plug in numbers. That’s one reason I like math. It’s like you’re solving little puzzles. You get a set of instructions; then you get a puzzle that’s slightly different; and then you just have to think about it to solve it.

A lot of people get to a problem and they look at it and they might be intimidated and they immediately give up. The part that I like about math is that it actually makes you think about the problem. You have to use what you know. And experiment, too. They’re just numbers. If you do something and you don’t get the right solution, then you can always just go back and try something else. Mathematics helps you face problems better.

In math practice makes perfect. Sure, you can do a thing once, but if you really want it to stick in your mind, you’re going to have to do it over and over and over. It may seem tedious, but if you do it over and over, it’ll be stuck in your head for a very long time.

Tutoring in Spanish
I grew up speaking Spanish. Half of the students at CPHS have Hispanic heritage. In one of my classes, there were two female students who almost only speak in Spanish. It was difficult for them to ask for help. Their teacher didn’t speak Spanish or they didn’t know how to ask for help in English. At least for that one day I could help them as much as I could in Spanish.

Sometimes I ask them what they plan to do after high school. A lot of them don’t know. Maybe they’ve never actually thought about it. A lot of the time they forget that what they do in high school affects them later on. I just hope that I’ve helped some people realize that.

Posted July 8, 2019

Dennis Herrera standing on the sidewalk in front of the WWU Administration Building.