Algebra I: Transformations

by Julia Romanski '16 and Meredith Ruskin '16
January 27, 2016

Julia and Meredith are a co-­coordinators for Algebra in Motion, a Swearer Center program that provides math and science tutoring at Hope High School. The program is newly renamed Swearer Tutoring and Enrichment in Math and Sciences (STEMS)

As coordinators of Algebra in Motion, a program that provides in-class and after-school math and science tutoring at Hope High School, we often reflect on the best ways to train our Brown student volunteers.  How do we provide them with the skills they need?  How do we prepare them to respond appropriately when put in a challenging situation?

It’s tempting to think that as seniors, who have been working at Hope High School for three years, we should have the answers. But recently, in discussing some of our own tutoring experiences, we realized that there have been many times when we didn’t.


I remember the first time I tutored at Hope High School. I was in Algebra I class, and there was a substitute teacher. I introduced myself, and the sub confessed that he didn’t know the material that was to be covered in class that day. He showed me the worksheet, which was on transformations of exponential functions, and asked if I knew the material. I said I did, and he asked if I could explain it to the class. I thought, of course I can explain this material to the class. It was easy material, and I remembered how my own teacher taught it to me.

So I introduced myself as Julia, a math tutor, and launched into an explanation of the various transformations of exponential functions. The thing is, no one was listening. The sub tried to quiet the students down, and threatened to report their behavior to the classroom teacher, but even when they quieted down they were definitely not paying attention to what I was trying to tell them.

I was shocked; I thought they would automatically listen to me, the one who was telling them how to apply transformations to exponential functions.

I had it wrong. It wasn’t enough for me to know the material and be able to present it clearly. I had to develop a relationship with the students first. Respect is something to be earned, and on that first day of tutoring, I hadn’t earned it yet. After that experience, I really focused on developing relationships with the students. When they were ready, they let me in.


When I walked into the Algebra classroom where I tutored last year, I saw a sea of unfamiliar freshman faces. The first day of class is always a bit uncomfortable, so I felt relief when a couple of girls sitting near the front raised their hands and asked me to come help them.  

I spent that whole class period working with these girls.  And the next class period.  And the one after that.  For three consecutive class periods, I worked with only a few students, completely ignoring a larger group of students who made a little more noise, who seemed a little less ready to buckle down and do math. I assumed that these students didn’t want my help just because they didn’t ask for it, and made a judgment that my time would be wasted trying to force them to work.  

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  When I started circulating around the class, I began developing relationships with many of the students I had initially deemed “disruptive” or “not interested in learning math.”  Throughout the year, we laughed together, got to know each other, and learned plenty of math together.  

Even as an experienced volunteer and coordinator of the program, I had done exactly what I knew not to do.  I made a judgment about students I didn’t know, and I took what I perceived to be the easy route rather than showing faith in what I learned to be true: every student in our classrooms is capable of making incredible strides and deserves our time and attention equally.

We would like to think that we’ve improved as tutors over the past six semesters, but sometimes we fail. Ultimately, we can never prepare our tutors for every challenge they might face or every situation that could come up, especially because we don’t always have all the right answers.  Instead, as we share stories and exchange ideas, we hope that all of us become better tutors and our program becomes stronger.