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  • Writer's pictureDr. Charles Foster

The Gift of Tutoring

There’s never been a time in my life when I’ve not been sorely in need of tutoring. Some might say, “Sure, because you’re an idiot.” Well, not quite, though it might have seemed like that at times to my parents...or to my wife.

But I’ve managed to get three Master's degrees and a Ph.D., all in technical fields, and I’ve been a professor and published fifteen books, so I must have something going for me. And yet! There’s never been a time when I wasn’t struggling and in need of help that my teachers could not or did not give me.

In the eighth grade, for example, we were supposed to learn geography and outlining at the same time by writing a report about China—everything there was to know about China!—in the form of an outline. Maybe that sounds easy—laborious, but easy—to you, but to me, it was a nightmare. My over-anxious pea brain could not get on top of this huge task. You might as well have asked me to lift a farm tractor over my head.

My teacher’s help was to repeat what an outline was. You know:





That kind of thing. Duh! My problem was I couldn’t fit CHINA into that.

All I needed was a kind, understanding tutor to put her cool hand on my fevered brow and walk me through how this was done. Just a few steps or examples. Just enough for me to be, like, OH! I get it! Like the time my dad helped me learn to do a backward somersault.

But I didn’t get that and I failed and I felt like a failure and an idiot.

When I was a senior in high school, we had to do a research paper for our U.S. History course. I knew what to do, but I had no idea how to do it. It was like the outline of China all over again. All of the other kids seemed to know how to do it, but I was drowning. In the end, I stayed up all night and handed in a half-finished paper, to my shame.

I blamed myself, but what was missing of course was a tutor to walk with me through the process, to see why and how I was getting stuck, and then to show me how to get unstuck.

And it was the same thing through every stage of college and graduate school.

If I'd have had a tutor, I would have learned what I know now: that all the most difficult things, things that seem impossible or that seemed to be impossible at the time, are stunningly easy if you have someone at your side to walk you through how to do it.

I remember when I was four or five, being able to tie my shoes seemed like the mystery of mysteries. One night my babysitter—my first tutor!—decided she’d teach me. It went slowly at first. I was clumsy, but she was patient. And suddenly...I got it! I’d mastered the impossible. I was now the King of Shoelace Tying. But really, it was all due to my teenage tutor, with her penny loafers and plaid skirt.

No matter what we’re struggling with, we’re all just one tutor away from mastery.


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