By: Christine Ascher (Student/Writer/Tutor)
Interview with Justin Contreras
Justin received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Cal Poly Pomona, and has since received a master’s in the field as well. He currently works in as an engineer at ASML in San Diego.
When did you first get started with Claremont Tutors, and what initially made you interested in tutoring?
I started working with Claremont Tutors during my freshman year of college in the fall of 2012. I had just started college and wanted a job, and I had always been good at helping people with subjects like math. I also realized that you could earn quite a bit of money compared to other jobs doing tutoring, so I looked into it and applied.
Did your experience when you started tutoring differ at all from your initial expectations?
In general, it was a really good experience—it kept me on my toes. Tutoring really forces you to be both confident and competent in whatever you’re doing, and you also get exposed to a lot of different personalities and environments. You see how different kids think and start to understand why people struggle with certain things. For instance, you might see kids who have difficult home situations and understand that may be why they’re struggling and need a tutor. You can also see how socioeconomic factors come into play. In Claremont especially, there’s a wide range of families, so you have some that are very wealthy and others that are humbler. That’s another interesting factor when you’re going into people’s homes and tutoring their kids.
Did you ever have a difficult situation with a student? How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?
I remember during my first year I was hired to tutor Calculus, which was probably not something I should have been tutoring at the time. It was one of my first clients and I remember being super confident about it. Once I got there, though, I saw the student’s homework assignment and had no idea what it was. I had the textbook in front of me, so I was able to make it work, but I think the mother realized that I wasn’t the best fit and chose to request a different tutor. It was humbling, and made me realize that it’s important to really make sure you’re an expert in whatever you’re planning to tutor. After that, I never had that issue again. I always made sure to ask questions in advance to make sure that I knew exactly what I was getting into.
Another situation I encountered was when I was working with two sisters of different grade levels. I was tutoring the older girl in Calculus, and I could tell she wasn’t doing what she should have been in terms of homework in order to understand the class. I remember being frustrated, and I tried to plainly let her know that if she wanted to succeed she would have to follow certain steps. I think she misinterpreted that and thought I was being rude, and they ended up requesting to have a different tutor. Her sister really liked me, though, and wanted to keep working with me. That taught me to really be aware of people’s feelings and how I conveyed information. That situation was also during my first year, and both of these experiences really helped make me a better tutor over the years.
Did your attitude towards tutoring and technique change as you worked with more students?
Absolutely. I think you start seeing patterns with students, and you learn how to work with them according to their personalities. With some people you might have to be more gentle, while with others you can have a coach-like relationship, especially with athletes—they tend to like structure, and a tough-love approach. I think when you’re tutoring a variety of different personalities you really develop a toolbox of techniques.
What are some of the most important things that you learned from tutoring? Have you been able to apply them to other areas of your life?
I think the number one thing I learned is to be able to tell if you’re competent in a particular subject or topic. As a tutor, you have to be able to explain that subject to someone else. You have to take complex topics and teach them to a student who is already struggling. If you can do that in a way that the student understands, I think that shows you have competence in that area. As an engineer, a lot of the time you have to explain technical things to non-technical people, and it’s important to do so in a way they understand. I think being able to do that is a really good professional skill to have.
Do you have any particularly memorable experiences with students that stay with you?
I remember one time I was working with a student who was really struggling, and was on the verge of failing. We tried a bunch of stuff to help him understand and get through his midterms. At the end of the year his mom called me and was really appreciative of all the work that we did together. The next year she called me out of the blue and let me know that he got into UCLA. It made me feel really good to know that she attributed her son’s success in part to my help.