Algebra Is Like A Bad Breakup – Sean Gilmartin’s Story

Sean – second from left 

“Algebra is like a bad breakup – you want your X to be by itself.”

This was my first impression of Sean. We both tutor at Quinebaug Valley Community College. He tutors math while I tutor science, and after only a few hours of working with him I knew I would enjoy his company as a co-worker. He’s witty, smart, and quietly sarcastic. He brightens the mood of my workplace incredibly effectively, so when I started this project I knew that I wanted to talk to him. With the notable (for this blog) exception of homeschooling, Sean has experienced almost every form of education available. From attending a tiny public school to teaching in a private school, learning in a community college, a 4 year university, and even a religious college – you name it, he’s done it.

After talking to me about his K-12 experience in a public middle and high school, Sean summarized his ideology as a student during that time of his life. “I just took the path of least resistance.” Ultimately, that led him to fulfill his parents’ wishes as he attended Word of Life Bible Institute for two years, but when he graduated, he still had no idea what he was going to do with his life.

I had no real relevant skills, I had coasted my way through high school, I had gone to a kind of pointless school afterwards, so I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” Again, he decided to take the path of least resistance, but this time, it lead him down a much more promising road – a road that led to QVCC. In retrospect, he says that “I feel very strongly about QV now. It would be nice to retcon my decision making and say ‘yeah it was because I knew it had such a great reputation, wonderful professors, and I wanted the tight knit class environment.’ But I knew none of that. I just knew it was close, and that if you didn’t have great grades in high school you would be reasonably sure you would be accepted, (and I didn’t have great grades in high school, so I was reasonably sure I would get accepted). I wish I had had higher hopes going in.” Sean’s first semester went by reasonably well, but for the first time, he looked at his performance and realized that he wanted to do better. He wasn’t happy with just doing okay. He decided to step up his work in his classes, and while it was a gradual process, he eventually got from wanting to do better to actually doing better.

As he started to excel at QV, he took a tutoring class. This set a myriad of life events into motion, as it was really the start to his teaching career. He started by substitute teaching Spanish at a private school, and eventually attending Eastern Connecticut State University for an education degree in English. However, Sean quickly realized that having a Bachelor’s in education and English wasn’t going to get him far. He dropped the education part of his major and decided to pick up a math minor just for fun. The whole time he was in school he was plugging through Calculus I, II, III, and so on, so he figured why not? “Then I was looking at what you can do with a math minor, and it’s pretty much you can put it on a wall. I didn’t really feel like going through all that effort for something that was like, fancy window dressing,” so Sean decided to double major in English and Math. Now, he finds himself pursuing an eventual PhD in math with the hopes of becomes a college math professor. However, he doesn’t ever want to lose the one-on-one relationships he gets to have when tutoring at the Learning Center at QVCC, so he would love to continue to foster students through tutoring as well.

While listening to Sean’s educational experience was fascinating, what I enjoyed the most about my conversation with him was his insightfulness. When I asked him what he thought he gained from having gone to QVCC, his answer was unique and incredibly true from my standpoint as well. He said that he gained “an appreciation for the value of education.. Education wasn’t just a chore, it’s a privilege – it’s an amazing privilege. I think if I had just gone to a 4 year university right off the bat and hung out with a bunch of incoming freshman, it would have felt like an overwhelming continuation of high school, where education is a chore or an obligation, or a duty, instead of something you get a chance to do and something you have to work damn hard at. It doesn’t come easy, and even giving yourself the opportunity to get a good education doesn’t come easy.

This mindset is something that I have witnessed several times from people who have gone to QVCC, although I did find it to be especially prominent in homeschooled students who have attended a community college. For many students in high school, I feel as though there is an overwhelming expectation for them to choose the highest quality, 4-year school they can get into. They are expected to literally continue high school at their college, maintaining record-breaking grades while they have a social life and get involved on campus. This doesn’t appear to be the case for many of the homeschooled students that I have had contact with. From my perspective, it appears as though deciding to pursue a higher education as a homeschooler, and perhaps for students like Sean, requires a more active decision. Most of the time, there are more avenues that are seen as acceptable, and sometimes, one of the roads less traveled is a community college. In my town at least, most homeschooled students that I know have attended QVCC for at least a few semesters, so I decided to ask Sean if he had experienced any stereotypical homeschooled students while taking class or tutoring at QV. He told me that he has never noticed a difference academically between homeschooled students and students fresh out of public school, but mentioned that some homeschoolers tend to have a lack of verbal filter. While sometimes surprising, he said that it isn’t overall a bad thing.

Some people are naturally awkward, some are naturally not. I think you may stay awkward longer if you’re homeschooled, but you might also stay happier, and I think that the trade off is probably worth it. You get beaten into shape, socially, in high school, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

Overall, it was fascinating to talk to Sean about education. He had many engrossing observations about schooling, but none more so than this final quote about QVCC. I was talking to him about the stereotype that community colleges are inherently easy and that the education is somehow subpar, and he shared my opinion that the stereotype couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I think the problem is there is this conflation between the entry requirements and the exit requirements. I think the mantra of some place like UConn is ‘we accept the best of the best, and we produce the best of the best.’ The mantra for something like QV is “we give everybody a chance, but you still have to prove that you can do something with that chance.’ They’ll let people in the door, but they won’t let you out with a degree unless you’ve proven that you can do what they’re claiming you can do. There’s this amazing tendency to say ‘it’s easy to get in, then ergo it’s an easy program all around.’ It’s just a way of giving everybody an opportunity and they shouldn’t be penalized for that.”

I think that Sean’s story needed to be told, but more than that, I wanted to share his outlook on alternative education. I’ve not met many people who truly understand the validity of community colleges and can so effectively explain their worth. It’s hard in this world of herd mentality to be different and to stand out, but I think it might just get a little easier if people like Sean keep speaking their mind and educating young, impressionable students along the way.

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