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Getting tangled up in word problems—and finding the way out

In this guest blog post, Victoria shares how studying word problems with her stepmom influenced her ability to tutor with empathy while supporting students on the Paper™ platform.

Math and I didn’t always see eye to eye. That’s because, for me, math wasn’t something that came easy. I would struggle to understand how words could translate into numbers. And when I saw a word problem, I knew it wasn’t going to be a good day. 

In second grade, I started learning about word problems—which for second-grade me, became my worst enemy. I would start to do my homework, and if I saw more than five words on a question, I would automatically give up without hesitation or even trying to read the problem. Whatever it was that I was working on was “too hard.”

During this time, my stepmom had knee surgery and was unable to work for a bit, so she would watch over my siblings and me every day after school. Because she was home to help and I believed that word problems were too hard for me, I would walk into my stepmom’s room and ask her for help whenever I needed it. Being the incredible woman she is, she would have me sit next to her and we would walk through the question, with her reading the question to me and then asking me what I knew and what I wanted to know. After we finished the problem, she would ask if I needed any clarifications. If not, she would tell me I needed to go and try the next one on my own.

Of course, I’d listen and go back to the table where I was working, happy that I was able to get one of the answers down and being close to finishing the assignment—or so I thought. Once back at the table, however, I’d notice that the second question was similar to the last: a word problem. Instead of trying to see what the question was asking, I’d just sit around and would walk back to my stepmom after 10 minutes to tell her I needed more help. She’d ask to see my work, and I would give her the famous “I don’t know.” 

She’d once again help guide me and we’d finish the question. But instead of making me go back to the table, she had me work on the question in front of her.

Lessons learned and leading with empathy

Back then, I thought this was the worst thing in the world. But looking back now, I realize that this made me the problem-solver I am today. I had to sit and read the question aloud, I had to realize what the question was asking me, and I had to do the work. She never once gave me the answer or told me what to do, but she asked me questions and made me inquire on my own. From then on, I never shied away from a word problem—even if I had no idea what was going on. 

The irony in all of this is that I went on to major in math because I ended up loving word problems and the challenges they propose. They can be like puzzles, and we’re trying to put the pieces together. When students come to me with word problems (or really any problem) in math, I rejoice in knowing how to better help those students because of how my stepmom helped me. 

Working at Paper has only strengthened those skills and made me better at assisting, given that I understand inquiry-based learning. After all, I used to be the student who came back and asked for help when they didn't know what to do because they saw more than five words. 

Having been in these students’ shoes also allows me to have empathy for them. I realize that these problems can be overwhelming; when students see a ton of information presented to them, they aren’t able to decipher key components right away. Going through problems with each student and reminding them that they can push through—just as my stepmom did for me—allows them to become better problem-solvers and use critical thinking.  


Victoria, Paper Tutor

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