By Sarah Vander Schaaff
“It’s a really, really, chill place. Every tutoring session involves tea latte and some candles.”
That’s what Vanessa Vakharia told me on the phone a few weeks ago when I asked her about her math tutoring studio in Toronto, The Math Guru. Vanessa personifies the name. She’s on a mission to get people, especially girls, to think of themselves as capable in math.
“Anyone can do well at math and science,” she states on her website, “students simply need a teacher who can communicate with them in a language that they understand.”
She’s confident in her philosophy because she experienced it in her own life.
“When I was in high school, I failed math twice,” she explained passionately. “My parents were like, “this is insane. We’re sending you to an alternative school.””
The alternative school they sent her to had the same curriculum as her previous one, but not much else was the similar. The students called teachers by their first names. They were treated like adults. The classes were small.
“The whole vibe was everyone can do anything. If you need more time to do the work, stay until 5 o’clock.”
Vanessa went from being the kid who pretended to be sick so that she could miss school to being the one who got a 99 in math. She credits her math teacher with her turnaround.
“Stop thinking you can’t do math,” he’d say to her.
Vanessa soon became an impromptu tutor to her classmates. She started a Friday night homework club. The following year she went to college and majored in business. After that, she taught for a few years.
“I had a classroom with a high percentage of smart girls all pretending they couldn’t do math.”
When she went back to school to get a masters in math education she combined her interest in math with her concern for what she saw in the classroom. Her thesis was called, “Imagine a World Where Paris Hilton Loves Mathematics.”
The premise, the explained to me, was that because girls rely so heavily on pop culture to determine what’s cool, we need pop culture to value the idea of being smart.
“There is no marketing to be a cool girl and be smart.”
The difference with boys, she believes, is that a boy can be smart and still be cool. He just can’t show that he tries.
Whatever the nuances by gender, Vanessa is chipping away at the notion that being smart and working towards academic success are uncool.
Her small tutoring studio takes up a few rooms, and feels more like an apartment, she says, because kids need a place to go where learning becomes a, “…social thing.”
Kids come by the studio early or stay after a private tutoring session and just hang out and do homework–even until 9pm on a Saturday night, she says. They drink tea, they talk, and they work. Some organize her tea wall.
Vanessa and her team of eleven other tutors see about 150 students per week. Most are in high school, but others are as young as first grade.
Being and running The Math Guru is a full time job for Vanessa, who also presents a workshop called Math and the Media. Her goal, she says, in addition to being on ELLEN, is to help kids understand, “they don’t have to put on a costume when they do math homework.”
In the words of the Math Guru: Peace. Love. Pi. That’s not just her mantra, it’s also her math focused fashion line.