Job spotlight: Mathnasium owners Travis and Sharon Hester

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 20, 2014 

Travis and Sharon Hester have had a passion for math since they were in the sixth grade. The couple even took math classes together at Houston County High School in Warner Robins, Ga.

But they both also have had different experiences with learning the subject, with mathematics coming much easier to Travis, while Sharon says she had to work much harder at it. She recalls a "horrible" teacher in high school who simply tossed problems at students without much understanding about the nuts and bolts of solving them.

"Travis was doing extremely well, and I'm getting C's, and we sat beside each other," she said. "I asked him: How are you doing that because she's not teaching? And he was like: I just read my book at home before I come. I thought, wow, read my math book, I've never done that. You read and take notes in other subjects, but in math you really get a lot from the instructor. At that time, I believe, I became a learner. I started reading my book, and my grades went up."

Since then, the Hesters have been sounding boards for each other, with it being a constant element of their marriage and careers in education and the corporate world. Last year, their lives made another transition to that of business owner, with the couple launching a math learning center in Columbus called Mathnasium, a franchise with more than 400 centers in the U.S.

Located on Whitesville Road in the Bradley Park area of the city, Mathnasium's mission is to help elementary, middle and high school students overcome obstacles to their math performance, with tutoring sessions ranging from an hour to 90 minutes. The Columbus center, with eight instructors, is open every day except Friday and Sunday.

The Ledger-Enquirer visited with the Hesters recently to discuss their job, what it takes to be a good tutor, and what they hope to accomplish at the center. The interview is edited a bit for clarity.

How did you get into math and Mathnasium?

Travis: My undergraduate degree is in applied mathematics, and I went back and got an MBA. So I've always loved math. She was a middle grade math teacher and taught gifted students, and we just always have been analytical. For fun, we do math problems.

We did some research on the supplemental education industry and found out that it was a growing industry and there was a big, big need. One thing led to the next, we made some phone calls and researched all of the different competitors, and we just found a real strong liking toward Mathnasium just because of how they do things.

Sharon: I believe the passion for me started when I was in the sixth grade. I just couldn't wait until we got to that subject. My book would be in my desk at the top, and I couldn't wait to get to that. I wish we could have done that first or done more of it. ... From there the passion just grew. I wasn't always as particularly good at it, not like Travis. But I just worked hard because I liked it so much. ... Travis has more of a natural love for numbers and can just figure things out with very little instruction and, for me, I'm a hands-on learner. So it required a lot more effort.

There are competitors in the industry?

Travis: There have been learning centers around for years. The two well-known ones are Sylvan Learning Center, which there is one right across the street there, and Kumon, which is a very popular brand of learning center as well. Every center has a unique difference about them, but we're the only math-only tutorial learning center.

So you grew up enjoying math?

Travis: I did. I had a great sixth-grade teacher. She just explained it in a way that I understood it, turned me on to it, and I have just loved it ever since.

But math can get a bad rap, so to speak, for being kind of boring or too difficult?

Travis: People will say I hate or don't like math, and what they're really saying is they don't like being confused or intimidated. Math can be intimidating, but if you can teach math in a way that makes sense to individuals, especially the younger they are, the easier it is to develop a love for it and realize math is all over the place. It's a universal language no matter what your native language is.

Why is there a need for solid math students?

Travis: In our school systems, it seems like the education of math is not getting better. They've done studies over the last five or 10 years and U.S. students are falling behind in math education. The last study I read is we were ranked like 27th out of the other countries that have advanced programs. It's a big need and it's important because, when you look down the road, jobs are going to be coming out that are a lot more technologically advanced. They're going to need people to be able to understand math and science.

What types of jobs will need good math skills?

Travis: Engineering jobs, doctors in the medical field, you name it. We need people to build bridges and we need people to be architects. A lot of the basic foundation of those fields is math. ... You really can't go into any field without going through math in some way. Of course, the more challenging the field, the more math is required. But, yes, there's a huge need.

It's critical that students not fall behind in their math development?

Travis: Exactly. Usually the third or fourth grade is when students start struggling. If they're not developing past that, they continue to progress in other areas. But, sometimes, their math level falls behind and the struggle continues from there.

What's the key to being a good tutor, math or otherwise?

Sharon: I think you just have to understand how the learner is thinking already, wherever they are, with whatever information they come in with. What do they already know, no matter how little that is. ... That's the only way you can begin to build and teach.

Travis: I tutor in one-on-one sessions a lot and that's actually my biggest passion. I like classroom and group settings, but one-on-one is really important. For me, it's about learning how the student you are talking to or instructing learns, because everybody learns differently. Some people are auditory learners, visual learners, kinesthetic learners. However they naturally learn, that's the way you want to communicate with them and instruct them so that they can grasp the subject a lot easier.

The first step is figuring out how they process things?

Travis: Absolutely. It's figuring out how they are going to understand it and process it, communicating it to them, and then you kind of inspect what they're learning to make sure they're progressing along. Oftentimes, as a tutor, you can talk so much that the person that you're talking with or to is not grasping the information. So it's pausing, inspecting whether they've got it or not, and if they got it, continue to move on. If they didn't get it, you may need to go back a little bit and make sure they're following along with you.

What is the toughest aspect of tutoring?

Sharon: I think the toughest part is that same thing. Because if you don't have the patience for it, or they don't trust you, then you've got other hurdles to get over before you can get to what they know or don't know. When we sit down and do assessments with students, we first just ask them how their day was, how was school, what they like about school, what is their favorite thing, what hobbies do they have, just so that we can connect first. I think when trust is not there, they don't get very much out of it.

So as tutors, it's individual attention or by group study?

Travis: We do mostly individual one-on-one sessions, but it's a concept that Mathnasium uses called teach and move on. For many educators in the school system it's not a new concept to them. But to a learning center it is because basically we keep a ratio of one to three students. So every few minutes we're spending quality time with the student, giving them the very next step of instruction, and we literally move on from that space to another student. Or if there isn't another student that needs any assistance, we still move on from that space so that the child can practice and learn and struggle. Sometimes struggling helps them to learn a lot easier, too.

We will have between 20 and 28 students when we're busy. We literally will have a merry-go-round, I like to describe it, where an instructor is going to one student, and another instructor is going to another student, and then they get up and switch and keep moving around and around and around until everybody is getting serviced and getting their questions answered.

Is math an intimidating subject for some?

Travis: It can be. One of the things we focus on is confidence-building. We want the student to learn the math, but not in a way that we call them "number pushers." They basically get a formula, plug in a number, get an answer out, and they don't really understand what the actual answer means. We want them to have an understanding, but we also want them to have confidence that they can solve the math problem.

And it grows from there, because one of the enemies of standardized tests is time, not the math or the English or whatever it is. It's just that they don't have enough time to complete it. So they go into the tests with a lot of anxiety, and nerves are just all over the place. They end up spending more energy on the negativity or the nervousness than they would on being able to solve the problem.

Can you tell visibly when someone is struggling?

Yes, you can. They become reserved a little bit. They kind of become reclusive to where you ask them a question and they’re not answering the question. Sometimes we ask them a question and we don’t want them to get it right or wrong. We just want them to respond and stay engaged. But when students have a hard time responding, it lets us know that they’re either shamed that they don’t know it, or they think they’re not smart as the other children.

We even see children struggle and they get frustrated and start tearing up and crying. That’s when we have to become sensitive to what it is that they’re struggling with and we try to target that. Again, it’s all about confidence. If they can overcome whatever that obstacle is and develop confidence, I think they can soar from there.

How much time on average do you spend with students?

Travis: Sixty minutes is a session for an elementary and middle school student, and 90 minutes for a high school student. They're probably getting anywhere between 40 and 50 minutes of instruction, usually one-on-one instruction, or we've asked them to work on a problem in which they're needing to practice a skill or something.

We also play games that stimulate strategic thinking, analytical skills, critical thinking skills. And we use manipulative things to help them learn as they're doing it, like seeing cards or counting. So a number of things go on within that hour or 90 minutes.

So when is your busiest season?

Travis: The start of the second semester is the peak. Report cards just went out, so we have parents come to us sometimes in a reactive mode. They're like, 'Oh, man, we've got to graduate. I didn't know that we were not doing well.' We get a lot of calls in that regard. But for the most part we have people who contact us knowing that their child needs some extra help.

But we don't just do tutoring and remediation. We also do enrichment. So we have students that are enrolled and they're excellent math students. They're currently making straight As and they come, basically, to be enriched. We challenge them. We have a more rigorous part of our program just for them. We play chess. We're thinking about forming a chess clubs because of the students' request. They love playing chess. It's a busy season, needless to say.

Then there is the perception of math being a geek thing or nerdy, which in reality isn't a bad thing?

Travis: It's not a bad thing, but this is our twist on it. Mathnasium, which is like gymnasium, and there's a common connection there. You go to the gym to work out your body. You come to Mathnasium to work out your mind. So we actually call our students mathletes, and we let them understand when they come, it's a math workout ... and they're exercising their minds.

What is the ultimate reward from this job as a tutor?

Sharon: I'm watching students whose career paths may go in a certain direction because they don't like math. That door can be opened to them and the possibilities. They can be that engineer, be that nurse, be whatever it is and not be stopped because math's just not their thing. That goes out the door here. It becomes anybody's thing. I'm a testimony to that it's not just about you being good at it. Anybody can do it as long as we take away the intimidation and the fear.

Us being able to help students opens the door to limitless possibilities, I think, and will help create better citizens for our society. It will also help in the future, 10 to 15 years down the road, and perhaps we can have more jobs stay in America that are more technical, and science and math related, that right now are in other places.


Names: Travis and Sharon Hester

Age: He's 34; she's 36

Hometown: He grew up in a military family; she was born and raised in Warner Robins, Ga.

Current residence: Columbus

Education: Both graduated from Houston County High School in Warner Robins; Travis earned a bachelor's of science in applied mathematics and engineering from Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., and an MBA from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga.; Sharon earned a bachelor's of science in middle grades education with a concentration in math and science from Armstrong Atlantic State University.

Previous jobs: Travis spent more than 14 years in corporate America, with a small franchise business, nonprofits and higher education. He currently works part time as adjunct professor teaching college math and business courses. He now is general manager and franchise owner of Mathnasium; Sharon spent more than 12 years as an educator in public and private school systems, and is a gifted-certified teacher. She is the center director and franchise owner of Mathnasium.

Family: Three children, Andalyn, Anthony and Arnae', who are home-schooled by their mom.

Leisure time: Travis enjoys watching and playing all sports, especially basketball, baseball and golf. He also enjoys watching movies and attending karate classes with his children; Sharon enjoys anything creative like decorating, dancing and singing. She also likes to make children's clothes with her oldest daughter's sewing business.

Of note: Travis has served on various community boards and civic clubs such as the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce Partners in Education board, the chamber's Young Professionals board, Rotary Club of North Columbus, Christian Women's Job Corp, Armstrong Atlantic State University Alumni Association board, Muscogee Adult Education Learning Center advisory committee, and Junior Achievement; Sharon volunteered for more than eight years as a problem captain/judge with the Odyssey of the Mind organization, and once was a youth director of a 200-member middle/high school church youth group.

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