As math instructor Rick Estrada walks through the halls of Los Medanos College with his crisp button-ups and a smile on his face, students who don’t know him personally might assume he has always excelled at math. Little do they know it was actually quite the opposite.
“I think students are sometimes surprised to find out when I was in school I don’t think that I would describe myself as being the best mathematician or math student. I struggled a lot,” said Estrada, who grew up in Mexico as a kid and has lived in the Bay Area since 1996.
The common idea of math being a nightmare for a multitude of students was anything but ordinary for the eight-year math instructor who said he embraced the challenge of math class in school. He said it was really one of the things the he had work hard in to be successful.
“The analogy that sometimes I tell my student is that it is a lot like a sport and that if you practice and you put enough time and effort into it you will see results,” he said.
Estrada remembers that as early on as a child, his mother forced him to learn the times tables and it was something he worked on repeatedly.
“So it’s like having this expectation if you are in this grade, this is what you should know. Just very repetitive,” said Estrada. “Some people that do things with their body there’s this sense of muscle memory.”
He wasn’t sure if his mom knew this or not at the time, but this muscle memory was something that he was going to need for the rest of his life.
This idea of constantly working at something helped Estrada realize that if you do it enough you can be successful at it. This is why he is disappointed when some people give up after one bad experience with math.
Estrada explained there are many other aspects of life where people can have bad experiences, a bad piano teacher or a bad coach, but that one frustrating experience shouldn’t deter you from something if you have a love for it. He believes that many students encounter a bad experience early on and wear it for a long time.
“It’s tragic. It’s sad because if you look at a lot of the really interesting and innovative careers the big component is math and being able to problem solve. But sometimes students short change themselves by saying ‘well I’m not good at it so I’m not going to be a doctor or I’m not going to go into programming,” he said.
Estrada loves every aspect of his job, whether it is helping someone learn a new problem or building a relationship with a diversity of students. He says it is a fulfilling and rewarding experience.
“One of the things I enjoy about teaching is being able to use the little that I do know, share that with people in a way that it is relatable and that is able to make sense,” he said. For Estrada, no day is the same. While the lessons he teaches may be the same from semester to semester, the thing that makes each day different is the students.
“I really like the many different personalities that you come across at a community college,” he said. “Anywhere from a student that is fresh out of high school to a person that worked as a welder for 25 years and now they want to do something else.”
A common trait Estrada sees and relates to among his students is their ability to overcome obstacles.
Estrada believes that everyone has obstacles they have to “overcome from the big challenges to daily things.” His biggest obstacle was the passing of his father when he was younger.
He said it was the experience was traumatic to go from having his family a certain way to completely different.
“He died when I was 16,” he said. “You are still learning how to be a man, so that was difficult.”
Despite the heartbreak of losing his father, Estrada maintains his positivity and upbeat attitude in the face of life’s hardest times and explained how grateful he is to have a strong mother figure. He referenced back to those arithmetic drills and other advice about what he should know, and credits that as something helped him along the way.
Something more recently that Estrada found which helped him as a person and a teacher was taking jujitsu classes. He said it began with the idea of wanting to learn something new that was inspired by watching UFC and wanted to know what it was like.
“It’s really neat because sometimes as teachers I think we sometimes forget what it means to be a to be a student,” he said.
Estrada noted the experience helped him as a teacher because part of being a student is learning something completely new and “having that patience for someone specially when maybe they’re not doing it and a lot of the times it’s not because that they are not trying it’s just that that muscle memory or that skill hasn’t built up yet.”
This is something Estrada focuses on as a teacher. He wants to help the students overcome their obstacles in math as he once did and hopefully have an impact on their life because he remembers how much his previous teachers had an impact on him.
“It’s like you just want to go back and tell them ‘hey you don’t know but you really helped me out a lot. You changed my life’,” said Estrada. “I’m not cocky enough to say that I’m changing people’s lives, but in maybe the eight years that I have been doing this, I’ll be lucky if there is that one person I had that effect on.”