One of the most common complaints made by pupils in schools, especially when trying to justify poor behavioural choices, is ‘I didn’t understand the work and the teacher didn’t help me.’
This can feel like a devastatingly logical line of argument. After all, how can a child do work if they don’t understand it? And if they don’t understand it, isn’t it a teacher’s job to make sure they can?
But things, as they never are in schools, are not so simple.
Asking pupils who use this argument how they would like their teachers to help them is revealing. Very often, their understanding of help is very specific. Frequently, what they mean by ‘help’ is individual one-to-one support. They mean that they think their teacher should sit down next to them to explain each task, and how it should be successfully completed. They believe if teachers do not do this, they are not helping, which makes any poor behaviour, for example shouting out, justified, as in “I asked for help loads of times but Sir ignored me.”
Logistically, for most teachers in most schools, this is just not practical. I think teachers, certainly in most subjects in secondary schools, should spend most of their time instructing the class as a whole. Any time they spend in one-to-one support is time they cannot spend explaining content to everyone. When it is not necessary, as it often isn’t, one-to-one tuition in lessons is an inefficient use of time.
For pupils who have, for whatever reason, internalised the idea that help has to be one-to-one support, any whole class teaching must seem very frustrating. “Sir is talking to everyone again! He’s not helping me!” This can mean that they switch off and stop listening, which means they miss out on the material they need to complete the tasks they then think they need help with later on.They are then more likely to demand personal help and so create a vicious cycle of slow progress, poor behaviour and confrontation.
This is such a shame. Pupils whose understanding of help is limited to one-to-one tuition miss the truth; their teachers are helping them all the time. When a teacher explains something new to the whole class, they are helping. When a teacher goes through a worked example or model answer, they are helping. When a teacher tells their pupils common errors made on a test and corrects them, they are helping. When a teacher tells a pupil to stop lollygagging out of the window and look at the board, they are helping. Pupils who do not recognise this as help miss all of it, which means that when it is time to complete tasks, it is inevitable they will not understand.
All of this is not to say that teachers should never help pupils individually. When appropriate they absolutely should. But a teacher finding themselves having to do this regularly for an individual child should consider the possibility that the help the pupil needs is actually in engaging with what they are saying to the whole class. Regrettably, I think in the past some pupils have been so individually helped they have come to believe that they actually aren’t capable of understanding anything unless there is an adult available to translate for them. For some pupils this might be true but I am sure for most it is not.
This learned helplessness is dangerous because it robs children of the ability to learn in any other way. We must fight this and push our most vulnerable young people past the idea they need someone with them at all times in order achieve anything.
All of this means, as I’ve written about here, that schools, whether they do this through SLANT or something else, must teach children how to listen. They must insist that pupils know that in order to get individual help from their teacher they must first keep their side of the deal by engaging with support in its very widest sense.
Of course, unfortunately and inevitably there will be times when whole class instruction, whether through a teacher’s inexperience or something else, isn’t helpful. This does need to be dealt with. But the way to do this isn’t to say that the teacher should stop talking to the whole class and help each child individually instead. Such classrooms are chaotic which makes everything harder to do.
Anyone uneasy about what I’ve written here, and I think there may be some, should be clear that all I’m really saying is that I think children should listen while their teachers talks, whether it is to them individually or to them as part of a class, and that pupils understand that whenever a teacher is teaching, they are also helping.
Surely this isn’t controversial?