Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Struggling Learner

It is that time of year!  Winter is still rearing its ugly head, the students and staff of Bettendorf High School are coming to the end of a grading period, the stress levels are high, and in my perception everyone just wants spring to arrive.  Although most try to keep their spirits high, this is just a tough time of the year. Students are trying hard to reach their perspective goals and teachers are spending grueling hours assisting along the way.  Frustration from both parties is almost inevitable.  Spring break is a couple weeks away and I am sure I am not the only person in need of some time away.

After reading Ben Gilpin’s (@benjamingilpin) blog post titled, “Monkeys can teach good kids,” and Jimmy Casas’s (@casas_jimmy) blog post titled, “Every Rose has Thorns…& Petals,” I began to think about the struggling learner and how this is the time of year that they need our help the most.  I cannot claim I was able to reach all students, but I can claim that it was, and continues to be my purpose, to connect with all students regardless of ability.   One thing I did early on in my career was remove the 7:30-3:30 mentality and I live and breathe the “Students First,” philosophy.  I cannot say I was able to connect with every student along the way, but I can assure you all of my students will agree that I surely tried.   Below are some of the strategies that assisted me in connecting with struggling students.  

Build a relationship
Get to know all of your students…especially those that struggle.  Show them you care and are willing to invest in them.  When students know that you care and are willing to assist them in reaching their goals, they may go the extra mile.

Assure them they can
Many students do not commit to things because in their minds it is a waste of time.  Remind the student that it may be a struggle, but in the end there is a benefit; they will earn credit and may learn something new along the way.   Assure them you are there to assist them and make them feel as if they are a priority to you. 

Provide opportunities
The last thing you want a struggling learner to say is that they did not have the opportunity to connect, succeed, or complete tasks.   If the student cannot come in before school, offer after school.  If they cannot come after, offer before. If they cannot do either, offer your lunch.  Try to create as many opportunities as possible.  For example, a fellow colleague, Brent Hutton (@huttonbhs), would even offer Sunday evening study sessions to create opportunities for students to succeed. 

Don’t make it about punishment
If any student thinks you are out to get them, they will not respond to your offer for assistance.   One of the biggest things I learned as a classroom teacher was not to sweat the small things and to choose my battles wisely.   I would always find ways to make it look as if I was trying to assist them rather than punish.  I would have conversations with phrases like, “Can you help me with…” and “Let’s work together on this,” to make them feel as if we were a team working together to change behavior.

Celebrate anything and everything
I think this is an area almost everyone needs to spend more time.   We jump at the opportunity to call a parent when a student does something wrong, but we rarely find time for the opposite.  Celebrate with the struggling learner whenever and over whatever you can.  Celebrate a turned in assignment, the arrival to class on time, a response without prompt, anything you can at every opportunity.   When you spend more time focusing on the positive, this behavior may show up more often.  

Don’t take it personal
We work with teenagers…they will mess up.   Realize these students have struggles outside of school that we cannot even fathom.   They will continue to “forget” and leave you with empty promises.   Just continue to offer opportunities for success.

I cannot say these strategies will change your world, but I can say they did assist me along the way.   I encourage you to add to this list, I encourage you to continue on, and I applaud all of you for what you continue to do for today’s youth.  

~ Thanks and continue to be great!!