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The Holyoke Tutor/Mentor program connects volunteers to adult education classes in Holyoke.

Beyond "Who needs help?"

Beyond "Who needs help?"

It's nice when we're all on the same page, even if that page has more than a few question marks on it.

At our community gathering last weekend, David raised a topic that's been rattling around my brain and my conversations with other teachers and other volunteer coordinators all year:

How can a volunteer know which students to help? And when?

In some classes, teachers are pretty specific: Take student X to another room, or another corner, and work on Y task. But in others, our volunteers are, nominally, working with the whole class, helping students as they need it.

We call it 'floating' and when it works, it's a wonderful addition to the class, but it does rely on somehow getting the tutor around to different students who could benefit from their help.

And, most of us quickly figured out that asking "Who needs help?" and waiting for raised hands rarely works.

(When it does, congratulations, that's a very comfortable classroom environment and/or a confident student)

It's an admittedly a tricky, read-the-situation do-your-best it-all-depends kind of skill. But, still, it's a good question, so by current best attempt to offer some tips:

Knowing which student(s) to approach:

  • Scan the room for body language/non verbal confirmation that indicates stress, frustration or disengagement (pushing back from table, crossed arms etc.)
  • Eavesdrop (not really, but kinda). It may be easier for a student to ask a peer a question -- or to complain that a task is difficult.
  • Take advantage of your down time to pay attention to the students while the teacher is leading the class. Who is answering correctly or engaging well in the discussion? Who is not, and instead seems lost or confused? These students are more likely to struggle when they're working on their own.
  • Try to remember week to week who seemed to struggle. We all have good and bad weeks, but you may start to notice patterns that certain students struggle with a particular task.
  • Keep an eye on their papers and pencils. A student who is not writing or has their pencil down while others are working or is erasing or crossing out frequently may need a hand.
  • Check in with the teacher. Asking in advance, or in quiet moment about who is struggling, can help you focus on the students in need of support.

Starting the conversation

  • Stroll. Your odds are better if you are up and moving (slowly, casually) around the classroom, and can easily approach a student for a quiet conversation.
  • Try to avoid "Do you need help?" - It can be hard to admit, even when it's true.
  • Instead, think of it as starting a conversation about the task: How's it going? Which one are you working on?
  • Follow up, or gently probe short or one word answers. (Fine. It's ok. I'm just working on it)
  • Get them to show you if they need help or not. "Oh, you're working on number 7? What was your first step? And then what did you do…." (Even if it turns out they don't need an explanation from you, it helps people learn to have to explain thinking)
  • Offer to show them something. For some students (and some instances) asking "Can I show you this tip/trick/method that I like?"  lets you help without implying "you're wrong and need help"  (Be careful that your method aligns with the class, and won't further confuse someone)
  • Make some of your conversations about praising or encouraging success, so a conversation with you is not just/automatically associated with struggling.

Wise teachers and tutors do you have any other tips or suggestions? What works for you?

Tutor of the Year

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Friday, 24 June 2022

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