By Kim Yaris
Each day, our classrooms–whether online, in-person, or a mix of both–are filled with children who consent to allowing us to guide them as they navigate their learning journeys. Our students’ learning pathways can be rife with obstacles and as the guide, it is up to us to help these learners work past their difficulties. In the fast-paced world of teaching and learning, there is often only a moment to think and in that split second, we must decide what kind and how much help to provide. Make no mistake. This is a great responsibility. Our students’ progress rests squarely on our shoulders.
That said, the reality of our students’ struggles is this: When they struggle, they feel stress. When our students feel stress, so, too, do we. Stress initiates a physiological response that floods our bodies with cortisol, a hormone that sends a message to our brain to prepare for danger. As a result of this chemical messaging, our brains instruct us to focus on the perceived danger and so, we direct our attention to the most obvious stimuli. When we are driving a car, this response can prevent us from having an accident. But, in circumstances where we are guiding a child who is struggling to pronounce a word or figure out the meaning of a passage, is the inclination to focus on the most obvious stimuli equally helpful?
Imagine sitting next to a student reading the sentence David searched for his keys in his pocket. When she arrives at the word searched, she pauses, squinches up her face a bit, and looks at us. Any teacher who has sat alongside a child learning to read knows this appeal and can recognize it as that moment–the moment when cortisol is released and our brains send out the same rallying cry as when someone stops abruptly in front of us while driving on the highway: “REACT!”
And so we do. In the span of the split second that we have to guide this student on her learning journey, we direct our attention to the most obvious stimuli–in this case, the word searched–and we may suggest to the reader to “Sound it out,” or ask her to think about what would make sense. Once we–and our young reader–are safely on the other side of the word “searched,” we may experience a small rush of another hormone–dopamine–that causes us to feel jubilant; but, it is important to stop and ask, is there cause for celebration?
When teaching children how to read, the ultimate cause for celebration is when the learning aligns in ways that students are able to claim increased confidence, proficiency, and independence. Telling students what strategies to use and reinforcing the belief that they need us in order to be able to work past the obstacles that block their paths, does little–if anything–to make inroads toward these larger goals. There is an imperative need to shift the kind of help we offer, yet, with stress so often in the driver seat of our decision making, overriding the cortisol messaging instructing us to focus on the source of struggle immediately in front of us is no easy task. Fortunately, while this task is not easy, it is also not impossible.
Our reactions to stressful situations are rooted in the reasoning paradigms formed through a process of constant mental narration. So, for example, one of the stories that pretty consistently runs through our teacher heads is this: I must help my students. I must help my students. I must help my students. However, our job as teachers is not simply to help students. It is to help students help themselves. This small, but significant, amendment to our inner narrative can remind us, even in moments of stress, to question students in ways that help them grow increasingly more confident, proficient, and independent. Shifting our inner narrative opens the door to asking questions like “What do you know?” and “What can you try?” instead of always relying on more reactive language such as, “What would make sense?” or “Sound it out.” (Burkins and Yaris, 2016)
In the fast-paced world of teaching and learning, deciding what kind and how much help to provide are among our greatest responsibilities. While stress may have us believe otherwise, we are in charge of the inner narratives the determine how we heed this call. It is not a huge leap to move from I must help my students to I must help my students help themselves. And when we make the leap, we step aside and help in ways that truly help students grow to become increasingly confident, proficient, and independent readers.
Burkins, Jan Miller, and Kim Yaris. Who’s Doing the Work?: How to Say Less so Readers Can Do More. Stenhouse Publishers, 2016.