Teaching Opinion

When Helping Students Hurts Students

By David Ginsburg — March 19, 2011 2 min read
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We educators are giving, helpful people. That’s what drew many of us to teaching in the first place: a genuine desire to help children. And yet it’s our helpfulness, I’ve found, that often hurts kids more than it helps them.

The problem is that sooner or later success for students will require self-reliance. In college and the workplace, for example, the professor or boss won’t be there for students every time they need help. And the more we help students now--when they can and should be helping themselves--the less prepared they’ll be later when self-reliance is essential.

I was as guilty as anyone of overextending myself to students until I realized this was enabling their self-defeating behavior. I then began to target students’ work habit deficits as much as their academic deficits. And the work habit I targeted most was one related to self-reliance: resourcefulness--the “R” in my success comes from the H.E.A.R.T. acronym.

Why resourcefulness? Two reasons. First, most of my students lacked it--many were unwilling or unable to even use a glossary. (Yes, unable--kids as old as 18 who lacked alphabetizing skills). And second, successful people in my prior academic and business experience didn’t always know the answers but knew how to find them.

I thus set out to create a classroom where students would make the connection between resourcefulness and success. This meant providing students access to various resources (notes, textbooks, technology, each other, etc.) and, if necessary, teaching them the skills they needed to use those resources (including alphabetizing).

But it also meant refusing to help students until and unless they had in fact used those resources. When, for example, students called me over for help, whereas I previously would have immediately obliged, I now asked, “Where are your notes?” And if they didn’t have notes, there was something else they didn’t have: my help.

At first, of course, students protested when I turned down their requests for help. Here are a couple of common exchanges I had with kids when they first encountered my “You Must Earn My Help” policy:

Student: What do you mean you’re not going to help me? You’re the teacher. Me: And you’re the learner.
Me: And you’re the learner.
Me: Ask one of your classmates for help.
Student: They’re not getting paid, you are.
Me: Not much.

And here are two other retorts of mine that further capture the rationale and spirit of what I’m advocating here:

I love you too much to help you when you won’t help yourself.
I don’t want to deny you the satisfaction you’ll feel when you figure it out yourself.

My conviction around cultivating resourcefulness in students is stronger now than ever because of the effect I’ve seen it have on them the past 15 years. Higher test scores? Absolutely. But more important, better preparation for future academic and employment challenges. As one former student told me during a break from college, “Coach G, you ran your class more like a college class.” And then there’s the greatest “compliment” a student ever paid me: “You’re not a very good teacher, but I learn a lot in your classroom.”

The message, then, is that we as educators must direct our genuine desire to help children toward providing them resources and skills that enable them to help themselves. We must also then only help students when they’ve used those resources and skills, and have proven--to themselves as much as to us--that they really need our help. To do otherwise is to hurt students rather than help them.

Image by Gbh007, provided by Dreamstime license

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.