As a new teacher, you are pulled in many different directions. Prioritizing your time becomes a survival skill! Unfortunately, what I sometimes neglected on the list of priorities in my first years of teaching were the struggling students. After all, I was struggling myself!
With no mentor and no (significant) prior experience with struggling students, I had to figure this out for myself. How was I to remediate the struggling student when I had no idea what the root of the problem was? There are several key avenues to pursue when helping the student who is flailing in one or more subjects.
Before you meet with the student:
1. Identify the weakest academic area. (If you are a self-contained classroom teacher, it will probably be reading or math.)
2. Collect work samples and look for patterns. When did the problems begin? Was it when you started two digit multiplication? When you began reading longer stories with more difficult vocabulary? When you started the unit on simple machines?
3. Check school records for test scores, anecdotal records, and anything else that might indicate where the problem began. Did Timmy attend 6 different schools in the last three years? Does Timmy have a history of excessive absences? Has Timmy been tested for learning disabilities? (I once found out that I had student who was blind in one eye–in NOVEMBER! She wore glasses, but the parents did not mention it.)
3. If you teach elementary or junior high, get permission from the parents/guardians to meet with the student after school. If you teach elementary, try to find time during the school day to meet with the student. Perhaps an aide can keep an eye on the rest of the students while you work one-on-one. If you have no aide, take the student aside while others are doing seat work (if this is practical for you.)
When you meet with the student:
1. I have the student read aloud to me and then ask several comprehension questions. While oral reading ability is not a “tell-all”, a student’s ability to decode and answer questions about a paragraph can be very revealing.
2. Ask the student to write a simple paragraph (age appropriate in length and complexity) about a picture you provide or a topic you initiate. This also yields a wealth of information.
3. If the topic is math, ask the student to work a few problems for you on the board and watch how he/she goes about solving them.
4. If the student is junior high or high school age, have them empty their back pack. This has traditionally been the source of much valuable information during my career. Check for organization and completed work. Usually, you will find one of two scenarios: the contents are either in complete order, or the contents are a disorganized mess. Work forward from there. Congratulate the student or help them clean it out!
After you meet with the student:
1. Contact the parent and share the results of your investigation. Decide whether it would be best to have them come in for a conference.
2. Identify a plan of action and share it with both the parents and student. Students need a good dose of hope and a boost of confidence.
3. Set aside 15 minutes per day to help the student make progress. I have done this with both math and reading when I taught in a self-contained classroom. I worked with students one-on-one while the rest of the class worked on homework or silent reading. If you only have the student one period a day, set aside 15 minutes after school twice a week, if possible.
4. Set goals and chart progress. Modify student work as you are able. Do not bog the student down with extra practice homework every night!
5. Celebrate progress! Give stickers, notes, certificates, and be sure to send notes/e-mails to parents as progress is made.
Sometimes the extra attention works magic on its own to build a student’s confidence! If a student feels that he or she is going to improve, it is very motivating. And after all, that’s really what it’s all about–PROGRESS!