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NYC Helpline: How To: Develop as a Professional

What To Do If My Students Aren’t Getting It
By Theresa London Cooper

How frustrated we become when we have tried different strategies to teach a particular concept and several students still just don’t get it. What do we do? Should we forget about them? Should we move on never to return? Should we blame them? The answer is a resounding NO! Here are a few ideas to try.

First, it is important to know as much about these students as possible. This is true for all students, but particularly for your struggling students, you must have various forms of data. For example, administer multiple intelligence surveys and learning style surveys to make sure you know how they best express their understanding and how they process information. Additionally, you will also want to administer an interest inventory to find out what they like to study. Finally, there is an area that we rarely address that can have a profound impact on their ability to learn – the affective domain. Find out what is going on at home.

In my teaching experience, I always established a great rapport with my students so that they felt free to talk with me. I recall one student sharing his feeling about his mother’s miscarriage. Students are often preoccupied with issues that we know nothing about. If you don’t feel comfortable having these types of conversations with your students, elicit the support of the guidance counselors and/or school psychologists.

Second, use multiple forms of data to get a full understanding of where the challenges lay. We have a plethora of data at our fingertips. It is important that you, as the teacher, determine which pieces of data will yield the most useful information. Once you have data, take time to analyze it. Elicit the help of data specialists, coaches, staff developers or colleagues willing to support you. Remember, helping students is not the sole responsibility of the teacher although it is her primary role.

Third, for your struggling students who don’t get it, it is important to have a thorough plan that includes as much small group and one-to-one instruction as possible. Intervention plans and a progress monitoring routine are essential. Once you have determined the issue, you must respond with an intervention. It is critical to monitor student progress and to determine whether or not the intervention is working. If you assess three consecutive times and don’t see any changes within six to nine weeks, you might want to think about trying another intervention. Don’t forget to keep records of your findings.

Next, have a critical friend come in and to observe several lessons. The friend should act as a second pair of eyes who can give you a perspective that you cannot see. Be sure to establish a purpose prior to the observation so that the friend can collect specific data that will help you reflect on your practice and determine whether or not your practice is supporting the struggling students. For example, the friend may observe your questioning techniques, your grouping techniques, and your interactions with students or execution of a lesson. If you are not comfortable with this approach, consider video taping some of your lessons. In my experience, I’ve learned that the only way to become aware of and identify some of our own challenges it to give ourselves an external perspective.

Lastly, try to partner with colleagues who have similar challenges so that you can brainstorm together. Perhaps a study group with a selected text can help you employ creative problem solving. Together, you can work on the challenge by planning together, searching the Internet for additional solutions, and reaching out to others. Whatever you do, it is important to keep trying different strategies. Documentation is critical so that you will be able to substantiate your response to your students’ needs when you elicit additional support. Never give up on the student. Make sure all helpful data follows the student. Sometimes, the issue is developmental. The student just isn’t ready to make the connection. But we must plant the seeds so that the information is there when he is ready.

Finally, with regard to literacy, I highly recommend Cris Tovani’s book I Read It, But I Don’t Get It. It is an eye-opener to the ways children pretend to read. More importantly, Tovani shares strategies that will help teachers address struggling readers’ needs and deepen their understanding of what students are experiencing.

Do you have a question or comment about this article? E-mail Theresa.


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