Helpless Handraisers

All teachers should be taught how to teach.  I firmly believe that.  I am divided, however, about when they should be taught: before they ever enter a classroom, or after they've had time to experiment -- and fail -- for themselves.  I've found my graduate education so far to be incredibly helpful, and I vacillate between frustration (why, oh why, didn't someone tell me this before?!) and gratitude (I know I wouldn't have listened anyway, so I'm glad I waited until now.)

At no time was this conundrum stronger than when I first read about Helpless Handraisers in Fred Jones' book Tools for Teaching.  Every teacher should read this book, whether she teaches privately or in the classroom.  I wish the parents of my students would read it, too (especially the sections on discipline.) But when I read the section about Helpless Handraisers, a feeling of sweet relief swept over my psyche.  It wasn't my fault that I had two or three of these students in every single one of my classes!

"Go through the steps, and try to do it on your own.  If you are still having difficulty, you may raise your hand, and I will help you as soon as I can."

These words hardly leave the teacher's mouth before hands start waving in the air. I ask teachers, "Are they the same students every day?"  They just roll their eyes.

The teacher then goes to the first hand waver and asks, "Where do you need help?"

The student says, "I don't know what to do here."

The teacher says, "What part don't you understand?"

The student responds, "All of it." . . .

In addition to avoiding peer disapproval, helpless handraising also gets a sympathetic response from the teacher.  It is the perfect ruse.  These students appear to be hungering and thirsting after knowledge while doing absolutely nothing."

My students' helpless handraising usually takes the form of two simple words: "I'm confused."  Never mind that I just did three example problems on the board.  Never mind that they have no work actually written down and have done nothing but stare at the page.  I often try to prompt them: "If you don't know how to get the answer, what can you at least do with the information you have?"  A blank look.  "Can you underline key words?  Can you eliminate answers that are way off?  Can you do one thing to isolate x from the other variables?"  It's like pulling teeth, getting them to exert effort.

Make no mistake: confusion -- real confusion -- should be taken seriously when sincere (and many times, truth be told, it's the fault of the teacher.)  But when ten students are diligently working their way through the problems, and two or three are furiously waving their hands, chorusing "Mrs. Lowe!!!!" -- sorry, but I don't buy it.