Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Being Unhelpful

The best thing I did this week as a teacher was be unhelpful. Most teachers by nature are people who like to help, who like to share. Sometimes those instincts can be a burden because we create dependencies. We want our students to be self-sufficient, but sometimes we help them do things they can and should be doing on their own.

This week I was faced with the challenge of helping a 5-year-old spell something I wasn't sure he could spell. Due to a torrential downpour, we didn't come out to the lab. We stayed in the classroom so I had them work with pencil and paper to design inventions. One student invented the "Fast Food A Matic" which is a machine that makes any kind of food really fast. He didn't know how to spell the name, so he asked me. My natural urge was to begin spelling it for him, but part of the art of teaching is knowing how to suppress that urge.

I told him he had to do it himself by sounding it out and doing his best. He kept trying to get me to help him spell it after every single letter, but each time I refused to help. Being unhelpful is usually a lot more work than being helpful, but it's worth it. Finally he was able to work it through on his own and here is what he came up with:

Great job for a 5-year-old. So glad I could be unhelpful this week.

Here is the picture of the invention too:


  1. I completely agree George. Being too helpful creates a dependency relationship between the learner and the teacher, which is often unhealthy. Some help is okay, in some cases, but I prefer to provide less help rather than more help.

    When I first started teaching, I thought I had to help out all the kids, all the time. Boy was teaching exhausting! I kept running, all year long, to "put out fire after fire." Not a good strategy.

  2. As I tell me kids, my goal each year is to become useless. Being un-helpful is part of the process.
    "Being unhelpful is usually a lot more work than being helpful..." So so so much more work.
    Love the post, great point.

  3. David and Paul, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I think it all comes down to knowing what your kids are capable of doing on their own. If we don't help a kid who can't do something, you aren't doing your job, but when you help a kid who can do it on their own, we aren't doing our job either.