Using Helpers in the Classroom Guide for the Substitute Teacher (page 5)
Like it or not, many things that happen in a classroom—taking attendance, doing the lunch count, processing tardy slips, or collecting money for a class trip, to name a few—are only peripherally connected to the curriculum. All of these “logistics” activities require that you follow a specific process and that you know the name of each student. As a sub, it’s your job to complete each activity, but you’ll need help. Students will be happy to assist you, but it’s important to know how to pick a helper and how to manage the help you do receive. That’s what this article is about.
How do I Choose the Trusted Helper?
Choosing a special or trusted helper is an art, not a science. Therefore, there are no hard-and-fast rules for picking the perfect person. But there are personality types you might want to avoid:
- The space cadet. This child is always in dreamland, staring into space and living in his own world. He may be a very nice child, but as a helper, he could be a disaster.
- The gabber. This child may be a sweetheart, but she is incessantly communicating with her peers. She’s more concerned about having a conversation than participating in classroom activities.
- The slob. This child may be bright and loved by his peers, but his desk is a mess, his supplies are piled haphazardly, and litter sits on the floor around him. He might be anxious to help, but the end result could be a mess.
So, what should you look for in a helper? Sometimes it’s the quiet child or the student who appears to be “nerdy.” These children often have the best grasp of classroom logistics. At other times, it’s the child who greets you with a warm smile and exhibits a sense of curiosity. It’s likely that such a student will help you with enthusiasm and good humor. Occasionally it can be the potential “troublemaker.” By keeping this child close and giving him or her responsibility and respect, you may actually eliminate potential problems downstream. Before you make your selection, check if there is a helper chart on the classroom bulletin board. The class may have assigned helpers for the week already.
Once you’ve chosen a candidate, ask her to come to your desk. Quietly ask if she would like to help you out today. Usually the answer will be yes, but if the student is not interested in the job, be sure to have a backup candidate.
Occasionally you will make a mistake and choose a student who decides to make a joke of helping you. If this happens, immediately ask the student to return to his seat and choose another helper. Your second choice will rarely exhibit the same behavior.
How do I Get the Helper Started?
Once a student has agreed to assist you, begin immediately. Try to defer to the student’s expertise in logistics matters. It bolsters the child’s self-esteem and encourages him or her to do a good job. Consider the following conversation:
You: This is my first time in Mr. Blackman’s [the classroom teacher] classroom, Alexis [your helper]. So, I’ll need your help with some things. Are you ready?
Helper: Uh, huh.
You: How does Mr. Blackman take attendance in the morning?
Helper: Well, he asks everyone to remain seated, and he just takes attendance by calling out our names. I think he marks it on a piece of paper [the attendance form].
You: Okay, Alexis, I’ll do that, and you stay up here and tell me if I’m doing it correctly. You can help me pronounce names, just in case I get stuck! Also, I want you to make sure that the right person answers when I call each name. Can you do that for me?
Helper: Uh, huh. I will.
It’s very important to assign tasks that are narrowly focused and simple enough to ensure the helper’s success.
Do I Need to Keep the Same Helper for the Whole Day?
It’s a good idea to choose different students throughout the day. You will need helpers to pass out papers, helpers to bring notices to the office, door holders, and students to help you clean up at the end of the day. You might need helpers during recess or when students go to special classes or events.
Use as many children as you can, making sure to impart a level of prestige to each child who helps. The class becomes part of a team, and, unconsciously, the goal of the team is to make your life easier.
What about Class Jobs?
Many classrooms have class jobs that are assigned by the classroom teacher and are usually posted on the bulletin board. Teachers change these jobs weekly, typically each Friday. There are usually enough jobs for everyone in the class, ranging from line leader to the person who puts the trash can near the door. Make note of these jobs and do not assign informal helpers to them. If you do, you’ll slight the permanent job holder and create problems within the classroom.
Is it a Good Idea to Choose a “Problem Student” as My Helper?
In general, this is recommended, but you must proceed with caution. For younger students, you should start slowly by asking for help on a specific small task. If things go well, you can increase the scope of the work to be performed. For older children, you must be subtle. They are sophisticated enough to perceive that you’re trying to “buy them off” and may respond poorly. Your request for help should appear offhand and genuine. For middle schoolers, be aware that children who are perceived as the teacher’s pet can be set up for ridicule. Again, subtlety is demanded in these situations.
If handled properly, this approach can enable you to control a difficult student by making him or her an ally rather than an adversary. If it goes well, use lots of praise to reinforce positive behavior.
What About the Child Who is a Loner?
Unfortunately, children who are not accepted by their peers are sometimes rejected by the classroom teachers as well. These children are starved for attention and recognition. If you make an effort to take a special interest in a student like this, you will be rewarded with a good helper. More important, asking a “loner” to help you is a wonderful way to bring him or her into the fold.
What are the Opportunities for me to Choose Helpers?
Whenever you choose a helper, you allow a child to cross a subtle boundary that separates teachers and students. As students cross this boundary as helpers, they become part of a team that is working toward the efficient operation of the classroom. (Of course, they don’t perceive it that way, but it does happen.) It increases efficiency, enhances classroom management, and reduces the chaos that occurs when confusion abounds. Here are some opportunities to achieve these benefits:
- Taking attendance and lunch count
- Making trips to the office
- Taking another student to the nurse (in the primary grades)
- Passing out papers
- Assuming a leadership role when playing games
- Cleaning up at the end of the day
- Answering questions for you about material
- Finding items in the classroom
- Serving as door holders
As you go through a typical day in the classroom, it’s likely you’ll encounter many opportunities for helpers. These are really win-win situations. The students win through prestige and participation, and you win because your day will be easier.
Using classroom helpers is a wonderful way to empower students, improve their self-esteem, and make your day in the classroom much easier. Students know things about classroom logistics that you don’t. Use them to help!
Consider the following guidelines when selecting and using helpers:
- Observe students early, and use your intuition to avoid those who might not be good helpers and choose those who would be.
- Keep each helper’s task focused and relatively simple. Be sure to set the conditions that will make the helper succeed.
- Choosing a problem student as a helper must be done with caution, but it can successfully solve behavior problems.
- Choosing a loner as a helper does much to improve the child’s self-esteem and classroom prestige.
- Virtually every classroom activity can be an opportunity for the selection of a helper.
When students help with classroom tasks, all of you are working as a team. A good sub knows how to choose helpers wisely, pairing students and tasks in an effort to make the students succeed and the classroom run more efficiently. An effective sub knows how to get students on his or her side, and helpers provide the best opportunity to achieve this goal.
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