too much help

I’m obsessed with my fitbit and I live in constant competition with myself, trying to get more steps than I got yesterday, so when I showed up at work on Thursday and saw that the room was empty except for one student, working on her own at a computer, I set my stuff down, clocked in, grabbed a book and started pacing the room, reading.

Eventually that one student turns and flags me over and when I sit down beside her I notice her slouch, the parted lips, the heavy eyelids and the fact that her hair, pulled into a long tight braid, is flecked with dandruff and, on the basis of this, I figure that, like a sizable portion of the students we help, she has some sort of developmental disability. I’m worried it’ll sound presumptuous that I’m jumping to that conclusion about a student after just a glance, but I’ve spoken about this kind of experience with other educators and I’m thinking that, in this field, it’s something you just develop an eye for (same goes for the students who have something in their face and posture that shouts of coiled violence, a hair’s pressure from springing loose).

But so I sit with the student and she’s all smiles and tells me she needs a little help doing research for an assignment. Something about global warming. So I help her find some journal articles and then suggest that she pull a fact from one of them right there on the spot, just skim the first few lines really quick, find a fact, jot it down, and then we’ll go on to the next paragraph (when a student looks disoriented and frazzled I do this thing of showing how their outline is just a slow accumulation of little facts, bullet points, later woven together with complete sentences…).

Anyway. After making the suggestion I saw that her head dipped a little. She looked nervous. She put her fingertips on the table and leaned in closer toward the monitor, squinting at it, reading slowly to herself and mouthing the words. Then she reached the end of the passage, and glanced at me — rolled her eyes in my direction instead of turning her head. It was like she wanted to know if I was still there, still watching.

I asked if she’d gotten a good fact out of the paragraph and she darted her eyes back toward the screen. Leaned in closer toward it and started mouthing the words again.

Eventually we started reading the article aloud together and I’d pause at certain points to emphasize a passage and prompt her to write it down in her own words.

This went on for a while.


The boss gave me a talking-to last week about occasionally giving too much help — which usually only happens when I see tears. If a student starts crying I tend to get a little over-involved. Start giving directives

But anyway. That particular talking-to was occasioned by a student who came in on Halloween and started bawling when she printed her assignment and found she’d fucked up the formatting. So I swapped seats with her and started re-typing the whole thing as her sobs subsided.

That’s when my boss walked in.

“You’re here to help with their work,” says the boss, “not to do any part of it for them.”

But there’s at least one student in every fifteen or twenty who can’t do their work at all. They’ve got a disability and, no matter the length, patience, or simplicity of the explanation, they just cant crack it.

And then what? Do I leave them to it, pretending I’ve done my job?

Or have I done my job? Do the responsibilities of an educator end when she’s done her best to explain the assignment, or when the student has succeeded? To what end is an educator culpable for the student’s failure? Do the scales shift when the student has special needs?

Most of these students come up with an excuse to leave the lab suddenly when the work gets too grueling and then they come back a couple days later saying that they finished the assignment at home and asking me to review it — whereupon we sit together and I find that it’s verbose and immaculate and that they didnt write a word of it. It’s often clear, in reviewing the assignment alongside them, that the student hasn’t even read it. You can read, between the lines, the latenight efforts of a terrified parent.

Ahdunno. I do sometimes feel my heartstrings plucked painfully hard when a disabled student is stressing about some assignment that’s due soon, they don’t understand it at all, and they’ve been saddled with fear, on top of their pre-existing insecurity, because the assignments invariably count for some ridiculously huge portion of their final grade (thanks to a syllabus that was hastily assembled by an overworked and underpaid part-time professor, whose own frantic stress about making a living, teaching nine to twelve classes a semester, gets handed down to the students). I end up feeling like the only way to help them is to just take control and start steering them, in a heavy-handed way, toward an answer — which, one could argue, helps nobody, because the student isn’t learning anything. They’re taking dictation.

On the other hand: it’s obscenely difficult to get a good job without a college degree. Should some corners not be cut, some boundaries breached, so’s to ensure that this handicapped person gets that sheet of paper that tells the workforce, “Yes, she’s capable”?

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