Are you – or ARE YOU IN CONTACT WITH – a school pupil? (Post 37)

Here in the UK we’re facing another period of schools – some of them, at any rate – being closed because of Coronavirus. It’s January 3rd 2021 as I write, and the four nations of the UK have made different decisions about closures, but each of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is going to have at least some pupils working from home for some of this month.

This blog has – since April 2020 – posted online ideas for pupils who are stuck at home, so that they can continue to develop their English language skills. The suggestions cover talking, listening, reading and writing. They don’t require much equipment at all. They develop skills such as communication, analysis and reviewing, as well as the more obvious ones such as creating stories, reports and speeches, and playing word-games. Look back at some of the earlier blog-posts if you’d like to get some ideas.

Now, here we are again, with pupils of all ages at home when they would normally be at school.

Schools will set work to be done at home, of course, but there can be problems there. Last summer term showed us that some schools managed this better than others – and that’s not necessarily their fault. Technical issues were undoubtedly a barrier in some cases. Home situations can also be difficult: does each pupil have access to a laptop or tablet for his or her exclusive use during the school day? (A phone isn’t really as good, here, because of the size of the screen and of the “keyboard”.) Is the broadband connection at home (and at school) good enough to allow the downloading and uploading of work in a reasonable time-frame? Is there a quiet place at home where the pupil can concentrate, and work without interruption? What happens when (s)he gets stuck with a work problem: is there someone either at home or contactable by phone or online who can help?

None of these is a small problem – and if you are in touch with a school pupil who has to work from home, maybe you can help. If you’re an older sibling [brother or sister], or a grandparent, can you lend a tablet or laptop to someone who doesn’t have one? Can you provide a quiet workspace for some of the day? Can you be nearby to help with any problems – and perhaps provide hot or soft drinks, and something nice to eat, when the pupil needs to take a break?

Most of all, can you help a pupil with her or his motivation to work? That’s probably the biggest obstacle of all to working from home for any length of time.

You may not think you can help a young friend of yours, but you can.

There is nothing more influential on a young person than an older one who has chosen to take an interest in him or her. (And although parents are hugely important and – although they may not think so, at times! – do have an influence on their children, they don’t count as having chosen to take an interest: it’s part of the parental job description to do so.)

You don’t have to be heavy-handed about this. You don’t need to have done well at school yourself – although it’s not a barrier if you did do well. You don’t need to be a family member (although you might be). Just by asking your young friend or contact what the home-schooling arrangements are, by taking an active interest in how the arrangements are working and how the young person’s getting on – and keeping that interest going – you are showing that it matters to you how well that person is doing.

It’s often easier to talk to someone outside your immediate family about any problems or negative feelings you’re having. If you’re that someone outside the immediate family, gently ask about any difficulties your young contact is having with working from home. If you identify a difficulty, ask whether you can help, and if so how. If the answer’s “I don’t know”, perhaps you can make some suggestions – but don’t feel that you have to solve the problem; just being there to listen to the difficulty is helping; sometimes the person can solve the problem him- or her-self after having talked it out with someone else.

Similarly, if it’s an “academic” problem in, for example, maths or physics, you don’t have to be a maths or physics person to help. You can suggest where help might be found; but even more simply you can say, “Talk me through what you’ve done so far” and “What did your teacher say you had to do, when you were taught this?” Sometimes that, too, will trigger the learner to realise that (s)he does actually remember what to do after all – or knows where to find the method that (s)he’s been taught.

You might think that if you hated school, and couldn’t wait to get out of it, you’re not the best person to motivate someone who’s still a pupil, but that’s not the case. You might say – as a great member of the estates staff [a workman] at one school where I taught often did to pupils – “You don’t want to have to do the job that I do. You want to work hard and get qualifications so that you can choose what sort of job to go for.” He was a great motivator, and he wasn’t bitter about his work, just honest.

You might say that you didn’t enjoy being at school, but you realise that you did learn something by being there – even if it was what you didn’t want to do in your life beyond school. Even having the conversation about what you liked and didn’t like, and what your young friend likes or doesn’t like, about school, will help her or him to realise that (s)he isn’t alone in that. One parent apparently told a pupil of mine that he might not like school, but that it was “a short pain for a long-term gain”; I’d hope it can be a bit better than that – but at least, again, he was being honest, and it did make his son realise that there was a reason why he was expected to do the work set by his school.

And if you happen to “hit it off” with your young friend, and get to talking about a subject that both of you really enjoy – well, there’s no end to the help you can give, and the pleasure you can both have in exploring it together.

You may think there’s nothing you can do to help a home-learning pupil in these coming weeks, but believe me: if you know one, you can help.

PS – There are some pupils who are perfectly happy learning from home and don’t need much, if any, help. There are others who think that they don’t need any help; and there are some who think they don’t want any help. Nevertheless, your taking an interest will be appreciated, and what you do after that will depend on the young person’s response. Good luck – and thank you.

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