A friendly arm

If someone in your class is struggling, extend your support in various ways

Lately, many of us who are part of the academic community — learners, teachers and administrators — have had to re-examine the nature of our work, how we go about it, and what comes of it. Students worry about whether their education will ensure them an entry into the job market. Teachers worry about whether all students, irrespective of background, will benefit from what they do in the classroom. Administrators (of public institutions, particularly) worry about offering a decent education infrastructure in the face of budget cuts and privatisation.

These seem to be big questions, of the kind that most us think we have little real control over. However, those of us who are either students or teachers can do something about addressing some of our concerns. Teachers can use considerable help from students as well, as they try to do a better job of reaching everyone.

It is no surprise, given the diversity of our country, that our classrooms can be extremely diverse spaces, with students coming from a range of backgrounds, some with a distinct set of advantages and others with an often undefinable (and even invisible) set of disadvantages. This can make it quite challenging for the latter group to benefit at the same rate from what is offered at the average college. They could be hampered by differing levels of language fluency, varying access to (or need of) support in learning, or different levels of exposure to the world. While higher education institutions can be bewildering for all, some are more easily able to adapt, knowing whom to ask for help and how to ask for it. Others flounder not always having the means or the confidence to make the request.

Help your peers

You might argue that the teacher — or others in positions of responsibility — are the ones who should identify these needs and extend additional help. But, it often happens that a teacher does not have the bandwidth to perceive every need of every student. Students in need are often not entirely comfortable reaching out to him/her. The larger student group, however, may be in a better position to notice when a peer is not comfortable with something in the classroom, or seems to have difficulty keeping up. But the truth is that not all of us automatically consider helping others in such a context. We believe that academic support is something that is to be provided by the teacher or the institution, while emotional or psychological support is best left to a counsellor. While some situations do require professional intervention, a lot of the time all that is needed is for someone in the peer group to extend a friendly arm. But before this can happen, we need to first see ourselves as sharing this journey with our peers, rather than being in competition with them — or worse, thinking a peer’s progress is none of our business.

An act of reaching out could take several forms. At its most basic, it could simply be having the sensitivity to notice and perhaps talk to the teacher about what you have sensed. Depending on the equation with your peer, you could offer to help in the most appropriate way: joint study perhaps, a shared trip to the library, inclusion in a group outing, or just conversation over a cup of tea. Support from peers can be mutually energising; there is always something to learn from those who come from different worlds of experience.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. usha.bpgll@gmail.com

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