Why being sympathetic doesn’t cut it as a reading teacher

The first rule of effective teaching of reading is: they don’t need our sympathy. Quite the reverse. An attitude of sympathy for ‘poor Johnny’ or ‘poor Jemima’ makes them feel like a lesser person. It cements the messages of failure that they’ve internalised over years at school. Poor Johnny.  He just can’t. . .  He doesn’t need us to feel sorry for him. He needs us to teach him those basic skills, that no one else has managed.

Secondly, sympathy doesn’t change the situation. It’s a substitute for effective action. It means that we’re prepared to accept the status quo and satisfied with feeling sorry for the student. After all, if the teaching is effective and the student is learning, there isn’t any reason for us to feel sorry for them.

This is NOT to say that empathy doesn’t matter. It’s important to understand how students feel about school, about learning, about reading, about themselves. But that is quite a different thing from feeling sorry for them. Instead, they need us to expect the very best for them. They need us to have the highest expectations – because we are confident that our teaching is enabling them to make excellent progress. And this means that as reading teachers, we need to have the skills and knowledge to teach with precision and power.

Our students need us to persevere, to push when they’re discouraged because the mountain seems too high to scale. They need us to be confident in them and never express any doubts that they will achieve the goal. They need us to provide praise for every small step until they begin to believe in themselves: that moment when they look back and realise how far they have come.

And when the mountain has been scaled, then we can celebrate with them – their effort, their perseverance, their success! And to look with satisfaction on the new horizons open to them, because their choices in life have increased exponentially. That’s a precious, indeed priceless, gift. Don’t let sympathy take it away from you, or your students.

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