Plan for Letting Go

When I first did the Cyber-Mentoring project as a young English teacher, there was a day when my ninth graders had a work period in the computer lab, and kids were emailing their mentors, revising their papers, peer editing, and for a few moments, no one needed me. I literally had nothing to do.

It was a deeply weird moment for me. So I walked around the class and looked over a lot of shoulders and “hmmmmm-ed” profoundly. I probably ended up interrupting the students more than anything else. And I remember thinking, “This isn’t really teaching, is it?”

And of course, it was. It might have been my best moment of teaching up to that point in my career.

I wasn’t needed.

Isn’t that what we want for our kids – the ability to work and learn without us?

But, of course, that moment didn’t happen in isolation. Behind that fifteen minutes of class time where no one needed me was hours of work setting 30 kids up with mentors who could help them with their writing, and emails to the mentors explaining what the kids were working on, and teaching 14 year old how to collaborate with adults who were their teachers – to say nothing of trying to create an assignment that kids and adults could engage with. And the fruit of that labor were those moments where everyone involved could really work and learn.

But many of us — myself included — it’s harder than it should be to do that, because of our teacher ego. And I don’t say that dismissively at all. The best teachers I’ve known get a great deal of satisfaction out of being useful and helpful. It’s why Dan Meyer’s rallying cry of “Be Less Helpful” is so important. We want to be helpful. It’s almost in a teacher’s DNA.

And of course, we won’t stop being helpful… both in the classroom and outside of it. But we have to take the next steps and see our work as curriculum architects where there’s more hard work in the design of our spaces, in the design of the work, so that the work of the classroom is just that — about the work.

That’s what I see when I walk through SLA. I see English classes where kids are doing genre-studies in book groups. I see science students building circuits or doing experiments, I see math students applying statistical models to the world around them. I see teachers who are teaching without needing to be in the front of room. I see teachers willing to let students learn from and with each other before jumping in to be the hero. And I see teachers designing the framework that allows kids to learn in their classes and for the rest of their lives.

And then I’m seeing kids create artifacts of their learning that were beyond what any of us thought of when we first envisioned the idea for that unit ourselves.

If we are to create the kinds of schools and classrooms that kids need, we have to understand that our helpfulness isn’t just in that moment where the kids are in front of us, but in the invisible work that happens outside of class as well. We have to understand that letting go is hard, but necessary. And we have to understand that we can only let go when we have created the framework that helps our kids learn to fly.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

6 thoughts on “Plan for Letting Go

  1. I always love the point in the school year when students can independently follow a list of tasks or priorities that are written on the board. Even better is the time of year when students can make their own lists, specifying what goals they want to achieve in what [short] period of time.

    My teaching then becomes about guidance and I am able to conference with individual students about the choices they are making in their projects. Not only do I get to know the students’ thinking better, I can differentiate instruction to meet their specific needs. Very rewarding!

  2. I wrote a quick tweet saying how this described my perfect classroom. My best days are ones where I don’t talk, when I don’t sit down for long and where if you looked into my classroom you would have a hard time finding me. You asked me if it was easy and I responded that it was natural. I don’t remember making the decision to let go of the reigns. But I know it was a gradual evolution of my teaching. And the less scared I was (of losing control, of looking lazy, of giving up something that worked) the more my kids could take control of their learning. And I know it is important to be supported by admin. They need to know that when it looks like I’m not doing anything and it seems that kids are doing all the work, both my students and I are actually working harder and learning more than ever before.

    Thanks for the post. I really enjoyed it.

  3. This is a timely post for me as I’ve noticed that my fifth grade students are becoming much more independent by this time of year. This became very apparent a week before winter break. My learners create their own digital portfolios on Weebly. Each student set goals, academic and personal, then provide evidence of their learning and growth. Since Weebly was a new tool for them, I expected the usual demand for my attention. Instead, I saw them depending upon one another and problem-solving ideas on ways to show their evidence and manipulate the tool to fit their vision. In an inclusion class with a heavy population of ELLs, there are always students who need support. The difference was their confidence in their ability to successfully navigate the challenge in front of them. When fellow teachers came in to see what my students were engaged in, they were surprised and asked how this came to be. Who ever heard of students wanting to create a form of assessment? The honest answer is the same as in this post: It takes a lot of “behind the scene” work to get learners to a level where they take ownership for their learning. We must let go and let them build meaning in their learning and discover how what they are learning in class is relevant to their lives inside and outside the school walls.

    Thank you for this post.

  4. Chris,
    I am very inspired by your post and by your efforts as a teacher! You are right, in order for a moment like that to happen you must have put in countless hours of preparation. That is what the public (and a lot of time, the students) do not realize; I want to stay positive, so that is all I will say about that! You are definitely a teacher leader! Have you shared your project/unit with administration or teachers in your building? I hope so! That is the kind of teaching/planning that would win you teacher of the year! Maybe, you could teach a PLC (professional learning community) at your school during a team meeting, staff meeting, or even during professional development time. Are you planning on having a reception of some sort so that your students and mentors can meet? I hope that you will have your students write reflections on the experience so that you can have and read those for years to come! Your students are lucky to have you!

  5. Chris-
    I wanted to let you know that this post resonated with me and as I reflected upon it, I felt the need to write a post of my own, The idea of preparing our students to drive their instruction by letting go has really struck a chord with several other educators and I received several comments and had several face-to-face and social media conversations over the last couple of days regarding letting go. In fact, another teacher, Cara Whitehead has also written a blog post ( about letting go after reading my post, “It’s Time to Let Go.” Thank you so much for causing all of us to think and discuss “letting go “this week.