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.
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