My first year of teaching, I wanted to make social studies come alive. Interact makes some great simulations but it takes precious time to understand, plan, and make copies. Still, I went for it. I made it through the early human academy and cave painting. The scariest part was to help students appreciate the wonder of ancient engineering by building a model of Stonehenge with one hand and very limited tools. It required dozens of bricks, even more toilet paper rolls, twine and chalk. I had no idea how I would accomplish it. So I set a date, sent a note home asking for help, and crossed my fingers… well, prayed.
Five, ten, and twenty bricks started showing up before and after school. Toilet paper rolls arrived by the bag. Parents volunteered to monitor the room for safety. And even though I had no idea what I was doing, it worked. Twice in one day. I learned something important that day. Be brave.
Since then, I have abandoned the textbook more times that I can count, mostly successfully. I have helped put on Greek Olympics, set up seed spitting contests to teach measurement and graphing, run Magformer car race physics experiments, had a “homeless” class for a day, turned over nearly a week of lessons into a fundraising drive to replace a vandalized tree, and taken sixth graders on an overnight aboard a wooden sailing ship. For that trip, I had to use daily lunch meetings to work through a thick binder of material including learning sea shanties and knot tying, neither of which I had a clue about. The trip was amazing, even transformative for some children, and made me thrilled to be a teacher.
Being brave also means giving up control. By the end of the wooden ship trips, I didn’t count my students before we got on the bus to go home. It was the mates’ responsibility, and I trusted them. Of course, they had counted their crew dozens of times by then and miscounted crews had done extra chores, but at some point you, as a teacher, will have to trust your students as well as your ability to recover if they mess up.
Giving up control happens in large and small ways. In 7th grade, my daughter Hailey wanted to write her procedural essay on how to eat a chocolate bar. Her teacher begged her not to because she couldn’t imagine that there were enough steps to write about. My headstrong child insisted. Hailey wrote an intensely descriptive essay that received every point on the rubric and a surprised, complimentary note from the teacher.
As you struggle with giving up control, consider this. I teach in an International Baccalaureate school which means we work to make our instruction inquiry driven. Our students are used to running up to us with ideas for science experiments, research projects, and ways to change the world. I often feel overwhelmed by all of their enthusiasm and have no idea how I will help them accomplish all of this. If I felt the need to be in control, I would argue or give them reasons to fail, but it’s not my job. It is my job to say yes. And in saying yes, I have learned the things I am most afraid of will fall of their own weight.
For example, one 3rd grade reading group finished a book about child scientists and decided they wanted to do experiments of their own. Alarm bells started ringing in my head, but I said yes. I thought they would choose from the reading book, but three of them used the internet. Louder alarms. They latched onto some difficult experiments. Huge alarms. But then I told them they had to make a shopping list for me because I wasn’t reading through four different experiments with a highlighter. They suddenly realized that they didn’t understand the experiments and chose easier ones. Thankfully, the problem fell of its own weight. (Here is where I owe an apology to my student teacher who accidentally got covered in vegetable oil from one of those simpler experiments.)
The same holds true for research topics. I have lost track of how many times students have started with a huge topic like the ocean and narrowed it down to the Gulf of Mexico once they saw how many pages there were in the encyclopedia. I may tell a child a topic is too big, but it is much more effective to let them see it for themselves and let the problem fall of its own weight.
It’s also true when they choose a book to read. I knew a librarian who tried to strictly enforce the five-finger rule that went something like, “Put up a finger for every word you can’t read. If you get to five on a page, you can’t check out the book.” She used to argue with children and not let them take books that she thought were too hard for them. I can’t fathom why. Give it a few minutes or a few hours and it will fall of its own weight. The book will come back, and the child will not be damaged for trying to read it. Or maybe they will surprise everyone and read it. Either way, if the child was being brave enough to take on a hard book, an adult could have the courage to support her.
Stretch yourself into the after-school hours. It can transform your relationship with students. Regis and I had a tense relationship. Small for his age, his mouth made up for it. I couldn’t figure out why until he got into lots of trouble with a sub, and he explained it by saying, “She was sassy, and I don’t have to do what sassy people say.” Well, that did explain why he followed few directions unless the consequences were clear. Finding that type of relationship exhausting, I had to do something. He loved playing basketball, so I got his schedule, and drove into town on Saturday for an 8 a.m. game. I even had to pay to get in. And sitting in the stands was another teacher from our school. (This teacher is committed. Over the summer, she even takes students to the pool or meets families there.) On Monday, Regis not only told everyone I was at his game, he was much nicer. He also gave me a schedule for the next quarter’s games.
Donating a little money to your students’ fundraising also makes a difference. It makes them proud. Buy one box of cookies from every Girl Scout brave enough to ask. If you don’t want the cookies, buy the boxes that they donate to troops overseas. Attend plays and concerts. Ask for football, baseball, volleyball, and track schedules. Visit their gardens or farms. You will find out your students have gifts that you never see in school. Plus, word gets out that students matter and that you care. The math teacher next door to me in middle school loved to play Animal Crossings on her Nintendo DS. She swapped tips with one of her students. When that child’s mom tried to excuse a failing grade by saying, “I just don’t think you have a connection with my daughter,” that teacher was able to say, “Wait a minute! She’s my Animal Crossings buddy!”
Be brave in all of these small ways, and magic will happen. A girl who barely speaks in class will walk in on your lunch with a spiral notebook full of a half-finished novel. She wants your opinion. You will read her chapters and be astonished at the imagination and unique voice of a girl that had seemed absolutely average in all other ways. After you give her your most thoughtful encouragement, she will come back a few days later with new chapters addressing all of the plot weaknesses you discussed. And suddenly you are nurturing a new voice that you would otherwise have overlooked.
In those very moments when you have stretched yourself the farthest, given up control, and supported a student’s choice, that is when you will feel most like a teacher. The students will be enervated and engaged, and creativity will spring from the most unexpected children. The context may look like everything is out of control, but if you listen carefully, you will hear everyone on task, thinking, and working on the content that they used to complain about. The conversations you get to have with your students will be the best kind, the ones you dreamed of having, where you push their thinking and even question your own. Be brave because it is on these days that you will feel like you rediscovered your calling.