Get Out of the Way!

Get Out of the Way!

The Secrets of Effective Teaching Revealed!

There are a few things that come to mind when I think about what I do that makes my teaching “useful” and “good.” If you’re reading this and you’re a teacher, then you already know most of them: I give kids multiple contexts for dealing with the material. I make them practice skills. I tell them that I care about them and their success, and then support those sentiments with how I treat them. I do other stuff, too. But for all of that, here’s the thing that I do when I teach my classes that gets me the biggest benefit while also being a relative secret among those who talk about what effective teaching looks like:

I get out of their way.

That’s it. More than anything else, that’s my “secret.” I give my students useful things to do, and then I stay out of their way.

Rocket science it’s not, but a lot of the time it doesn’t seem like common teacher sense either. There’s an implicit suggestion in much of the conversation around teaching that “good” teachers run the show, that good teaching is active. Discussions of teaching usually employ terms like interventions and bell-to-bell instruction. This was certainly the case when I worked in places where the ability to teach was assessed via an officially-approved rubric. Danielson, Marzano, et al. don’t really have an entry for “teacher lets kids work without intruding.” But even though that’s in absentia on all of the expert-created tools that are used to try to measure instructional effectiveness, I still suggest that the ability to stay out of a kid's way when you are encouraging them to learn something remains one of the most useful tools that teachers have.

A few disclaimers for the above:

  1. Even when you are passively letting students work, “staying out the way” is not a short-hand for “doing nothing.” When you aren’t inserting yourself in the middle of a student’s learning, you still need to be on the periphery. You’re going to do a lot of observation of your students as they work. It doesn’t need to rise to the level of ethnographic field-research, but it does mean you need to be aware of what’s going on in the room. If a kid isn’t using the time to learn, you need to deal with that. If a kid has hit a wall or has demonstrated they are going down the wrong path, you need to help them to work through their particular issue either with you, or (always the better option) with their peers. In other words, you still need to teach. It’s just this approach to “teaching” is not you leading your children through the material.
  2. You still need to be available to your students. Sometimes, kids absolutely demonstrate they have hit a problem-area in their learning. A lot of other time, they are going to keep that to themselves, and (if you’re lucky) they’ll approach you for a personal consultation. So you need to be available for that. If you aren’t available for that, there’s going to be problems. this is somewhat similar to the contacting subordinate rule that I found worked best when I was a Director: I never contacted my teachers after work hours, but I always made sure they knew that I was available if they wanted to contact me. The same logic applies here. Just because you aren’t inserting yourself into the middle of things, you need to be around when students feel that they need you.
  3. You might need to (politely) fight about this with supervisors. Maybe you are fortunate enough to not work in a school where every administrator is walking around with an expectation that every class is going to be an exercise in teacher-directed learning. But even if you work in a place where the admins say that, they probably still expect something that looks like it when they are in your room. They expect you to interject yourself into your student’s learning, if for no other reason than the fact that the rubrics they use when evaluating you have trained them to expect as much. This type of admin thinking might claim to be looking for “student-centered” instruction, when really what they mean is that they want the teacher to fool students into thinking they are in charge of their learning. They want you to be sneaky about how you make student’s do what you want them to do. In these cases, they might be confused by real student-centered learning. They might think you are not actually teaching kids. And then you are going to have to calmly and politely explain to them that you are teaching. You are teaching students how to learn by allowing them to practice how to learn. You are observing and monitoring and stepping in when it’s shown that you are needed. You are always available for students when they need you. In other words, you’re going to have to spell it out for them. If that doesn’t work….well, I guess you can either go work with other admins OR you can dog-and-pony whenever said admins are in your room and then go back to doing things correctly when they aren’t (I have always found utility in the second approach).

To close, let me make one last thing very clear: Just because getting out of the way is something I do, it’s not the only thing that I do. It’s just more of my time with students than I think is usually discussed. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t large portions of my class where I’m actively directing the show. If I had to apportion time spent to “active” vs. “passive” teacher modalities in my classroom, I’d guess it’s something like 50|50. And remember, I’m teaching advanced-level science courses to highly motivated science learners. I would never mean to suggest that my experiences are easily generalized to all teaching contexts and all student populations. But I know that in my own practice, I never feel like what my classes need is more of me and less of them. So I think that for whatever and whoever you teach, you’ll always do well considering where in your practice you can reduce your presence in the learning process to the benefit of your students. After all, learning isn’t about you, it’s about your students. What better way to demonstrate this than to give your students the time and space they need to learn?

This one’s a bit of an inexact mess, but what better place to leave an inexact mess? Do you like this piece? Do you hate it? Leave me a comment below if you want to have a conversation. I am not currently checking social media for discussion of or commentary on my work.

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