I used to think teaching was a job. And then I thought it was a profession. And now I’m of the opinion that it’s a calling. It’s a very noble calling. You’re a manager when you’re a teacher. You’re managing a lot of disparate personalities all under one roof and they’re doing many different things at once and they’re working on many different levels and they’re interacting. So you have so many variables at play. If you’re good at it, and stay with it long enough, you become a pretty good manager in chaotic or unknown situations.
You also become good at maximizing the best in people to bring out their greatest assets. And you’re teaching them to deal with chaos in unknown situations themselves by supporting them in exercises that allow them to explore the unknown. So I think teachers have in some ways an advantage in managerial training.
In the film World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements there’s a scene where the students are all frantically racing about the room and having negotiations and conferences at the top of their voices. And the question I ask about that scene is who’s in charge in that room? I’m sitting down and sort of uninvolved, it appears. But what is happened is the students are allowed to have the power over their own learning. It’s not prescribed and given to them what they must do.
Certainly there are things teachers must accomplish. We’re handed mandates and dictums and we have certain things we must accomplish by certain times. So what I do is I turn to my students and say, “Okay boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, we have this that we must accomplish.” A mathematics goal or a language arts goal. And I say, “And how should we do this? What’s the best way to do it? What are the best ways?” And so immediately there’s engagement. Because suddenly a teacher is offering them control and power over what they must do. They know they have to do it, and there is lack of control there, but the power to be able to sculpt it and design it in their own way – that’s the exciting part.
And so they set to work brainstorming. They come up with all kinds of ways of getting information, often based on their own passions which then drive the learning even harder. And then I ask them, “Okay now I’m going to ask you what can go wrong? How many different ways can we fail? Let’s discover them now.” And we do. We brainstorm everything that could go wrong. And we troubleshoot for that before we even start. So if we encounter more problems, of course we’ve already had practice in dealing with them because we did that upfront.
And then we also brainstorm the assessment. How will we know that we really deeply and truly understand that we know what we think we know? So we build the assessment together. I, as a teacher, might have certain things I have to assess but I open up that tool chest to them and say, “Let’s go at it together, rewire this thing and make it so it works for you.” And that kind of ownership I’ve seen excites a student so much that they look at me wondering “Is this man seriously giving us control over our classroom, our learning? What’s going to happen to us? We have control over that now?”
And so it’s an amazing moment to see the startled look on some of the new students faces when they realize they have the power to actually help and be co-teachers in the classroom to help us learn together. So that I think is where what looks like giving away control is actually in a greater larger sense gaining more power. Because I now have the power harnessed of 25 or 30 students along with my own power. I’m just one individual but if I’ve got 25 or 30 other minds, no matter the size or how many years they’ve been here on the planet, those minds harnessed to a common goal, a common causes that they’re excited about that they care about and they bring creativity to and they bring an open fresh sense of wonder to. How much better of a teacher can I be with that kind of help and support? Because I’ve got a roomful teachers everyday that help me do my job.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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