January 29, 2016

Getting out of the way

Sometimes, the best thing we can do as teachers (and maybe as human beings) is get out of the way.

This afternoon, one of my colleagues mentioned "getting out of the way" as the final step of his strategy for teaching. Something like teach, test, and get out of the way.

I had just spent the morning groping for the reigns of one of my classes as I tried to plan out everything for the next two weeks. Control everything. Make sure everything was exactly right. Make sure that I was teaching everything that students need to know. Make sure. Make sure. Make sure.

I was feeling pretty desperate. My plans weren't lining up and I couldn't keep anything straight in my mind.

Get out of the way.

Get out of the way.

Part of my course load this semester is a group of very motivated and advanced English majors. The course is about the foundations of rhetoric, critical thinking, and academic writing. This type of class has come to be my specialty in a way. I've taught it on three different continents. Teaching a fun subject to motivated students is exhilarating. A well-planned lesson will bring out the best in these students and they will surprise you will insight, depth, and curiosity.

The first week's lesson for this class was all about me getting out of the way, actually. I didn't think about it that way when I was planning it, but I basically nixed lecture in favor of guiding questions for small group discussion interspersed with me articulating main points that were naturally coming out of their discussions. At the end of the lesson, I asked them to write something that they found interesting during the class, and many of them commented specifically that they liked how I had used small group discussions, and in essence, gotten out of the way. They said they had enjoyed hearing what their group-mates had to say, and that they were able to pay attention to the content more easily.

For my other classes (the other 66% of my teaching), the curriculum is more basic and more rigid. The students are different too. They aren't English majors, and many of them still face a lot of challenges understanding and using spoken (and written, in some cases) English. Moreover, the class size is bigger. The classrooms are too small. Students arrive late. Students have so much work for their other classes. Students aren't invested in learning English. There seem to be a million things to cover in 15 weeks. There are a lot of obstacles to recreating the magical atmosphere of the other class.

What my frustration boils down to is that I want to control (and eliminate) all of these obstacles.

I can't.

In fact, maybe I shouldn't.

I'm working on integrating the "get out of the way" mantra into my planning for the course that is so challenging to teach. Don't try to control everything. Get out of the way. Step back. Listen. Don't answer for them. Let them have time to think. Let them ask the questions. I don't know how well it will work, but that's another thing I can't control.

So, here's to a new semester and getting out of the way.