Be a Better Teacher by Doing Less

teach less

 

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Like most new teachers, I read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School when I was starting out (I’ve also read it every August since). My favorite quote from the book is:
“The reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working.  If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be as tired too.  But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 0‘clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!”  Why are they so full of energy?  Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher does all the work.  The person who does all the work is the only one doing any learning!”
 
It took me years to internalize the truth of this. For most of my career, I have been the dominant presence in my classroom. My need to feel in control, my mistaken belief that my doing more would lead to greater student success, and the feeling that because I was the only one in the room getting paid to be there, I ought to be doing most of the work, all contributed. I was convinced that the more I did, the better teacher I’d be. I was wrong.

Doing less benefits me. It also benefits my students.

Doing less work means I have more energy and more personal time. I get home early and eat an early dinner (as recommended in my five-star book, The Teacher’s Guide to Weight Loss (how’s that for a shameless plug?)). I achieve a healthy work-life balance by doing things I want to do instead of more work. I exercise, read, write, go to my daughter’s softball games, and just hang out with my wife on our deck. I get seven and a half hours of sleep every night, and I return to work the next day recharged.

I’m in a better mood at work because I’m less stressed. My better mood means I’m more patient with students.  Being well-rested means I’m less likely to make bad decisions and more likely to be calm, use humor, and build positive relationships with students and colleagues. It makes for a more pleasant environment for everybody.

My well-being directly impacts my students.

While doing less work benefits me, which in turn benefits my students, it also makes me a more effective teacher.

 When you do less, your students must do more. That means they’re more likely to learn. The person who does the work is the only one doing any learning.

Talk Less

I used to spend large parts of my day talking at students. Now, I try to present information in other ways. Sometimes, I ask students to read the information. Other times, I assign videos that teach what I would have taught. It’s arrogant to think we’re the only ones who can provide students with information or model a process. For directions, I’m transitioning to putting most of them in written form in Google Classroom, so my students can start working without having to listen to me.  In writing, I usually teach a short lesson, then let students actually write. They share their document with classmates. Those classmates are required to offer at least three comments about their writing. Instead of me giving all the feedback, I’ve shifted some over to the students.

Help Less

As I wrote in this article, I also try to help less. Helping less tells students that you believe in their abilities to figure out their own problems. It counteracts the helplessness many students have learned and empowers them to actually try. It allows students to fail, which allows them to learn.

Reduce Behavior Problems

Stepping back from my starring role at the head of the class has also helped those students with the greatest behavior challenges. Many of these students have a hard time sitting and listening. They get bored and wiggly. To entertain themselves, they make noises, leave their seats, or start bothering others. Many of these students do much better when they have work to do. By curtailing my role and increasing theirs, I cut down on the number of times during the day when these students are asked to sit still and listen, which is often when they get in trouble.

Plan Less

I’ve also tried to plan less. I used to do most of the work for students. I’d locate articles, copy them, require students to read them, and then ask them to respond in some way. I’d find exemplar texts for students to study before a writing unit. For a social studies unit, I’d locate all the texts, videos, and activities students would need. I’d compile a packet of worksheets. Then I’d guide students through each and every one of them.

But that’s now how anyone in the real world works. When I wrote my book Happy Teacher, no one gave me a stack of articles and books to read. No one provided links to the best web sites on happiness. I had to find them. I had to decide which ones best served my purposes. I had to select what information to use. I decided how much and what parts of each book to read. I had to evaluate the sources. This is the work students should be doing. When we do it for them, we miss powerful opportunities to teach authentic skills.

This year, for a unit on Native Americans, I did less work. Students did more. They collaborated to create a Google Slides presentation about three Native American groups that lived in Michigan. I provided the guidelines and different colored index cards to record notes. I modeled some of the skills outlined above. Then I set out every resource I had in my closet and let kids have at it. I allowed them to search online for videos. My role was limited to offering guidance, getting kids unstuck, and teaching lessons on evaluating the resources for how well they helped students meet the guidelines.

Assess Less

I didn’t do much assessment either. Students shared their slideshows with kids from other classes that had yet to study the topic. Those students were given a short form to complete that provided my students with feedback. They should know that my opinion on their work isn’t the only one that matters.

Some groups did well, others didn’t. They may not have all learned everything they were supposed to about Native Americans of Michigan, but they did all learn about working in a group, managing their time, evaluating resources, the importance of design in their presentations, and many other lessons that are more applicable to the real world that what kinds of houses the Chippewa built (wigwams, if you’re curious). And besides, they don’t all learn what they’re supposed to learn when I do all the work, either.

Enlist Their Help

In the last two years, I’ve also started to use student mentors. In math especially, there are students who are  head and shoulders about their classmates. These students often finish early and need more to do. In the past I gave them busy work, let them read, or gave them some free time. Sometimes I offered enrichment activities (which they usually resented). Now, these students become “coaches on the floor.” When they finish their work, they let me know. I check it for accuracy and write their names on the board as my mentors. When students raise their hands for help, the mentors assist me in providing it. Sometimes, the students are more patient and do a better job explaining things than I do. It also gives the mentors a chance to solidify their understanding. We learn best when we teach others.

So as I start thinking about next year, I’ll be looking for more areas where I can pull back and ask my students to step forward. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

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One Reply to “Be a Better Teacher by Doing Less”

  1. I love these ideas. I teach high school ASB Leadership and I use several of the strategies you mention. Next year, I will also be teaching an “Introduction to Leadership” class for 9th graders. I like your idea of having the students complete an assignment but asking for comments from students in another class. That would be a great way to connect my beginner group with my advanced group. This would be more meaningful to the students than comments from me.

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