Saturday, May 21, 2016

It's Great Not To Be Needed

It is one of the best things in teaching-- that moment when your students just don't need you.

I'm the adviser for many creative, artsy, performance activities. One of my fave side jobs is stage crew adviser, which also ends up being basically the stage manager and house manager for our auditorium and related facilities. It's my job to train the students in lighting design and execution, sound work, backstage grip stuff-- everything that has to happen in order for a performance to happen on our stage.

Every May the district rents our performance space out to a local dance studio (run by one of my former students, because I teach in a small town) and my crew gets to experience being a stage crew for hire. They get two rehearsals, and then two performances. The dancers come equipped with music and choreography; it's up to us to design and execute the lighting, keep the music on point, handle everything that comes up backstage. In an average, or below-average year, I'm moving from station to station, offering advice, tweaking choices, making sure that the crew has thought everything through and that they don't have any questions. In an average or below-average year, I get plenty of exercise and log plenty of steps.

This year I sat in the lobby and kept an eye on traffic in and out of the hall.

The crew didn't need me for anything. They made their choices, executed their plans, corrected their mis-steps, coordinated their duties. If space aliens had kidnapped me from the lobby five minutes before curtain, it wouldn't have made a bit of difference to the show itself.

This is the dream. Students who have learned and internalized their learning so well that they don't just remember the specific how-to's of specific situations, but they can see the whole organizing structure of ideas and values so that they are perfectly capable of analyzing and responding to new situations. Better still, they can evaluate their own work as they do it and decide to pat themselves on the back or make better choices.

They're students, and they still like the affirmation and confirmation, so I tell them they've done a great job. But, really, they already knew that. They've acquired the most important, most valuable of educational "outcomes"-- they're own personal inner guidance system.

This is one of the things I find fundamentally troubling about test-centered accountability-- the continued insistence that without the Big Standardized Test, or the Ongoing Computerized Feedback, or whatever we're selling this month-- without all of that, the poor students will never know how well they're doing. But a constant feedback loop of, "We'll just check the computer data to see how you did" teaches them that they must always look to someone else, someone outside themselves, to know how they did. The proof is always in someone else's pudding.

Add that to the kind of no excuses systems we see in urban charters, and we are creating a system in which children are taught NOT to be independent, self-directed, self-actuating humans with their own inner guidance system.

That's just wrong. The end product of an education should be an independently functioning human being.

That's always my goal. My crew ran the show for four straight nights, did it well, and did it without needing me to get them there. Last week we passed out yearbooks (yes, that's me, too) and my yearbook students were able to contemplate the book with pride because it was their book. There are choices I might have made differently, but it's not my book. It's their book, and they took responsibility for it, using all the training I've given them over the years filtered through their own judgment and inner guidance. That includes training the rest of the staff. I always tell my seniors, "The real measure of how good a job you did is not your own book-- it's next year's book."

It's easy to give in to the urge to fiddle, to tweak, to tell yourself that you'd better stay right next to that student and keep issuing directions so they don't mess up or make a mistake. But you can't practice functioning independently if nobody trusts you. How, I keep wondering, can a child ever get to pride in their ability to read and write if they spend their whole school career hearing, "Just hold on there, buddy. I'll let you know whether you can read and write or not."

It is a great thing to look around in May and see students who absolutely do not need me. It would be discouraging and sad to see students who can't make a move, a choice or a judgment without checking with me for the data printouts. I am proud of my students, and far more importantly, they are proud of themselves. The end of the year has come, and they don't need me. It's perfect.


  1. Good POV...

    For me it's when one of my physics nerds figures out a better way of doing a lab or a new way of looking at a problem that I had never considered.

  2. I hope that maybe in your small part of the world someone will also notice that the kids did it on their own, and thank you, but in the likely case no one does, Congratulations, Peter!

    One of my favorite things about teaching was that as one year comes to a close, there are many of these small victories. Then the slate is wiped clean and we start over again, fresh, in September.

  3. Sigh. Exactly. My favorite day in journalism was the issue where they told me I was no longer needed. I have tried to get admins to see that we could get kids to assume some control over the building and environment instead of imposing a fascist regime but they don't seem to think they are capable. I do.