If you get out of your students' way, they'll do great things

About this time last year I sent a perplexed e-mail to my high school English teacher, asking him, “Why do you teach?” In the e-mail I proceeded to describe my new realization that teaching is incredibly difficult, all-consuming work! (Duh…I think to myself now…) Changing lives, inspiring students, creating extraordinary learning experiences, none of these rewards of teaching were immediately visible to me. Why work i-banking hours, for very little pay, and no immediate reward? At the time I did not receive an immediate response, but my mentor teacher showed me part of the answer in his own teaching.

A few months later, one chilly Sunday morning as I was settling into the library to write a paper, I opened my e-mail and found a lengthy letter from my former English teacher. One thing he wrote in the letter stuck out, “if you just get out of your students’ way, they’ll do great things.”

My cross country team has already shown me the value of following the above advice. When we were about a mile out of town last week, one of my runners developed an injury that required me to walk her back to school. Without any way of communicating with the other runners (some were at least a mile ahead), I made a tough choice and walked with the injured student and let the runners continue on their own, trusting that they would be able to continue practice without my prescence. Lo and behold, they did exactly that! Eighteen students, from the ages of 10-17, ran their own practice! Once they had realized that I was not there, some of my older, faster runners even slowed down their pace to make sure that someone was at the tail end of the group and that all got back safely and happily.

In the letter he also wrote about an Iraq Teach In that my friends and I had organized in the Fall of 2002. [Short summary of the teach in: 5 of us students organized an entire day of school, without regular classes, filled with guest speakers and workshops about the impending war in Iraq]. He wrote, “I “teach” the days because they are so fundamentally student-centered: students decide the format of the day; research, select, and invite participants; and take care of all the organizing. I’m not sure that it’s a conventional use of the term to say that I “teach” in describing my role in these events, though I suppose you could say that I “teach” them in that I serve as a guide for the students involved, trying to be as hands-off as I can possibly be. Ultimately, I “teach” these events for the profound satisfaction the student organizers end up experiencing as crafters of their own education. And informing everything I teach is the hope—no, a belief, really—that at some point in the future the students whose lives I’m a part of will also “pay it forward” by shaping the lives of those around them in significant, positive ways—that at least some of my students will work actively and passionately to make the world a more equitable and compassionate place to live.”

Again, my cross country team has shown me the power of “teaching” in this way. Today, I had a meeting with my principal immediately after practice. I told the kids that the older ones could stay in the building to plan fundraising and plan for our meet next week. When I emerged from my meeting half an hour later the students had planned a bakesale for this weekend, decided how to fundraise at the meet, and written letters to the principal asking for permission to do these things. I looked at their final product, guided them in a few directions, but for the most part I simply gave the kids an opportunity and they took it! Needless to say, I am blown away!

Erika Written by:

One Comment

  1. Lauren
    September 17, 2008

    I never heard of the story of Shotwell’s response. Good story, Erika.
    I’m glad to hear you are being such a good mentor. Be proud.

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