Old Habits Die Hard

I haven’t always been the type of teacher I am today. When I think back to my first few years in education, I can admit that I was a super ‘teachery teacher’. Behaviour charts, staying in at recess, rewards&punishments, worksheets, tests… you name it, I did. If you walked by my class you would have seen students silent and on-task – not because they were engaged, because I used me authority and control to illicit compliance.

Over the years I have learned, unlearned and re-learned and as a result transformed into a teacher who now values student agency above all else.

… but every now and then, the old me creeps back in.

Yeaterday was a perfect example:

We are smack dab in the middle of a Unit of Inquiry about how scientific thinking can help us understand humans. At this stage in the unit we were using an “unconference” model, where students are empowered to sign up for help and support when needed.

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Our deadline for literature reviews and completion of methods is Friday and although I have been supporting students all week to plan their days in hopes of meeting this deadline, there were 6 students who were nowhere close.

Feeling all the familiar feelings – the pressure to meet made-up timelines, the need to have all students at the same place at the same time, the need to “teach those kids a lesson” for procrastinating – I told those 6 that their day planning privileges were on pause until their method and lit review was done. I told them they would be sitting with me all day and could only leave my side when they showed me they were done.

Then I went home and all night had this nagging feeling of cognitive dissonance. I knew that what I had said and done was against our Studio 5 mission. I knew that I was infringing on their agency as learners. I knew I was being a hypocrite saying ‘it’s your learning, you own it, I trust you’ and then forcing them to sit with me until it’s finished. I knew that I was taking away their opportunity to fail and learn a lesson on their own. I knew I was using tactics of authority and compliance.

I knew I was back to my old ways of being a teachery-teacher…

So the next morning I shared all this with my students. I apologized. And I told them I was there for them if they needed help and support to meet the deadlines – but it was their choice, as it had been all along.

Their choice if they wanted my help.

Their choice when they wanted my help.

Their choice about how much help they wanted.

And guess what?

Each and everyone of them signed up for an unconference with me – most signed up for all my available unconferneces that day.

And guess what else?

Most of them asked if they could give up their recess to get caught up. Some even chose to take it home at the end of the day to make up for lost time.

I couldn’t have been happier with how things turned out! I spent my day supporting them to meet their deadline – not because they were being forced to, but because they chose to. And that felt completely different.

If I would have stuck with my initial plan, what would they have learned?

– that I say they own their learning, but when push comes to shove, actually I do

– that planning their day is only a privilege and I can take it away anytime I want

– that procrastinating is fine, because someone else will make sure they get things done

Throwing our that plan, and respecting their ownership over their learning, what might they have (hopefully) learned instead?

– that they actually do own their own learning

– that I am here to support them, not control or police them

– that in life when you procrastinate, sometimes you need to find extra time to get caught up

And what did I learn!?

– that those impulses towards control and compliance are deep rooted in my teacher DNA

– that I need to notice when my old habits creep back in

– that if I’m going to talk-the-talk of agency, I better be prepared to walk-the-walk of agency

– that if we always swoop in and pre-emptively save them, we’re stealing their opportunity to truly learn and grow

-that students truly are amazing … when we give them the space and room to be

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5 thoughts on “Old Habits Die Hard

  1. maryacbyu October 30, 2017 / 8:41 pm

    I deeply appreciate this post, Taryn. It’s a powerful insight on a specific “what if” fear we all experience in letting go of our “teacher-y teacher” ways: time/deadlines. One of the potential lessons you listed (had you stuck with the original plan) really made me think: “that procrastinating is fine, because someone else will make sure they get things done.” I’d never thought of it that way, but that is absolutely what we reinforce when we snatch the wheel back from students for fear of their failure. I feel certain that the positive lessons learned in this experience for your students was all the more powerful because you were so genuine and honest with them.

    One question I have is, had any of your students ultimately failed to meet the deadline due to procrastination, what would be the next step there? I can see some students being so thoroughly wrapped up in “the game of school” that they’d see such deadlines as an opportunity to prove they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. On the other hand, being surrounded by such a rich environment of agency would surely be a healing experience for them as they came to believe that teachers are truly there to support their progress.

    Thanks, as always!
    Mary

    Like

  2. MrBlowers November 4, 2017 / 6:18 pm

    Your reflective nature and honesty is why I return time and again to this blog. And exactly why your students respect you and learn so much with you.
    Please keep blogging and championing student agency, it’s inspirational!
    Lee

    Like

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