Teaching to learn

If you spend any time around children, the pace, variety and magnitude of their learning can be downright dizzying. But it is often only partly (or not at all) related to school learning. Kids watch other kids, watch grown-ups, pay attention to anything, everything and what sometimes appears to be nothing at all. They are learning. Putting two and two together. Figuring. Making guesses. Picking up. Gathering. Witnessing. Taking in. Saving it for later or using it right now. 

I have the privilege of observing these processes on a daily basis, at work and at home. My students surprise, fascinate and at times also exasperate me and I am humbled again and again by their thirst for making meaning. Much of my day seems to proceed in a blur and yet I cherish those moments when time slows down and I can listen to what my students have to tell me. I hear quite a bit about sore muscles, recent scrapes, sudden tummy aches and of course, hurt feelings. What I have found is that few of these ailments require more treatment at that moment than a simple airing followed by an empathic response. When my students feel heard and sufficiently attended to, they are, in a manner, “healed.” (A good game of tag is also helpful.)

My oldest students (4th and 5th graders) are working on team building challenges these days and my greatest challenge as the teacher is to stay out of the way of their learning. I hand over the responsibility to them for attempting and completing the challenge. I invite them to struggle, to endure some frustration, overcome setbacks and practice remaining positive even when progress seems slow. Of course, a part of me wants to speed them along by offering a critical hint and a stray piece of advice. It is hard to watch them stumble, get stuck and fail. And yet, with each new session they get better: they develop patience (a little at least), they begin to strategize before diving in, they stop blaming each other and before long they are celebrating increased success. When they celebrate, they fully own their accomplishments and can articulate what made the difference and why. These are the classes where I talk the least and learn the most: about my students and their capabilities and about the importance of keeping them in the spotlight.

My best work as a “teacher” lies less in the act of teaching as telling and much more in the realm of opening doors and creating space for learning to take place. My students, it turns out, are remarkably patient teachers and for that I am tremendously grateful.

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