I have often said that the less a teacher speaks, the more a student learns. John Hunter, creator of the World Peace Game and recent TED Talk speaker, said something similar but significantly more profound:
“I don’t have to control every conversation and response in the classroom. The students’ collective wisdom is much greater than mine.”
John Hunter is right. In fact, I believe that this is the hardest but most important lesson that a teacher can learn.
Thankfully, I was able to begin learning this lesson during my first year of teaching, thanks to the honesty and directness of a colleague and friend.
I was teaching second grade, in a time before Smartboards and laptops and much of the technology that dominates a classroom today. I was teaching writing to my students one morning, and I was having a blast.
The lights in the classroom were switched off and I was projecting a student-written poem onto onto a screen using an overhead projector. We were revising and editing the poem together, and the kids were doing great. They were just seven years old but were commenting on line break choices, the effectiveness of similes and metaphors and alternative word choices. I was scribbling their thoughts and ideas all over the poem, making it look like the mess that good revision should be.
I was so proud of them.
And when we finished with the poem, we moved onto another. And another. And another.
I have no idea how long the lights were turned off that day and how long those poems were projected on that screen, but eventually my colleague, my mentor, my role model, and a future character in Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, walked into my room, bent down beside me, and whispered the three words that have echoed throughout my teaching career:
“You’re killing them.”
That was all she said, but that was all that needed to be said. I lifted my head above the warm glow of the overhead projector and looked into the dull, disinterested, sleepy eyes of my students who had been listening to me for entirely too long.
A minute later the lights were back on, the kids were eating snacks, and I was desperately trying to find ways for them to learn without having to listen to me.
Those three words, “You’re killing them,” have guided my career. They eventually became the foundation of my teaching philosophy and the impetus for my core belief that learning should always be fun, independent, and self-directed, regardless of the day or the subject, and that the teacher should do his best to get the hell out of their way.
This is the essence of John Hunter’s TED Talk, and it is clear that he follows these principles much better than I could ever hope to do.
This is what I mean when I say that the effectiveness of a teacher can be determined by the ease in which you can walk into a classroom and have a conversation with the teacher without bringing student learning to a halt.
This is the lesson that I try to pass down to new teachers, student teachers and even veteran teachers who have become what my mentor and friend calls "The Sage on Stage." These are teachers who have forgotten that their voice should be heard the least in a classroom. These are teachers whose students are not engaged in interesting, student-directed work during the majority of their school day. These are teachers who do not believe that every educator has the responsibility to make school fun for their students, because when they are having fun, they are learning best.
I constantly ask myself if I am killing them.
And sometimes I am.
Sometimes I fall back into those bad habits of too much talk and not enough work. But thankfully my friend’s words have never stopped ringing in my ears.
Thankfully I know enough to look up from time to time to see if my kids are smiling, reading, writing, calculating and talking to one another.
Are they laughing? Or are they just listening?
It's a question every teacher should ask as often as possible.