“A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.”
– Thomas Carruthers
The above quote was on my heart a great deal this past week. I am now well into my internship, and am still trying to discover my true role in the classroom. My four freshmen classes are fast-paced, organic, and daunting. I never know quite what to expect when the 9th graders file into my classroom—they continually, blessedly surprise me! And as these little nuggets of bewilderment have kept things fresh in the classroom throughout each and every period, they also force me to slide into an authoritative figure much more than I would like. I completely realize this is just part of the learning experience, and that this is all part of my being “baptized by fire,” as my mentor teacher so eloquently puts it. But I still cannot shake the concern that as I continue to grow into a frame of discipline, I am falling farther and farther from being a supportive, loving mentor. As a young, often overwhelmed student teacher, what should be my role in the classroom? Authoritarian? Coach? Is there such a thing as a happy, productive balance between discipline and facilitation? Or is such a thought more fantasy than reality? Carruthers, an extraordinary educational theorist from the early twentieth century, explains the role of the teacher simply: to provide the opportunities for students to learn how to learn, thereby making himself/herself unnecessary. Clearly, he points to the fact that teaching is a progressive experience. Teachers must start with control and authority, but then must steer their classes in such a way as to provide students with an increasingly aggressive role in the classroom. As students discover their own affection for learning, as well as acquire the tools that promote learning on their own, the teacher steps back. It is at this point in the process when true, organic education begins. And when such an experience takes shape, discipline—at least direct regulation and punishment—is extraneous. Therefore, ideally, the more I can plant seeds of interest in the hearts and minds of my students, the more I can hand them the “reins” of the classroom, the less I will have to worry about being a figure or pure discipline. After reflecting on these thoughts and participating in countless discussions with my mentor teacher, I decided to experiment this week.
On Wednesday, I planned a lesson for my 12th graders [with the thought that if it worked with Seniors, I would then try it on the 9th graders] that was designed to promote independence and student ownership. Occurring on the very day we began reading the next play [Pseudolus] in our Drama Unit, I created a contextual lesson introducing Roman Comedy. Students were split into heterogeneous groups based on their grade in the class thus far, and tasked to read an article and become “experts” on it. These articles were all short (on page or less), focused on one aspect of Roman Comedy (Author’s biography, Theater structure, musical involvement, Greek influence, etc), and relatively accessible to their literary minds. After becoming experts on their article, the groups were then disbanded and new groups were formed. Each of these groups consisted of one member from each of the earlier groups, thereby allowing each group to possess an “expert” on every article read that day. The students then spent the rest of their time teaching one another, by taking turns sharing their expertise in their respected topics. All the while, I avoided the front of the classroom; instead, I wandered the room eavesdropping, answering questions, and simply observing my students learn from each other. It was truly a wonderful, enriching experience.
The lesson spoken of above was based on two Washington State Reading standards: 2.3 and 3.1, as well as the SPU Principle “O.” Reading standard 2.3 details how students should “read to learn new information” and reading standard 3.1 explains how students “expand comprehension by analyzing, interpreting, and synthesizing information and ideas in literary and informational text” (Copied directly from the OSPI Website: www.k12.wa.us/). Students were undoubtedly reading to learn new information, as barely any of them had a remote idea concerning Roman Comedy, let alone detailed contextual information. Simultaneously, by requiring students to become experts in their contextual topics through close reading and group discussion, their comprehension was expanded. My commitment to aligning this lesson came directly from SPU’s principles of HOPE. Specifically, principle “O” was one of the most contributing influences in the development of this experimental lesson. This principle focuses on “Offering an organized and challenging curriculum,” and as I strived to create a lesson plan that not only aligned with state standards, but also challenged students to become experts in new, diverse contextual topics related to our unit, I feels strongly I satisfied this principle’s expectations.
Upon reflecting on this lesson, I am relatively thrilled with its implementation. I thought the students were interested throughout the entire period, they taught one another with respect and enthusiasm, and the general flow of the lesson was actually really healthy. After assessing the students in our next class session, I also discovered an exciting fact: THEY LEARNED SOMETHING!!!! All of these factors lead me to believe Carruthers was onto something when he described how unnecessary the teacher should really be. If students are engaged, challenged, and provided the tools and opportunity to facilitate their own learning, amazing results can occur! My favorite aspect to this whole experience was the fact that I was rarely called upon to act as a disciplinary. Because students were interested in their own learning, my role was simply aiding those who needed it and making sure everyone kept an eye on the clock.
The one reservation I have, upon looking back at this lesson in retrospect, is that students need to be notified of what exactly will be expected of them BEFORE they begin the activity. About halfway through the lesson—just before the first groups were disbanded and the new groups were formed—I had to interrupt the class and tell them exactly what they would be doing in the next round of discussions. This was unfortunate, mostly due to the fact that it interrupted students’ conversations and learning. So if I was to teach a lesson similar to this one in the future [which I believe I will be doing with the Freshmen next week], I would undoubtedly tell them everything they need to know up front.
All in all, I am pleased with my experiment. Obviously, everything did not go exactly as planned, but such is the reality of teaching high schoolers. My hope is that I can continue to reflect on Carruthers’ ideas—along with the countless other people I am being constantly mentored by during this lengthy internship—and learn more and more each day. Every mistake, every mishap, and every failed idea are simply lessons for me. And as I continue to work hard, walk humbly, take risks, and push myself, I cannot imagine my teaching not improving.