She asked me, “Can I do it?”
“No sweetie, you’ll make a mess. Let me measure the flour and then you can put it in the bowl.”
She watched me measure out the flour and then I handed the measuring cup to her and held her hand as she dumped it in the bowl so that she wouldn’t spill it all over the counter. We went through the same routine for the other dry ingredients and then moved on to the wet.
“Can I crack the eggs?” she pleaded.
“No honey let me do it. You’ll make a mess. You can watch me do it and learn how.”
Expertly I cracked the eggs into the bowl and then reached for the mixer.
“Can I do it?” she asked reaching for the mixture.
“Not by yourself. You can hold onto the mixer with me,” I offered.
She shook her head and said, “That’s okay. I think I’ll go downstairs and watch some TV. Will you call me when the cookies are ready?”
I nodded and let her go, disappointed that she wasn’t interested in baking cookies after all. I recalled some of my favorite memories in the kitchen baking with my grandmother and lamented that kids these days just didn’t seem to be interested in anything but television.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that I was the one who had killed the experience for her. The reason that I loved those baking sessions with my grandmother was because my grandmother taught me how to do things myself. I thought I was recreating the same experience for my little friend but I really wasn’t. She was eager to help me bake but I refused to let her do the work. I was so worried about her doing it wrong, or the process taking twice as long, or having to clean up a mess later, that I felt it was just easier if I did it myself and she watched. Not only was it no fun for her but doing it my way would never teach her how to make cookies on her own. If I am really honest with myself, I have to admit that I was doing all the work because it was easier than helping her learn how to do the work herself.
In the same way, many of us choose to work harder than our students because it is much easier to do everything ourselves than to figure out how to help our students do it for themselves. But our role as teachers is not to do the learning for our students; our role is to find ways to help our students learn on their own.
Are you grading papers in ways that put the burden on you not only to identify mistakes but fix them? Do you plan lessons that require you to do the intellectual heavy lifting and ask nothing more of the students than to follow along and complete the carefully designed activities rather than grapple with the material for themselves? Are you wearing yourself out trying to control students’ behavior rather than teaching them how to control their own behavior? Do you seem to spend all of your time remediating students rather than accelerating and scaffolding them so that they can keep up with the lesson on their own?
If so, you’re working too hard.
And here’s what else. It’s hurting your students. Every day that you allow your students to sit back and watch you work really hard you are keeping them from learning.Sure it may be easier to do the work yourself especially if you are facing external pressure to meet certain requirements or if you are unconvinced that the students would do the work for themselves if given the chance. If I had let my little friend measure the ingredients herself, she would have surely made a mess and the cookies would have probably turned out to be less than perfect. But, the whole point of the experience wasn’t perfect cookies. The reason I invited her over was that I wanted her to learn how to bake for herself and the only way to do that was to let her make a mess.
The same is true when we create spaces in our lessons for students to occupy. We should not be solving problems for our students. We should be helping them acquire the tools they need to solve problems on their own. It is a messier process but ultimately a more rewarding process for both you and the students when you let them do it for themselves.