Saturday, September 10, 2011


Sometimes we teachers get a little too caught up in our status as leaders.  We think of ourselves as the shepherds and the students as the sheep.  They need to be herded and led for their own good.  They are not capable of leading themselves, or of generating worthwhile ideas on their own, or of organizing themselves into groups that get things done without help and prodding.

At least with the students I teach, which are admittedly students of high ability and motivation, that's demonstrably not so.  Each time we give them the opportunity, they show that in the right structure and with clear expectations, they can do amazing things -- and can reap the benefits of having done it themselves, together.  Those benefits include the belief that their ideas are worth having and worth sharing, and the confidence to lead instead of waiting for the teachers to clear the path ahead of them.

Last year at the freshman retreat, after much discussion, we faculty decided to dispense with the folk band we used to regularly invite to provide Saturday evening's entertainment.  They were great, and we love them, but it was never a pleasant task to hound and herd the kids to the event and to glower disapprovingly if any of them left early.  Some freshmen always enjoyed it, but as an event that we planned and scheduled, it became clear that the band was more for us than for them.  The general feeling in the room was "mandatory fun."

In place of that event, we decided to provide an open mic venue for the students themselves.  It was a risky move for some of us.  What if nobody came? What if nobody performed?  Thinking about the kids we have in our community, though -- their general outgoing nature, their desire for the spotlight, their well-documented talents -- it seemed like something that could work.  And it did, like gangbusters.  The kids flocked to the venue, took their turns at the mic with both planned and spontaneous performances, and stayed late.  The secret ingredient, though, wasn't anything we had anticipated.  It was their support of each other.  Each performer who had prepared in advance had already enlisted their friends to encourage and cheer for them, and the whole group took that on for everyone who took the mic, lauding their efforts and giving them massive positive reinforcement.  It was a lovefest.

The same thing happened tonight, with this year's group.  And it followed an event that made the case for trusting the students even more clearly.  We brought in a colleague as the facilitator for the academic discussion about the book we had them read this summer, and he let us know that he intended to let the students generate the questions and come up with answers -- without faculty or teaching assistants leading them.  That made some of us nervous.  What if they just sat there like dumb posts?  What if they hadn't read the book?  What if they couldn't come up with anything worthwhile when they broke into groups and worked together?  Without us guiding them, how could we make sure the experience was worthwhile?  But -- you guessed it -- the students were fantastic.  They came up with incisive questions, worked together to answer them, and gave reasons for their answers, supporting them from the text.  While reporting their answers, they even became passionate about some of the competing interpretations that emerged, engaging in back-and-forth exchanges with each other during which the facilitator became part of the audience, rather than the leader.  This happened because the facilitator set up the situation skillfully and queried them closely about their ideas, helping them sharpen and clarity them.  But it also happened because he was determined to trust them.  And he was right to do so.

I truly believe that when we are disappointed by our students, or when we encounter a situation in which we seem to have uncovered something they are incapable of doing, some limitation in their ability, it is far more likely that we have failed to create a framework where they could succeed.  We have not been clear about what we wanted them to do, and we have not provided the tools or the setting in which they could do it.  Those expectations, tools, and settings are not that hard to make available.  All it takes is a willingness to lead in a different way -- to observe rather than herd, to facilitate their activity rather than making them an audience for ours.  And most importantly, to trust that they can do it, and demonstrate that trust by leaving them to it.

No comments: