How to STOP Doing It All

effective Jun 01, 2016


The best advice I ever got in student teaching came on my very first day. There I was, the eager graduate student, bright eyed and enthusiastic and just brimming with ideas and help-full-ness. I was bound and determined to be useful. Sure, I had been warned that my cooperating teacher was known for being not so cooperative, but that just steeled my determination more. I was certain I could win him over by being a great worker bee and demonstrating my usefulness in his room. And the very first time I tried, what did I get?


I had been shadowing him through two periods of Language Arts, being a silent observer until he introduced me to the class, then I would say hello and fade back into the woodwork. I finally saw my opening. He had introduced the grammar exercise the kids were to complete. They were simply awaiting the paper assignment, and he was occupied with a student arriving late. I skulked over to the corner of the desk. I counted the row, counted the pages, then handed a stack to the first kid in the first row. And then he yelled.




I certainly STOPPED. All wide eyed and trying to imagine what very important new boundary I had just overstepped with this very important new person in my life. Even the kids froze. We all waited for the explanation. He took the papers from my hand, and without a word, nodded his head at a tall girl in the back row. She silently walked forward, took the papers, counted the row, counted the kids, and handed a stack to the first kid in the first row. Did EXACTLY what I had been doing. Really? He freaked out because I took a student job, by accident? Sure, worthy of correction, but hardly the drama. And then he explained, to all of us.


“You are a TEACHER.”


In what can only be described as a regal tone, he made a very big deal of saying that passing out papers was forevermore BENEATH me. With these flourishing hand gestures and this bellowing Shakespearian baritone, he expounded on my qualifications. On and on about my education, my life experience, my skill set, my wisdom, my status as a leader, my professionalism. 


I was feeling pretty pumped up, until he ended this one man show with a pointed accusation that I was, in fact, negligent in using my precious time for such a low level task as handing out papers. He explained that I was cheating the kids of precious TEACHING by occupying myself with busy work. He made it very simple.


“Never do anything in your classroom that a kid can do.”


Of course, we all know about the buy-in that students have with classroom jobs. Builds a sense of community, gives them good habits, a sense of responsibility, and the class fish doesn’t die before Christmas. Plus, something to fill up a bulletin board with cute name tags and a job chart from the teacher store. All that. Sure. That wasn’t it with this guy. Not at all. 


Once the class got to work, he quietly gave me the low-down. Turns out, it had very little to do with building up the kids and everything to do about protecting his role as teacher. He explained that every classroom is filled with busy work. Not student busy work, but TEACHER busy work. That busy work, he explained, is at the expense of high level tasks of actual teaching. And rather than give me a laundry list of tasks I should never, ever do, he simply suggested one clarifying question, which I still use to this very day. Before I do any non-teaching task in a classroom, I ask myself:


“Can anyone else in this room do this?”


Mind you. Not can everyone else in this room do this task, just can ANYONE else? The goal here is not to generate enough jobs so every student feels included. It isn’t to soak up hours of time, cross training the whole class to do every job. The goal here is the best functioning of the class community that frees up me, as the TEACHER to actually be able to TEACH. So simple.


That means I pick a student who is suited for this particular task. Then I demonstrate the task, or explain the task. Then I have the student show me how to do the task. Then, I hand it over to that kid. Every time that task appears again in our classroom. Simple. It isn’t playing favorites, it is getting the distractions out of the way, so I can do my job and TEACH while they do their jobs and LEARN.


It works. All the way down to Kindergarten. Actually, it works particularly well with younger kids,  because they will follow your modeling exactly, as best they can, like little ducklings following mama. As a matter of fact, your students watch you so closely, all day long, you don’t even need to teach most tasks.  They have already learned on the job, just from watching you.  I am still amazed, even all these years later, how many tasks I still find that I can hand over to the students.  Give it a spin in your own room, and you may find yourself with much less to DO and much more to TEACH.



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