A lot of teachers are control freaks. I can be. It used to be worse. As a new teacher, I felt like everything had to go exactly as planned. I think it’s because I saw a good number of teachers– soon-to-be-ex-teachers, it turned out– melt under the pressure of being in charge of the classroom. A young teacher starts out with the best intentions, plans his lessons, gets talking, gives an assignment, then they’re finished– a full 10 minutes before they were supposed to be. Next thing you know, someone’s video recording a paper fight on a cell phone and posting it to Youtube, two kids are fighting, and somehow, someone has a small, floofy dog on her desk, and he’s yapping furiously. And a book is on fire.
It’s easy to cling to a carefully-scripted lesson in which every lead-in, every “anticipatory set,” every activity, conversation, assessment, and conclusion is scripted and laid out according to an airtight plan. That kind of planning makes teachers feel secure. Any administrator who walks in will see a teacher in complete control. Kids’ heads will be attentively bowed, obediently doing what the teacher tells them. The kids will know that Mr. Johnson “means business” and “don’t play.” And Mr. Johnson will understandably assume that he did a good job.
Except that the only thing the kids in this room are learning is to do exactly what Mr. Johnson tells them. As long as there’s a Mr. Johnson, they’ll be fine. They’ll probably hate it, they won’t know why they’re doing it, they won’t be passionate about it, but by God, they’ll know how to follow orders. But that’s likely to be it. No thinking, no imagining, no dreaming, no aspiring, no creating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have an orderly classroom. No one’s going to learn if there’s chaos. But sacrificing a little control doesn’t always lead to riot.
What if Mr. Johnson instead challenged kids with a perplexing question, then asked them to figure out a way to solve the question, using him, the internet, and each other as resources? He could circulate around the room, posting hints, answering questions, leading a discussion, and validating effort. The students would talk, pull out their phones, look things up on Google, call down to the teachers’ workroom, text their uncle who “does this for a living,” and, most importantly, figure out ways to solve the problem Mr. Johnson posted– solve it in their own way and via their own path.
But I get it– it won’t go this perfectly. Someone will stumble onto a site that sells Viagra and everyone will laugh, another teacher will scold them for having their phone out in class, a parent will complain that school wasn’t like this when he or she was a kid. But if you’re not afraid to let it be messy, it will still be better than the alternative– learning to do exactly what Mr. Johnson says to do, never mind the reasons, or the passion, or the deep knowledge, or the understanding.
As a teacher, I try not to let perfect get in the way of good. Nothing is perfect, as everyone knows. Teachers, especially, know this. It’s when we can’t see past the illusion of the perfect lesson, the perfect outcome, the perfect student, that we miss the potential for the great and abundant good that greets us every time we walk into our classroom.