November 2, 2011
It doesn’t matter what subject you teach; every lesson contains at least one frightening transition. After the teacher presents the day’s new content and gives instructions to the students about the day’s activity, he or she says the magic words: “Get started.” It’s like a step into the abyss.
On the best days, 75-85 percent of the students get started immediately. Ten to 20 percent of the other students see them working and, feeling self-conscious about their inactivity, pick up their pens, open their books and pretend to be immersed in the work. Confused about their assignment, the two or three remaining students raise their hands and I walk over to answer their questions.
Such days are rare. Sometimes, the percentages are different, but the range of activity is roughly the same. Some days, I say the magic words and the whole class stares at me like I’m speaking Greek. Ancient Greek. It’s a brutal moment. Were my instructions that unclear? Am I really that bad at this? Are the students punishing me?
Alternately, I might wonder, “What’s wrong with them?” I know I’m a good teacher; my instructions were clear and I’ve taught this lesson before. Why don’t they start their work?
In that moment — while the students stare at me blankly, silently — I have to make a choice. I can break that silence, restate the instructions, perhaps more loudly and slowly than before, and take questions from the students. Or I can let the silence sit there and wait it out, hoping and trusting that the kids are just moving slowly today and will figure it out.
As a new teacher, my impulse was always to opt for the former. After all, I was new; I had tons of energy and was more than happy to help the students in any way I could. More than that, answering the students’ questions made me feel valuable. And isn’t explaining things what teaching’s all about?
These days, when I remember to, I opt for the latter. I ride out that silence as long as I can and see what happens. If Michelle Rhee or Melinda Gates walked in at one of those moments, they’d be horrified: 34 students looking confused, the teacher standing at the front of the room doing nothing, no work being done at all. No value added at all for 80 whole seconds. Certainly this awkward silence won’t prepare my students for their mid-year, high-stakes assessment.
When I was a student teacher, my lead teacher was a Caribbean woman with more than 20 years of experience. Her name was Mrs. P. She was much larger than me and moved much more slowly. Students would raise their hands and I’d hustle over to explain things, while she ambled through the aisles at her own pace. I thought it was just because she was big and old, and I pitied her inability to leap to each student’s rescue the instant they called. I didn’t mind this, though; as a student teacher, I was grateful to have a role in the classroom.
One day, Mrs. P asked me if I’d noticed the difference between how we responded to the students’ questions.
“Not really,” I lied.
“The kids love you,” she said. “You run right over as soon as that hand comes up.”
I nodded, proud that she’d noticed.
“Why do you think I don’t do that?”
I didn’t have an answer.
“You come when they call, they don’t learn patience. They’ve got to learn to sit and think about things. You’re not just teaching them to read books; you’re teaching them patience.”
There’s a value to struggling through confusion towards understanding. As teachers, we aren’t trained to teach that skill; we aren’t supposed to let our students struggle, and even fail in the short term, so that they can learn to think and work independently. We’re told always that we need to do more; if students don’t understand something immediately, help them. Save them.
Sometimes we need to do that. Sometimes the students stare blankly because we haven’t done enough: Our plan was faulty and our instructions weren’t clear. More often than not though, they stare blankly because they weren’t listening, because they just noticed how pretty that girl is who sits across the room, or because they’re thinking about what they’re going to eat for lunch. Or because learning takes time.
It’s true that silence and confusion probably don’t prepare students for tests, which have strict time limits and allow very little room for independent thought. That’s probably just another reason to deemphasize testing though: to make room for a bit of silent confusion in the classroom. If the students aren’t talking, they’re thinking, and at least some of them are thinking about whatever it is we’re teaching. They’re learning. I’m learning to let them do just that.