Mary Dagani | June 2017

The Power of Letting Go

A mentor of my mine always said, “Be the guide by their side, not the sage on the stage.”  I never quite realized what she was saying until I became a “well-seasoned teacher”.  And by that, I mean, old enough to know better.  I’ve noticed throughout my career that most teachers have a need to be in constant control of their class.  They tend to pull in the reins and drive each part of the day with forethought and purpose.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s is a bad thing.  It’s great to have a plan, and I absolutely admire good organizational skills.  However, with more and more accountability being heaped upon us, I see a generation of anxious educators who worry about “getting it right” and about “being on task”.  Through the years, I have found quite the opposite to be true. By letting go through gradual release, your students can (and will) take up more responsibility for their own learning.

Peer learning

Teaching is by no means an easy profession.  Especially at the elementary level.  You are juggling curriculum planning, PLCs, parent conferences, all while trying to train 30 pairs of eyes and ears to follow you around the room and to stay on top of every word you say.  What are the chances of getting them all to do that at the same time? Hahahaha…good luck with that one!

The first 18 years of my 27 year career were spent in first grade.  I eventually learned, after many years, that my best teaching happened when I wasn’t teaching.  Don’t get me wrong, I taught long and hard with those first graders trying to impart the information they needed to advance to the next grade level.  But, I found that some of their best learning came from each other.

I came to this conclusion one day in the middle of reading rotations.  I sat at the proverbial U-shaped table working with a small group.  As the timer sounded to switch centers, I heard a strange sound.  Actually, it was the absence of noise that caught my attention.  Instead, it was the soft buzz of voices actively engaged in learning drifting across the room.  Gone was the sound of students fighting over books, drama, chit-chatting about a game of handball at recess, and the sound of just being off task.  So, I decided to get up and investigate.  As I did, I was greeted with the most amazing realization; these kids were so engrossed in their learning and working together, that I, their teacher, had disappeared!

Seizing the Moment

I decided to take a look around to try and figure out what I could learn about my students.  So, I became a fly on the wall and set out to observe each group from a distance and experience their insightful conversations with each other.  I wondered to myself, “If it happened once, could it happen again?”  And, amazingly, it did.  Not all of the time mind you, but enough that I decided to use these precious moments to my advantage.

I made a promise to myself that every time this happened, I would take a few minutes and/to jot down my observations – useful comments that I could refer back to during a conference or SST meeting.  My first inclination was to use colored 4×6” index cards and jot down a few notes or phrases about each child.  I then stored them in an index box with numerical dividers – one for each child.  The colored cards came in helpful to keep semester observations separated. This process then morphed into a more streamlined system of using a preprinted ½ sheet of colored card-stock with check boxes on one side, and lines on the other.  Back in the day, we had to make our own, but you can find lots of examples by going here.

You can find some quite amazing information when the kids are interacting. I’ll let you in on a little secret…  I didn’t always record what I saw.   Sometimes I would just bask in the glory of knowing my students were learning without  me.  It was times like these when I knew they were going to make it.

The Ol’ Guilt Trip?

Sometimes a little pang of guilt would run through my head and I would feel the inclination to constantly look over my shoulder, keeping one eye on the door, hoping that Admin wouldn’t suddenly walk in.  The last thing I wanted, was for someone to catch me “not teaching” (when actually I was doing lots of authentic assessment). So, I made sure to carry my legal pad with me on those days and made my observations look official.

My hope is that you too will take a risk, and allow yourself the chance to experience the gradual release of teaching to your students and get an opportunity to just be still and listen.  And maybe, your notes will look like mine!

About the Author

Mary is a STEAM TOSA, Project Lead the Way Launch Lead Teacher, and an Orff Schulwerk music specialist. Her eclectic background, along with her 28 years of elementary classroom teaching, gives her a unique perspective on Arts Integration.