Being a Problem Teacher

I’m used to worrying about details and treating a class meeting a bit like a performance. Working in theme parks for a number of years enforced a sense of being “show ready” for seamless presentations and for hiding the “behind the scenes” work. That mentality conflicts with critical pedagogy’s call to empower students and help them escape oppression. A few minor logistical exercises in my class have reminded me of the importance of backing off and letting students work to solve their own problems.

Little things that escape conscious attention combine to create a statement about power and authority in the classroom. In my last classes, I narrowly succeeded in showing my students a small sign of trust. This post is brief, and it’s about something inconsequential, but I want to highlight how the smallest of gestures can reflect a larger philosophy.
I had explained the goals for our next activity. Students were to break themselves into groups based on topics they found interesting, and they needed to select readings from our textbook that they would then relate back to their topics. Everyone was ready, there were no questions, and…move.
In a couple classes, I almost intervened, helping students find one another and specifying which groups should meet in which corners of the room. I stopped just in time because things fell into place as I watched.
Let me rephrase that.
Students had the situation in hand. They had identified the problem and were on their way to solving it autonomously. All I had to do was get out of their way.
This is a challenge I face more often than I realize in my classes: My control-freak nature shows up all too often, and I believe I need to jump in and take charge, solving problems I see and making sure things move along smoothly. I want the show to look rehearsed.
But learning is messy, and students need experience working with mess. Every time I step in and solve a problem for them—particularly when I’ve not been asked to assist—my students lose some of their autonomy. Had I assigned spots in the room to each group, I would have set a precedent of control and suggested that I didn’t trust my students to manage the situation on their own.
One of my goals this semester is to get students to write more publicly, to find real audiences for their work. How could I possibly expect them to write for a real audience if I can’t even expect them to move desks around, find peers, and start a conversation without my help?
Something tells me this is one of those lessons I’d have learned a lot earlier if I had children. But this semester, I’m going to work on letting go—letting my students solve the problems of class, rather than trying to direct every effort.