by Adam Stout
My student-teaching supervisor watched what I was doing one day and told me, “Don’t work harder than them.” I was amused. I thought she was offering a sort of life hack, a clue to sliding more easily through the job. It was as though she was telling me I could get away without trying quite so hard, like I could work less and get away with it, but I sorely misunderstood her insight. She noticed that I was working like mad and the students were too passive. I was eagerly shoving as much into their brains as I could just to see it all slide right back out. And, I was wearing myself out in the process. She was trying to alert me to an essential principle of teaching: don’t work harder than your students. I did not really realize the importance of what she was telling me until I had a classroom of my own.
As I have been teaching Chinese language, this principle has started to make more sense. There have been times when I spent too many hours planning lessons and preparing resources just to wonder why my students were not getting any better at speaking Chinese. So, I’d work harder and longer. My wife bought me “Never Work Harder than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching” by Robyn R. Jackson for my birthday (probably hoping I would get a clue).
This, and advice from a handful of language-learning bloggers, kindled an understanding of the principle in me.
I started thinking about my own language ability…where did I get it? How did I reach my current level of fluency? I could list multiple methods and experiences, but one commonality stood out – hard work. I earned my knowledge, but I wasn’t making my students really earn theirs. I was like a mother bird; I caught worms, chewed them, swallowed them, and spit them back out for my babies. I did all the work – and maybe that’s how it has to be at the earliest stages, but you have to move on. The mother bird does not do all the work for long; soon, she just brings worms back to the nest, whole and un-chewed. She lets her babies figure out how to eat them. The birds learn. They grow. Eventually, she even pushes them out of the nest.
So I decided that I would no longer eat worms for my classes. If my students were going to survive, then they needed to learn to catch and eat worms. At times it frustrates students; they are not always accustomed to earning their knowledge. My new role has taken some getting used to as well. Before, I was just trying to force skills and knowledge into them. Now, I see myself holding them accountable for their learning and motivating them to continue. Not only is their proficiency improving more quickly and solidly, but they are enjoying the process more and taking pride in their results. They are catching their own worms and it is a privilege to watch it happen.
Adam Stout teaches Chinese Language and Culture at the high school and middle school levels in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.