Teacher Hack: Eliminating Distance

My daughter is almost two. Most nights when I get home from school, she is banging against the glass in our screen door begging to go outside. Sometimes, I oblige. 

Inevitably, within a few minutes, she dances through our 8 feet of green space between our house and the sidewalk, she turns right on the sidewalk, and begins her sprint into the open city block. She is off. 
If I catch her and call her name by the end of the neighbor's house, she stops and turns into the neighbors yard to come back. But if it gets any further than that, my commands are useless. I can scream, yell, jump up and down, wave my arms, and do cart wheels. But none of this matters, she is now running into forever. 

My message is dulled by the distance. She still hears me, evidenced by the times she turns around and looks, but she continues running as if no punishment could ever catch her now. 

Distance is always much less efficient.

It's why football teams don't throw 50 yard passes every time. They rarely work. It's why everyone always says you should break up with that person who is moving 300 miles away. It probably won't work out anyway. 

As humans, we intrinsically know this. But the allure of ease and laziness always keeps us yelling up the block at our sprinting 1 year olds. It would be much easier if I could parent my daughter from half a block away. 50 yard passes bring huge reward when they work. And the idea of keeping love alive through facetime conversations seems so convenient.

I’m thinking the same is true of teaching. It is tempting to teach from distance. That distance could be the space in my classroom, choosing to stand in the front and deliver the same message to 30 kids at once. Or, as is common now, that distance could be widened by technology. Computer programs and distance learning trap us into believing that we can do more with less. We can minimize our investment in time and people, and maximize returns in learning. It is tempting to believe that I can help so many more people to learn quickly if I speak to 30 students at once.

There is a problem though, in computer learning and whole group instruction.

Nobody hears it. It's not really working. 

In education, we can’t afford the hail mary pass, we have to settle for the efficiency of handoffs or short passes.

I’ve found, like most every teacher, that we are most effective when we get as small as possible. Students learn most from those 1 on 1 conversations at their desk or after class. They remember things more easily when it is shared to a small group and there is personality and eye contact. They hang on every word of individual feedback that I write on their papers, but they rarely hear me when I give feedback to the whole class. This constant and varied contact paves the way for incremental gains that far outweigh the distant hope of finding some magic wand for learning.

So logically, I have found that the best way to help students grow is to talk to them every day. One of the most important things that I can do each day is to find ways to make personal contact with each of my 130 students. This could be an answered question, a conversation, a joke, or a longer moment of teaching or re-teaching. At minimum, a day should never pass in my room where each student is not greeted with a smile, a fist bump, a question, or a welcoming comment.

This idea has become a constant umbrella over my lesson planning and my decision making. I hope to design lessons each day that allow me time to talk to groups of 2-4 students, and minimize the time that I am talking to 20 or 30 students. It took me 6 years of teaching before I got comfortable enough with this kind of classroom To focus on three kids, means that the rest of the class is left to their own decision-making. They could be working, but they also could be talking, posting a facebook status, or just sleeping in the corner. My observations don’t look as good, because principals are trained to look for quiet rooms and alert faces, but the learning is more meaningful. The art is finding ways to engage all from a distance at times, while spending time visiting each person in the room. It’s a dance that still looks clumsy, but I’m sure it is better.   

This is the main reason why I have decided to grade something, with a star or a note or a number or a check, every day. It is painful as I try to leaf through papers and read or skim everything, but students constantly thank me for reading their work, for catching their jokes, and for knowing who they are. And I think they learn more this way than when I let papers, and my insanity, pile up.

It collides, at least in some ways, with this idea that personalized education comes with advanced computer programs that design perfect educational experiences for our students. “Personalized,” in that sense, always hits me as a clumsy misnomer designed to make folks more comfortable with learning happening in front of a screen. Those programs are useful, but real growth happens when they are coupled with meaningful proximity to real people who know the learner, see the learner, and occasionally motivate them.

When I kneel down and talk to my daughter, she almost always listens, short passes usually work in football, and relationships that are centered on quality time together are much more likely to grow. So why don’t we apply this to the way we teach.

 The more ways we can find to get small in our classroom, the more our students learn.


This is the third post in a teacher hack series. The first one was about writing letters. The second was about good student conferences.