Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

The Least Important Person in the Room

The Least Important Person in the Room

What a week, amirite? For many educators, this week has been the glorious time of the year known as Spring Break. For other educators (like myself), that beautiful time for resting and recovering begins tomorrow. What’s so great about Spring Break is that it not only marks the beginning of the major up-swing in the yearly Educoaster, it also doubles as the time where teachers seem to be able to let go of more stress than at any other point during the school year.

Maybe it’s the change in the weather; maybe it’s the extended days that make us feel more human as we get to leave our school sites while the sun is still out. Either way, teachers seem to generally return from Spring Break with less stress and a more zen-like approach to teaching. So I wanted to take a brief moment this week to share a little Spring Break gift: How you can keep your moment of zen going through the rest of the school year and, dare I say, into the next year as well!

How can we all become a little less stressed in our classrooms? It’s actually easier than it sounds:

Become the least important person in your class.

Yes. Yes, really. No, of course, I understand that it’s sometimes hard to know when I’m being serious because I usually like to be funny and sometimes it's hard to discern truths from jokes, especially when you don’t really know me personally and you can’t tell if what I’m saying is funny because it’s true or funny because it’s so absurd…really, I get it. But hear me out on this, because it’s something that I am wildly serious about—because it completely changed how I approach teaching.

I discovered this concept about five years ago. I had just missed three days of school to attend a conference and when I returned, I was given yet another terrible note from my sub. See, whenever I had a sub, my students—who were almost always sweet and attentive—always acted like that friend you had in college who was both completely helpless and kind of a jerk when he drank too much.

Were my kids drinking too much while I was away? I mean, I had some students that I wouldn’t put it past, but I knew that wasn’t the answer (probably). So I turned to the coworker I most respected at my school site (we all have that person…the Obi Wan to our Luke), and he said something that put it all into focus.

Of course they misbehave when you’re absent,” he told me, “Your class is run in such a way that it can’t possibly be the same without you. Take it as a compliment, I guess.

While I rejected the idea that I had to accept bad sub reports as a foregone conclusion, through his observation I was able to recognize the root my problem: I was the most important person in the class.

I did everything: I passed out all papers, I set up my room (by myself) before each class, I distributed the technology, and turned every lesson into a performance.

Sounds great, right? Sure, if you’re one of those annoying people who wake up happy, have boundless energy throughout the day/week/year, and who never plan on missing a single day of school (also known as a typical 22 year old kindergarten teacher).

See, while I had wanted my lessons to be engaging and fun, what I had unwittingly accomplished was that I had turned my students into an audience. They absorbed everything I gave them, but they did not actively participate in their learning (well, not much, anyway).

That’s when I began the scary-as-hell journey of rebuilding my teaching practices from the ground up—halfway through my 6th year of teaching. Again, not a joke. Yes, I understand that what I just said sounded so absurd that it could easily be mistaken for a joke and sometimes I blur the lines between comedy and reality and its extra hard to determine if a person is being sarcastic in writing vs. when you are speaking with them face-to-face because tone is easily misread and that’s why we have emojis because otherwise our text messages would sound like a master class in passive-aggressive behaviors…I totally get it.

But it’s true. I had built a house of cards with my teaching practices. I finally recognized that it was unacceptable for my students to only succeed if I was present. So I rebuilt, rewired—whatever carpentry metaphor you want to use here. I still wanted my lessons to be fun, dynamic, engaging, and rigorous, but I needed to become more of the facilitator than the performer. I needed to learn how to work smarter, not harder. I needed to become the least important person in my classroom.

To accomplish this, I started asking myself these five essential questions before creating any lesson:

  1. What are the basic things that I absolutely need to do in order for this lesson to be successful (and do I really need to do more than that for the students to truly learn the concepts)?
  2. Are there routines or structures I can (or have) put in place that will help my students learn this material regardless of my presence?
  3. What are some things my students could easily do if only I had more faith in them?
  4. How can I push my students to discover [insert concept here] on their own, rather than have me spell it out for them?
  5. Is what is fun and engaging about this lesson student-driven, or does it rely on my performance?

These sound like very simple, basic teaching things, but let’s be honest…if you’re feeling stressed at work, or if you feel any hint of spring burnout, you probably haven’t been making lessons that address each of these five questions.

So this is my Spring Break gift to you all: My five essential questions you can ask yourself when planning any of your lessons. I promise, you’ll have (and enjoy) many more moments of zen. Trust me when I tell you that I will NEVER go back to doing things the way I used to. My lessons are just as engaging and dynamic, but my stress levels are so much lower (and my energy is much higher at the end of every school day). After all, when you really break it down, isn’t education more about students learning, than teachers teaching?

By becoming the least important person in the room, you can finally allow your students to become the most important people in the room.

Anything you want to add to (or take off) my list of essential questions? Want to scrap the list entirely? Continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments below!

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