Great teaching doesn’t mean having all the answers

This past week, I had the distinct pleasure of being a substitute teacher in several of our classrooms.  Although I have grown to love my job as a principal, I truly love teaching and still miss having my own classroom.  I regularly look for some excuse to get to go into a classroom and teach.  My favorite part of my morning as a substitute came in 3rd grade.

The plan was to make a “cootie catcher” that would then be used to play a game that would involve practicing skills with fractions.  The teacher left me step by step directions (complete with pictures) on how to make the “cootie catcher” as well as instructions on how to play the game.  If you would like to make your own, the directions are here.

As I looked over the directions, I immediately felt like someone was playing a joke on me.

Let me explain.

There are many different ways to be intelligent.  Many are probably familiar with the work of Howard Gardner and his theory of “Multiple Intelligences”.  His theory can be basically summed up in the graphic below:

While I am reasonably intelligent in a few of these areas, I am not at all intelligent in the visual/spatial realm.  If you look at the chart and think about yourself, you could probably identify areas of strength and weakness as well.  Just for fun, let me give you a quick example of my visual/spatial ability…

Here is a picture of a cheap bookshelf I bought at Walmart before I was married that is now sitting in our basement.


I painted it purple with leftover paint to match the color that my oldest daughter’s room was at the time.  What that purple covers is the fact that after reading and rereading the instructions, multiple hours of assembly, and some vocabulary that would have surely landed me in the principal’s office, the top was on the bottom and the bottom was at the top.  I could also tell several stories about my somewhat famous direction sense, but that would require a medium more like a novel and less like a blog post.

So, as I started to work my way through the steps to our project with the 3rd graders given my stellar visual/spatial skills, I very predictably became stuck.  It was funny to watch the students  react.  First, they thought I was playing some sort of feigned helplessness kind of trick.  When they began to realize that I wasn’t going to provide them with the solution to the problem, the environment changed in the room.  Groups of kids huddled comparing strategies and other kids moved from group to group searching for a strategy that would work for them.  Another group of kids went back through the directions with me step by step to see if we could find where we had went wrong.  The engagement and energy in the room was palpable.  The students knew that the only way our problem would be solved was if they solved it.  We were working as a team with all of our energy focused on a common goal.  When shouts of excitement came from one corner of the room because one group finally figured it out, I was genuinely excited along with the students.  We did it!  As I walked the class down to P.E., one girl proudly announced to every adult we passed, “I taught Mr. Sagel something today!”  “Yes she did.” I replied smiling.  I can still picture her beaming face in my head and it makes me smile.

We need to create more magic moments like this in our classrooms.  How do we do it?

1. Trust our students- We don’t need to know all the answers.  We need to expect our students to be dynamic thinkers and problem solvers and nurture the infinite potential they bring to our classrooms.  We need to give students problems that are relevant to them and the opportunity to succeed or fail, learn, and try again.  Students should have higher expectations than simply attending and following directions.  Let them blaze their own trail.

2. Limit teacher talk– So many of our students learn best by doing and creating.  I’ve observed many many lessons in my two years as a principal, and I can tell you if you are talking at the front of the room for longer than about 10 minutes, most students are done listening.  You don’t have to give every step of a task before beginning it.  Let students decide what tools and steps they need to solve a problem.  Let them get frustrated.  Resist the temptation to step in prematurely.  Your students should spend more time talking today than you do.

3. Slow down- For deep learning to take place, we need to teach less content.  We can’t teach the same amount of content at the same pace and expect that deeper understanding will magically occur.  We need to break out of the thinking that getting to the end of our textbook means that more learning took place.

4. Be a learner- As you reflect on your own learning, just like your students, there will be some things that will come easier to you than others.  There is a great power in being transparent about your own journey as a learner.  Take a risk.  Push the boundaries.  Be uncomfortable.  Try an innovative lesson that has a good chance of failing.  If technology is your weakness, integrate technology into a lesson.  If it doesn’t work, ask your students for help.  See if you can figure it out together and learn something you can use for next time.  Never be satisfied with anything less than greatness!

Although I can’t claim that I primarily taught this way in my 10 years as a teacher, in the limited opportunities I’ve had to try it or observe it, the response from students has been amazing!  I can also say that last Monday in 3rd grade was some of the most fun I’ve had in a classroom in a long time.  For more on this subject, if you haven’t got a chance to read former IL teacher of the year Josh Stumpenhorst’s foundational post, I resign from teaching, check it out!  He is one example of a growing number of teachers who are meeting the needs of today’s students by stepping back, stepping out of their comfort zone, and letting their students lead the way.


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