A Teacher’s Job is to Become Obsolete

IMG_5525By Erica Hauswald

12.17.12

“A teacher is one who makes himself [sic] progressively unnecessary” – Thomas Carruthers

The more I teach, the more I become convinced that a teacher’s job is to become obsolete.

This might seem like a crazy goal, especially for high-need public schools where resources are often scarce: A classroom full of students alone? No more need for instructors? Moreover, this might seem counterintuitive given Blue Engine’s mission –by drastically increasing the number of educators in a classroom (from 1 to 4-5), are we really making teachers less necessary?

Yet, going into my fifth month as a Blue Engine Teaching Assistant at Mott Hall Bronx High School, I have become increasingly convinced that transforming students into their own best resource is what Blue Engine does best.

At Blue Engine, we talk a lot about the massive impact a reduced student-to-instructor ratio has on student learning. With more educators in a room, students will necessarily be pushed to greater heights. With more manpower, classwork can be differentiated to suit a range of skill levels; students can have constant access to a mentor; tutoring can take place with an instructor who is attuned to the needs of their individual students; collaborative lesson planning can lead to more innovative, exciting, and aligned lessons every day.

The part that people don’t hear about as much is how much students have to gain from each other and from themselves in a Blue Engine classroom.

Blue Engine’s model embodies the increasingly discussed idea that collaboration, among other social experiences, is not only beneficial but actually crucial to students’ growth. As Paul Tough’s popular new book, How Children Succeed, points out, success extends far beyond the realm of the academic; in fact, researchers are discovering it has more to do with social-emotional growth than they had ever imagined.

At Mott Hall, I’ve seen just how much the small group work that Blue Engine makes possible empowers my students. Working in groups of 6-7 students with BETAs day after day allows students not just to get more personalized instruction, but also to build greater connections and more confident relationships with their peers. Student-led discussions force students to speak and listen not only to the various figures of authority in their lives but also to each other. I say “force” because many students do not naturally value the opinions of their classmates and peers, in the same way that they have not been adequately encouraged to have confidence in themselves.

And it is not easy to make them do so. Day to day, my words sound like a mother’s persistent nagging: talk to each other, not to me. At first, it feels artificial and meaningless to my students, as they are made to turn their bodies completely around to face their classmates and project their opinions out rather than simply reporting them to the teacher and waiting for approval.

But it turns out that the result, when it works, may very well be one of the most meaningful experiences in education. I have rarely felt more successful as a teacher than when my 10th graders began to view one of their peers as an educator herself—and promptly started turning to “Ms. Nubia” for all of their grammar questions.

The reality is that in a classroom where the student-to-instructor ratio is something like 30:1, students do not readily or consistently get the feedback that they need to understand themselves as learners.

Before I began teaching with Blue Engine, I thought this deficiency was inevitable. The prospect of really digging in and altering students’ mindsets like self-awareness and initiative didn’t seem possible. But one of the best things about Blue Engine is that we are not only there for students who “want to learn.” In fact, we don’t really believe in the distinction between students who “want to learn” and those who don’t—or at least, we don’t settle for it.

Yes, in the beginning we have to prod them to come after school—we’ve used everything from RSVP-required formal invitations in fancy envelopes to a sign-up sheet to a points system to encourage students to seek help. Students at Mott Hall and other partner schools start ninth grade with BETAs by their sides, kneeling down to help them with a paragraph in an analysis essay or calling home weekly to check in with their parents. But over the course of their time with BETAs, students develop into true learners, who have diagnosed their own strengths and weaknesses, articulated short- and long-term goals, and know how to work both for themselves and with others.

I love the Blue Engine model most because it is not fundamentally a teacher-centered model but a student-centered one. I can see this when I witness a typically aggressive student, who has a low boiling point but a high mastery of reading-writing skills, lean over to help a Yemeni English Language Learner pronounce a word in English. Or as I watch a 9th grade group, usually prone to off-topic disruption, guide themselves through a series of high-level questions on the Holocaust experience directed by a student leader. Or when I sit back in a corner of the room as a 10th grade groups comes up with incredible questions on their own about To Kill a Mockingbird, such as what it means to be a girl in 1940s Southern culture or why Maycomb society consistently ignores the most oppressed people in their community. It is in these moments when I see what all the minutiae of daily routines, group work, grading, and tracking really adds up to—progress toward Blue Engine’s ultimate goal of empowering students to become their own next leaders.

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