My five-year-old daughter began her first team sport two weeks ago, and it was a disaster. She picked soccer as a new sport to try, and there were tears even on clinic day. The coach was a champ, offering to let her be his helper and trying everything possible to pull her into the drills - no luck.
The following practice, my husband and I switched places hoping the change would elicit a different response. With me far from the sideline, she made it through the practice but balked once game time began. The tears flowed, and the coached was left with no choice but to send in a sub. She stayed with her team on the sideline but refused to enter the game.
We talked about it on the way home, and she asked that I just drop her off for the next practice/game. I reluctantly agreed and took advantage of the time to make a quick run to the library. I returned with 30 minutes left and watched from the bushes. Not only was my daughter playing in the game, but she was keeping pace with the other kids and could not stop smiling. This time the tears were my own as I recognized the importance of simply letting go - even when we don't feel our kids are ready.
I couldn’t help but think about the classroom and how often we, as teachers, are reluctant to let go of our students. We scaffold, support, and work shoulder-to-shoulder until we're convinced they are ready. Inadvertantly, this approach often develops helpless handraisers who are afraid to move forward without our approval and assurance. As a result, we are left with no choice but to implement instructional routines such as "See Three Before Me" to encourage peer support and problem-solving. We facilitate culture-building activities to celebrate the importance of risk-taking and making mistakes.
When in the midst of the learning process did we stop letting kids jump from trees, walk without knee pads, and (safely) play with fire? Are we unintentionally creating a generation of students who don't know how bounce back from failure simply because they have never truly experienced it? What opportunities are we depriving our students of because we are hovering over shoulders rather than waiting patiently in the wings?
When coaching new teachers about the importance of collaborative learning, we often stress that it is important to be a "guide on the side" instead of a "sage on the stage." However, I feel this approach may still be too close for comfort for some of our students to thrive. Our place as teachers may not be on sidelines as much as hiding in the bushes. The intention is not to abandon learners, but instead give them space to flounder, fall, and recover.
We need to shift our planning from developing well-crafted presentations to instead focus on meaningful tasks, purposeful groups, and carefully designed tools to anchor students' independent exploration. Our role as educators is not diminished, but rather adjusted, in terms of the type of "service" we provide. At the end of the day, it is not about giving students a shoulder to lean on, but instead a hand to let go.