Thursday, April 5, 2012

On Relinquishing Control in the Classroom (and Life)

Last night some students came over to make a chocolate cake with me.  I usually start baking sessions by announcing that baking is like chemistry and we must follow the directions exactly or the cake won't turn out.  Then I demonstrate by showing that "one cup" of something must be one cup level across the top; not more, not less.

Yesterday, the girl in charge of putting in one-and-a-half cups flour didn't use the 1C and 1/2C measures I had so helpfully put out.  Instead, she dipped the 1C measure in the flour three times, each time catching a different amount of flour, which she dumped in the mixing bowl.

When it came time to stir, the stirring girl didn't stir in nice, robust circles like I prefer; she dabbed at the batter in finicky little stabs.

When it came time to cut and serve the cake, the serving girl just speared each piece with a fork and deposited it on a plate, rather than sliding the fork under the piece to keep it looking nice.  She also inexplicably started out by giving two pieces to each person, stacking them on top of each other.

You see what I mean.

If I have students come over to cook, I have no choice but to give up my idea of how I think things should be done.  Even if I give specific instructions, there's no telling how the students will understand them.  Over the years, this has resulted in some funny concoctions (like Leonard's hot pepper cookies), lots of messes on my kitchen floor, and some highly questionable table manners.  Just last night I was watching a freshmen boy try to eat his pizza using a knife and fork for the first time.  I couldn't help but comment I've never seen someone use a fork quite that way before.

There's a lesson here that can be applied to teaching in general.  I like to run a well-ordered class that begins and ends on exactly the right minute.  I like everyone to pay attention and do what I say.  I like my assignments to be followed to the T.  (Sometimes these things happen; sometimes not.)

But I don't want to be a controlling teacher.  I have to remind myself:
  • My way is not the only way.
  • The answer I'm looking for may not be the only good answer.
  • My class is not their only class.
  • My class is not their most important class.
  • Things will not go as planned.

By taking this attitude toward teaching, I am more able to:
  • Teach to the moment (go off-plan)
  • Laugh with my students
  • Give grace to my students when they mess up
  • Give freedom for creativity
  • Accept that students have lots of things on their plate, which may mean that I grant their request to re-schedule an exam, miss a class for the department basketball tourney, give extra time for a difficult assignment, and more.
  • Relax and have fun teaching

Just a little something I've learned from teaching for three years in a place where plans can't keep up with changes and where you never really know what a student is going to come up with next.

Epilogue:  As we were eating our cake last night, one girl said she had stayed up until 2:00 a.m. the night before because she was excited about coming over to bake.  I'm glad I didn't ruin the fun by harping on about the proper way to prepare and serve a chocolate cake.

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