As a general rule, I recommend that, as teachers, we try not to do things for children that they can do for themselves. Expecting students to do things for themselves develops independence and responsibility, and it furthers our efforts to develop self-directed learners. One example of this principle in action occurs each day when I walk with my students to the school cafeteria. When we arrive, I could easily grab our set of lunch cards and pass them out to the kids one at a time. Instead, I ask the first two students in line to get the cards and distribute them to their classmates. This may not seem like a big deal, but it encourages cooperation and promotes leadership, responsibility, and independence. When children do things like this throughout the day, these little moments add up to something substantial. Examples include cleaning the room thoroughly before they leave at the end of the day, carrying their own backpacks and other possessions to and from school, and managing their own supplies. Look for opportunities for your students to take on as much responsibility around the class as possible.
During my graduate training at UCLA, an instructor once remarked to our class that no matter what subject any of us went on to teach, we would all impact our students most powerfully with the examples that we set. He cautioned us not to lose sight of the fact that though we may teach science or English, more than anything else, we are teaching ourselves; we are teaching who and what we are. Years later, when students look back on the time spent in our rooms, they might not remember all the content. They will remember us.
As classroom teachers, we need to pay very careful attention to the example we set for our students. This doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect or that we should hold ourselves to some unrealistic standard. It does, however, mean that we make every effort to model for our students the qualities and behaviors that we promote. When leaders walk their talk, they accomplish a great deal more than they do with words alone. For example, in the beginning of every school year, one of my main objectives is to create an environment of trust in my classroom. What is the most effective way for me to do that? Is it to establish a rule that everybody must trust everybody else? No. It is to be trustworthy. I must make and keep promises to my students so their trust in me grows. I show them how to play the role of trusted team member by playing it myself. Talking at my students will not achieve the same results. Leaders understand the power of a strong example.
Constantly look for ways to model the principles and attitudes you hold dear. Let your actions do the talking. For instance, to show how much you value physical fitness, change into your tennis shoes occasionally and participate in a class PE activity. Say “Please” and “Thank you” every chance you get in order to encourage the development of proper manners. Demonstrate the high priority you place on literacy by bringing in a book during silent reading time and joining in with the group. Share stories about your golf game or some other hobby to show your students how you apply the spirit of continuous improvement to your own life. Kids remember examples.
An effective way to help students improve their ability to perform class routines is to use what educator Madeline Hunter calls “think-starters.” Imagine Randy has just handed me a paper with no name on it. If I said, “Put your name on it,” that would be a “think-stopper” because I am the one pointing out his mistake. On the other hand, if I asked him what he needed to do before handing me the paper, then I am helping Randy discover his own mistake. That would be a think-starter.
Asking him instead of telling him shifts the responsibility to Randy. Think-starters give students ownership of their behavior. By encouraging kids to reflect on their actions, think-starters help them internalize these habits and build their capacity for the future. While Randy may have forgotten to put his name on the paper this time, think-starters increase the likelihood that he will remember to do it next time.