This weekend I got to hang out with my 10-day old, most awesome nephew, Maddux. When he was born, the doctor realized Maddux was having trouble breathing. Immediately, a plan of action was devised and over the next 7 days, Maddux was cared for by an amazing team and then released to come home—tube and wire free, breathing just fine.
Something that struck me through all this was the systematic way the medical staff worked a plan based on constant data and then used new data to inform every decision they made. They also let Maddux struggle.
As it turns out, the struggle was good for him. It helped him learn and grow, and eventually, he became an independent breather, who no longer needed the help of the machines. Even so, it was hard to watch, particularly for my sister and brother-in-law.
There are some parallels to my nephew’s first days and my days in the classroom. I, too, used data to inform my plan of action to help students. I, too, had a goal for students to learn and grow and eventually become independent. I, too, watched students struggle—just not always very well.
When students couldn’t quite figure out how to organize their essays, or the importance of a writer’s word choice, or the theme of the text, I had a hard time letting struggle for longer than a few minutes (or even less than that). It was painful at times, to be honest, to see their scrunched up faces (or blank stares). I could tell by the clenched teeth and furrowed brows, they needed me!
Students do need their teacher, just like Maddux needed the doctor and nurses. They needed me to see what they could do on their own, provide a scaffold or give them a tool or teach a skill, and then let them try again. What they didn’t need is for me to do it for them.
Also, just like medical field, we have an obligation to do no harm. When the medical staff allowed Maddux to struggle to test his lungs, they were right there to step in when needed. We can’t let students struggle alone, while we sit behind our desks. They have to know the we are here if it becomes too overwhelming, too hard, to the point no learning is happening. We have to be responsive to the needs of our students.
Students need to struggle so they can grow towards Independence. We, as teachers, need to be purposeful and intentional in allowing students to struggle. We need to be responsive to students needs and give students tools needed when the struggle is too much.
It was a matter of life for Maddux. And it’s a matter of living that life independently for our students. We can’t always be with our students—on the high-stakes test or in life outside our classroom.
We need to let them struggle in the safety of our classes, so they can be confident in their independence outside of it.