Is there anyone happier than a 6-year-old who has been entrusted with an important task? Kiddos, in my experience, like almost nothing better than to be taken seriously. They’re smart and capable and they know they can do it (whatever it is)—they just need adults to give them a chance.
In my second year of teaching, I discovered that tapping into this desire was transformational to my classroom. Giving my students work—not just school work, but actual tasks—was not only an incredible time-saver, but it also had other unexpected and profoundly positive effects. It fostered a spirit of community among my scholars, increased their focus and investment and, most importantly, gave me the space and confidence to let them take ownership of their learning.
A teacher’s first year is usually the hardest, but for me, it was at the start of my second year that I began to feel overwhelmed. I’d moved up as a founding lead teacher at Success Academy Bronx 3 and was alone in the classroom for the first time. Since I’d only ever taught with a co-teacher, all of the routines I had established were dependent upon having another adult in the room. Now, I was on my own.
Each day, I was working well past 6:00 p.m. I was swamped by what seemed like the never-ending, non-teaching tasks of a teacher. I didn’t have the time or the capacity to devote myself to my scholars the way that I wanted to and it was immensely frustrating. I loved my kids so much and I felt like I was letting them down. Something had to change.
I’d observed that other teachers saved time by getting their scholars involved with simple tasks, so I decided to try it out with the basics. I explained to my class that we were a family and that families help each other out. Then I announced the names of scholars who would be “table captains” or part of the “clean up crew.” I asked the table captains to pass out and collect the necessary papers to their peers, and the cleanup crew to keep our “home” spotless. And over the next few days, I watched in amazement as my first graders fulfilled these responsibilities perfectly and even began to volunteer to wipe down the tables—they wanted to be a part of this!
So I decided to double down. I made a list of all the things that were robbing me of my ability to focus on learning. I picked ones that I thought my scholars would be interested in taking on, such as:
- Snack Chef: The gourmand who would distribute and set up the snacks we provide for scholars.
- Librarian: The bookworm who would put books in their place and keep our beloved library in order.
- Transition Leader: The always-punctual timekeeper and count-down captain.
- Mail Person: The dependable deliverer of important materials that need to be sent home via the mail cubbies.
- Grading Assistant: The first scholar to finish math morning work neatly, earn 100% and grade the other morning work.
- Phone Protector: The highly-reliable keeper of my work phone, who would help prevent me from misplacing it during the day.
My scholars were thrilled with their assignments and I started to notice that the changes taking place in my classroom went beyond saving me precious time. Our classroom community grew stronger as scholars vied to be responsible enough, kind enough and focused enough to earn assignment to particularly cherished tasks.
It’s very difficult for a group of sleepy 6-year-olds to come in and be motivated first thing in the morning when asked to complete warm-up math problems, for example. When my scholars saw that they had the chance to be given the all-important task of checking the accuracy of each other’s calculations, however, the entire dynamic shifted. They were invested! At home, a parent told me that suddenly a kid who never wanted to do chores was asking to wipe down the table because it had become a special job, an important job.
Assigning these jobs to my scholars gave me time throughout the day to take the breath that I needed, but it also motivated and encouraged me to step back and let the scholars speak. I knew in theory that they could lead discussions and ask clarifying questions of each other, but until that point hadn’t had the confidence as an educator to allow that to unfold. Once I saw that my young learners could remember to set out the snack every single day, without reminders, I realized that I had been underestimating them.
They are so smart, so eager and so much more capable than we adults tend to expect. I truly improved as a teacher because I had more time and energy to focus on trends and on student work and to be strategic in my lessons—and because it gave me the confidence to allow them to take charge.
This year I spoke at our New Teacher Training about this topic because I truly believe it can be revolutionary. I hope our new teachers, who are a group of incredibly motivated and intelligent educators, find it as useful as I did to put our munchkins to work!