Every summer without any real planning, an epic annual event happens in my mind. It starts by finding myself in deep thought about the lessons I personally learned from the school year that has just passed. Often, I never even realize that these thoughts are active in my head – the processes of organizing the practical pearls of wisdom that come from teaching are obscured up until the moment the lessons become clear. Think of it as a two-aha! moment: The first aha! is the "what I learned" part; and the second, the bigger aha!, is the "how I know" part.
One of these epiphanies is that neat regular rows of desks in a classroom stifle engagement. Most teachers will tell you that a clean classroom is a sure sign the lessons are well managed and that learning is assured. In fact, many administrators I have worked with base most of their assessment of a teacher's capabilities by the general aesthetic of their rooms. I once worked for a principal who was only concerned that I had written each of the common core standards (remember those?) prominently across the blackboard every morning, for "all students to see what their goals are." It did not matter if learning improvements were going through the roof, if these standards were not clearly and regularly written out, this principal would have serious issues with you.
Now consider that a real-life standard for ninth grade social studies reads as follows: "Integrate quantitative or technical analysis (e.g., charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text."
In the first place, what the heck kind of English is this? It barely speaks to trained educators, let alone adolescents. Naturally, it is important that the teacher understands this specific goal and that all teachers (and parents and communities) subscribe to a set of basic educational standards. However, it makes little sense that the students are assaulted by the same vague wording.
This year, I learned that when I offered my students the freedom to move their desks into organic patterns across the room according to their moods, then we could tackle really challenging topics such as, "Why haven't humans learned that dictatorships never have happy endings?"
But the bigger aha! is that I learned this because I risked being scolded by my current principal – which actually happened. I really did get in trouble for the messy looking room. His exact words, "Dan, I have no idea what your classroom looks like," stung when I heard them and for a few days after he said them to me. But then I received an email from a parent on the last day of the year thanking me for making his son feel comfortable in my class by allowing him to work on his history project alone, instead of in a group as the lesson plan required.
In other words, I gave this student the freedom to push his desk where he wanted to, and the agency to decide which group he wished to join, or not. Then not too miraculously, learning took place. Which brings me to my second lesson learned: That teaching well doesn't always require a plan.
Unfortunately, this lesson is the very thing that keeps administrators up at night. Ask any teacher, young or old, veteran or newly licensed, and they will universally tell you that lesson plans are most of the work. Correcting essays is easy. However, crafting a lesson plan that satisfies all the cryptic criteria that principals obsess over is a slippery slope.
Not that I will abandon the time-honored and mostly-required task of preparing lesson plans. They're actually good things. One cannot be a professional teacher unless he or she makes peace with the planning protocols.
Which brings me to the bigger aha! of this second lesson. I really understand that teaching well doesn't require a plan because I accepted a position at another school for the upcoming fall year. You see, at my interview for this new job, I shared my views on going off-plan and following my instincts quite vehemently. Three rounds of meetings later, I received an offer letter.
Dan Ho, a native of Agat, is a writer and teacher and holds a Ph.D. in indigenous studies. Follow his garden adventures on Instagram @HoandGarden.