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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best

Empowering Self-Directed Learners

Many of you who read my personal blog know that I became a teacher because of a specific event that “wounded” me as a young child.  In trying to answer this week’s cooperative catalyst question, “How do we support students developing as efficacious self-directed, social learners and involve parents as partners in that journey?” I realized that what I do in the classroom is in direct response to that specific “wounding” incident and other things that happened to me as a kid–(like my parents’ reactions to my never-ending questions.)

You see, I question everything. My parents would have told you that if they were they still alive, but just ask my Superintendent or any principal I have ever worked for or with and I’d guess they’d ALL agree that I am a pain in the neck sometimes!  I also think about things other people don’t, often. And,  whatever I do in my classroom, I do because of who I am as a human being–so it really IS all about me.  And, your classroom is really all about YOU–how it runs, how people treat one another, what they say, how things get done!

Because I was discriminated against as a child, I swore I would never treat children that way and so I work to empower the students who come to me–I try to honor their brains and their expertise, so I set things up so they can be independent and self-directed and NOT be put down.  What I found in doing that, though, is that it gives ME a LOT of time during the day–time that I can use more efficaciously myself, to teach, to write a blog to remember my thoughts, to work with students individually or in small groups, to observe student behaviors, to question kids as they work, to think about better ways to set up the lesson, to write parent notes, to update a web page, etc.

I hate wasting time.  I never collect papers or parent forms–I hand a small class list to a kid and ask them to do so and to mark off names as they do. When they are finished, I have a nice neat stack of papers and know exactly who hasn’t returned it–and the child feels empowered as a organizer of the classroom. When I ask kids to gather on the rug or at a central place, they have books they can look at until everyone gets there or short games they can play. For me, it really is about getting kids to take ownership of the room, the environment and the learning.

Music signals transitions–and the song is the length I want it to be, to give warning and allow cleanup time. It also calms the savage beast, so never would I use hard rock. . . (This is my favorite for primary grades, because they sing along!) And, yes, kids turn on the music–and turn it off.

We create the classroom rules together–and I DO believe schools have too many rules.

I create rituals in my classroom to minimize behavioral issues. As kids come in, for example,  there are “do nows” to involve them (in upper grades) or immediate choices they can make (in primary grades.) I teach kids not to “tattle” so the other kid won’t feel bad. We work on I messages to clearly communicate feelings and understand other people’s point of view. I also teach them strategies so they learn to take care of their own intrapersonal issues.

  1. use an I message to tell them how you feel and ask them to stop
  2. you walk away if they continue to bother you.
  3. you ask for help from an adult if they follow you and continue to bother you.

Rarely does it get to # 3.)

I constantly model learning behaviors so I can  refer back to those strategies later when appropriate. I encourage them to enjoy the act of learning so that they are engaged, and behavior issues are minimized.  I give them personal choice and listen to their personal responses because I know they will be more engaged if they feel listened to–and they will even put up with some of the required test prep when I ask because they know most times they have choices.

OF COURSE kids can work together.  They learn from one another, ask each other the questions they have (which gives me more uninterrupted time with whomever I am working) and they learn to listen carefully and watch, if they are in a group, to save themselves time and effort. I encourage sharing of strategies for making the work easier–it teaches the kids who don’t have models at home.

When a child does break a rule or do something silly, I never accuse–(well, hardly ever–we all have our bad days.)  What I aspire to do though, is ask them to name their behavior. If a child names what they have done, it is the first step to owning that behavior.  Therefore, when I see something I need to address, I typically ask, “What did you just do?”  Or “What are you doing?” in a totally neutral tone. If a kid says “nothing,” I then say , “Listen to my voice–look at my face–do I sound mad?  Do I look angry?  I’m simply asking you to tell me what you did.” I sometimes even smile, depending on the infraction. (with little kids I’ll sometimes even say, “What do you expect me to do–throw you down on the floor and jump up and down on you and smash you flat as a pancake?”  Then I really have those kids on my side, as they laugh or giggle!) So when the kid names the behavior or action, I then say, “and what should you have been doing?”  The kid, by this time, is caught.  When s/he names THAT preferred course of action, I simply say, “Okay, just checking to make sure you know what you’re supposed to be doing. Do you need my help or can you do it by yourself?” The kid usually says, “I can do it.” and I move on. Because there’s been no anger, no threat, no punishment, the kids generally acquiesce.

So since behavior is generally not an issue and kids feel empowered to help in the classroom, one way I work on self-direction is to give specific feedback about behaviors I see that “smart kids” do–and I use phrases like “I see Sally doing something smart kids do–she’s making sure all of her materials are out of the way before beginning her work.”  Or, “Smart kids ask questions in classroom discussions when they need to so they can clarify their thinking–that’s what you’ve been doing all afternoon  in today’s math lesson.” Pointing out specifically the behaviors that self-directed learners do gives kids the strategies they need to build more skills. We talk about high quality and if a student asks if s/he can do an alternative activity for a skill or process, I usually say, “Yes, as long as it is high quality.”

I set up structures for kids to get help–the “ask 3 before me” rule is one of my favorites. I honor student expertise this way as well–when kids DO come to me for help, I often ask them instead, “Who in here do you think could help you figure that out?” When kids ask me for help with  simple tasks, I don’t hesitate to say, “you can figure that one out–try and if you still need me, come back.” I also encourage kids to help one another–it does nothing but build more connections and respect between them, generally.

I always make myself available for kids to ask for help, but I push them to work independently as much as they can.  Kids learn that and appreciate the opportunity to show how smart they are. Them doing that gives me more time to work with individuals or small groups, or do my “teacher work”. That way I can get more kids to be successful, and then both kids and parents see me as a successful and effective teacher. AND, because kids know what is going on and clearly understand it, it means they go home and talk to their parents (little ones do, anyway) and then their parents have a better understanding of what we do in our classroom.

When students know routines, they move through them without me.  When class communities have rituals, students honor those and they become more powerful.  When students are empowered to help maintain and run the classroom, they have more ownership and do it more–thus I spend less time cleaning up after school. When I have fewer kids tattling and handling their own interpersonal  issues, then I have more time to enjoy them, chat with them or do my work. When the structures reinforce independence, students feel honored and I feel pretty good watching them grow and learn.

Always thinking, always questioning,


About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


11 thoughts on “Empowering Self-Directed Learners

  1. Very good stuff here! Thanks for sharing and being so specific with all the details as to how you manage your class and build relationships with your students through equality instead of subordination. I have also seen the power in letting kids own their behaviors and agree totally with your style of discipline. It works both in classrooms and at my home with my own children (although my patience often runs thin with my own kids).

    If we give students the real chance to show what they are capable of, I think they will impress us every time, especially when standards of high quality are modeled and expected.

    Posted by Jeff Richardson | April 12, 2010, 4:02 pm
    • I agree, Jeff–if we give kids a chance they will impress us every time. It’s often just a matter of getting out of their way. Thanks for the feedback. I had to laugh when you said that about your patience at home. I can certainly relate to that! Kids do live up to the expectations we have for them, don’t they–be it low or high.

      Posted by Paula White | April 12, 2010, 10:22 pm
  2. Paula,

    I agree this is a great post with specific transferable methods. More on that later, as promised here’s my question: so how do you involve parents?

    Always pushing,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 12, 2010, 8:07 pm
    • Okay, Adam, you first, since you asked even before the blog was published! 🙂

      Involving parents is always a trick, because, as someone said, we get the same parents over and over coming in to help.

      However, as a K teacher, I sent home a note every single week, with LOTS of suggestions for how parents could support us at home. For example, if we were studying safety for the week, I would send home no fewer than 10-12 suggestions for something the kid could do at home to then bring in and share with us–and each child was expected to share during the week, but the share was to be ON TOPIC. (This negated the typical “Show and “Tell as the “Bring and Brag” it often turns into for more affluent kids.) The suggestions would be things like “find out if anyone in your family has ever had an accident and get them to tell you the story of it. Talk to them about how they can prevent this kind of accident from happening again. Be ready to share their story with us.” Or ” Draw a picture (or write a list or tell a story) of three ways you can stay safe on the playground.” The “homework” tied directly to the skills we hoped to build in kids–speaking, listening, reading, writing, math, etc. The kids had TOTAL choice over which option they chose, and/or they could make up their own share. The note went home on Fridays, so kids could be ready for the next week. That way, parents could “pre-load” their kids with information–even the parents who are traditionally or often less receptive to helping their children with school tasks–on the upcoming topics–so all kids came into the beginning discussions with some information.

      I also have ALWAYS encouraged parent volunteers, and I make sure that parents understand I need some of them at home–to cut out bulletin board stuff or laminated things or whatever–so even those who can’t come in can contribute somehow. I even arranged once (many years ago) for a parent to be able to ride the bus to school because she had no transportation. Another time, I actually asked my 3rd grade kid to translate for the parents at a conference because they spoke no English. He said that was the first time they had ever had a conference with the “real” teacher–before they’d always been read a report from the school translator. It’s all about making parents feel comfortable and safe just as we try to do with our kids. We often make the assumption that some people are choosing NOT to help, when in fact, they may not be able to drive to school, or aren’t coming because of their own school issues. Giving them the option to stay in their safe space and yet contribute is crucial to pulling in many of the reluctant–or simply hesitant–families.

      This year I have begun “Learning Labs” for my parents–since they ASKED to be taught some of the web publishing skills my kids are learning on wikis and blogs. 🙂 Our next one is April 27 on “Maintaining Your Child’s Digital Footprint.” I have sent my personal blog to parents and begun an etherpad for them to give me suggestions as to how to better communicate. I set up a google spreadsheet for them to share with me ways they could offer their expertise to us. And, our school has an electronic email blast set up by parents so I regularly contribute to that as well.

      The key, for me in elementary school, is to let parents know you NEED them. Make that real and most typically respond in some way. I always tell them that they are the first and most important teacher of their child–and that the lessons from them will last lots longer than mine–so if I am to do my best job, they have to help me be successful. I basically let parents know I can’t do my job without them.

      Hope that helps round out my response–and get to the second part of the question I ignored last weekend! LOL

      Thanks for always pushing, Adam!


      Posted by Paula White | April 14, 2010, 3:55 pm
  3. The specificity and clarity of your practice really shines here, Paula – thank you for sharing so much of your work with students.

    If you “ran” a PLC, team, “house,” school-within-a-school, or entire school, how would you plan, build, and sustain an adult culture that matches the one you share with students? I don’t know that enough schools are self-sufficient, have rituals for adult socialization, or have mechanisms for adult power-sharing. Plus, sometimes I leave my room messy on the way to tattle. Help me out!


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 12, 2010, 8:23 pm
    • I’m with Chad on this. I love the transparency and specificity of this. I like how you spell out what freedom means and how it still includes structures that allow autonomy to thrive.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | February 8, 2012, 4:31 pm
  4. Paula, I admire you so much as a teacher. Here’s a passage from your post that really stood out:

    “Because I was discriminated against as a child, I swore I would never treat children that way and so I work to empower the students who come to me–I try to honor their brains and their expertise, so I set things up so they can be independent and self-directed and NOT be put down. What I found in doing that, though, is that it gives ME a LOT of time during the day–time that I can use more efficaciously myself, to teach, to write a blog to remember my thoughts, to work with students individually or in small groups, to observe student behaviors, to question kids as they work, to think about better ways to set up the lesson, to write parent notes, to update a web page, etc.”

    Like Chad, I love the specificity and clarity of this whole post, and the deep philosophical coherence it reflects. Empowering others allows them to become whom they want and need to be…and bring you coherence and effectiveness as a teacher.

    So I’m also asking Chad’s question: how would you create this culture in an entire school, when many teachers do not trust children, belittle them, and think that doing their job properly means controlling them and “dispensing” information? How would you address this? This is fundamental to my work, so I am really eager for your answer…

    Posted by oldsow | April 14, 2010, 11:11 am
  5. Chad and Kirsten,
    So because I am good with kids, what in the world makes you think I can do adults? They’re MUCH harder to work with than any kids I’ve ever taught! LOL I’ll give your questions a shot, though.

    I have changed schools a number of times over my 35+ years in education partially because I decided change is good and working in new communities helps one grow and not become stagnant. Once, I worked in one that had a NASTY adult culture–clique-ish, hateful and just not healthy emotionally for anyone–kids or adults. After one particularly bad day I called a friend and was crying on the phone, describing a particularly hurtful teacher’s behavior. After that phone call, she sent me an email the next morning that said,

    “Have a great day! Remember that everything you do should look, sound and feel like who and what you are as an educator–an advocate for the children. Teach the adults just as you do the children, with all of your heart and in ways that impact upon their hearts.”

    That email changed my professional life. It absolutely has shaped how I interact with adults since the moment I got it.

    I printed that out and posted it where it is always in my sight–and I still have it, having carried it from room to room as I have moved. I believe it has saved my heart and soul from many a pain. I began looking at the adults as I do children–we all have issues and problems and hurts of our own that sometimes make us less than pleasant to be around. We all act in certain ways because we are trying to get our personal needs met. I believe adults are no different from our students in this respect and so I work hard to remember that. I also grew up in the church and constantly remember the “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” statement drilled into me in Sunday School. 🙂

    I just don’t believe I have ever met a teacher who got up in the morning and said, “I am going to school today to ruin some students’ lives.” I don’t believe people come into our buildings planning or intending to do harm to kids. (However, if I ever did meet one who was purposeful in harming (or think I was working with one), I would be the first one to be in the principal’s office relentlessly. I AM an advocate for the children and that means protecting them if need be.)

    That also means that, just as I try to build on my students’ strengths to build trust, I work to look for the good in people–and I honor what is good, even when I may be personally affronted by something they have said or done. I work hard to turn the conversation to positive comments when someone is complaining. I constantly talk about the good things I see in classrooms–and ignore the less than stellar behaviors. I don’t talk trash about others, and so, they don’t talk it around me. I don’t participate in the gossip sessions and in fact have been known to walk away when one starts near me. I believe in inclusivity rather than exclusivity, so work hard to make sure everyone (ALL staff) is invited to showers, holiday gatherings, etc. When someone is sick or home for a time recovering from a hospitalization, I make sure the social committee knows so they can send a card or flowers. I have been known to join the social committee just to make sure no one is left out. It’s the little things like those kinds of “watching out for others” that builds a trusting community.

    I’m not a saint–I get frustrated and complain just as the next person does–but NOT to my colleagues at school and only to a few close friends. In fact, just recently one of those said to me that she had noticed I was always very kind and supportive responding in an online venue about a situation that was pretty upsetting. I told her she’d never see me badmouth someone publicly–that that did no good to anyone and just made a bad situation worse. It just does no good to make someone else feel badly.

    Honesty is very important to me and not playing games is, too. I am known for being pretty blunt and sometimes that forth-rightedness is nto taken as well as I meant it. I have learned to be quiet sometimes and make my words count. Kindness is also heard much better than harshness, criticism or anger.

    I also have gotten very brave about expressing my own feelings, as that is part of the honesty I expect from others. In fact, this year, I asked for a meeting with a teacher and the principal because my feelings had been extremely hurt in a faculty meeting by this other person acting totally unprofessionally towards me publicly. I had a meeting with the principal prior to the meeting with the other teacher, asking her to do and say nothing–I simply wanted a witness to the whole event. When the teacher and I met, I expressed my feelings in an “I message” and she apologized and then immediately attacked me about something else. One sentence was all she gave to my distress. Instead of pointing out her inappropriate response, I let her vent, acknowledged her feelings, apologized for any statements I had made that she may have misperceived, cried a bit about her pain, and we both left the meeting feeling hopeful about future encounters. Our interactions have been fine since. It’s about being honest for me. It’s not about me winning, it’s about treating one another with kindness and respect. I do think I win, though, when someone changes their behavior even a tiny bit because they heard my compliment.

    Kirsten, I’m sure you’re thinking something like–but I asked about changing behavior towards the kids–“many teachers do not trust children, belittle them, and think that doing their job properly means controlling them and “dispensing” information? How would you address this?”

    Well, I believe that when we honor PEOPLE as people that trickles down. When we clearly show that we are accepting and appreciative of others as adults, kids get that. Setting up a trusting climate among the adults is a first step to then being able to talk about how to empower others (including students.) It does take time–and a ton of effort at times, especially right before breaks and near the end of the year, and during standardized testing when everyone’s stress level is high. 🙂

    Building a culture of trust and openness is a process that can only happen, though, if the principal holds these beliefs as well, in my mind. That’s actually one reason I have moved schools–when a principal I respect is replaced with one I don’t, I move. I believe the leadership in a building is crucial to building the learning community that we strive for in the classroom. And when a principal models shared authority, shared leadership, shared ownership, shared responsibility and shared pride, it’s much easier to get teachers to do so as well. Easy? no–I said easiER. Building a community with kids is ALWAYS easier than adults in my mind. LOL

    I believe that when we provide opportunities for adults to feel honored and valued, it is easier to help them provide those same kids of opportunities for our students. I believe that when an adult feels liked and respected, then conversations can be held that push one further along the road to trust and giving up that feeling of control that is drilled into us in teacher prep programs. I believe most people went into teaching to make a difference in the lives of children–to leave a legacy of touching the future and sharing their passion about their subject. Honor that passion. Let them feel the power of touching the future through feeling that trust.

    My hope is simply that we all can

    “Teach the adults just as we do the children, with all of our heart and in ways that impact upon their hearts.”

    Posted by Paula White | April 14, 2010, 5:00 pm


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