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Listen, provide the means, then step back

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

As a teacher, Rafe Esquith loses sleep over kids he’s not reaching. Being a teacher, he admits, can be painful.

But Esquith is a model for leaders because he listens to critics and doesn’t stop trying. A few years ago, Esquith learned one of those painful lessons.

Esquith had no budget for science but found a way to teach it anyway. When his stepdaughter, an oncologist, came to visit his fifth-grade classroom, he was excited to have her watch him teach a science lesson. Students read from their textbooks, answered questions and laughed at his corny jokes.

He was happy and proud until she told him that was about the worst science lesson she’d ever seen.

Stunned, he explained that he taught science every day while other teachers had abandoned science to prep students for math and English tests. He even had kids who vowed to become doctors and scientists.

Nope, she answered. “No kid in here is going to be a doctor.” The problem, she said, was that he was telling them about science instead of letting them do it.

Esquith dropped his defensiveness and listened. She said the children needed lab equipment to experiment, fail and learn from their failures.

Thus redirected, Esquith found money for science kits, and then let his students build rockets and roller coasters on their own. He even had to ask visiting teachers to leave them alone. “Those two months of failed trials were some of the most fascinating and exciting times the kids had in science that year,” he says. “And when the roller coaster finally worked, the kids could say they did it themselves. They understood the physics.”

Lessons: Listen to your critics. Provide the means for your charges to succeed. Step back to let them learn. “I did the best teaching during those two months,” Esquith says, “when I decided to shut up.”

—Adapted from Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, Rafe Esquith, Penguin Books.

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