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The Many-Teacher Classroom

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By Robert Barnett, a co-founder of the Modern Classrooms Project and a math teacher and resident scholar at the Leysin American School

As educators, we want to foster collaborative learning experiences. So how can we set up classrooms in which those authentically occur?

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My first real experiences as an educator came the year after I graduated from college, when I served as an AmeriCorps member with City Year in Seattle. I served that year at an inner-city middle school, supporting students who were in foster care. I followed those students throughout the school day, providing in-class support and offered extra tutoring after school ended.

I loved the work—the students were capable and eager to learn, the school was full of hard-working and committed educators, and my City Year teammates and I formed close bonds with each other and with the community we served. My year with City Year was an up-close introduction to the challenges and joys of education, and it has continued to inspire me throughout my teaching career.

Yet I remember feeling, during that year, that my time as a classroom aide could have been better spent. In after-school tutoring, I was able to connect with my students and help them learn, but while supporting those same students in class, I was often unsure how to help. The teachers at my school mostly lectured. As an assistant, I was never sure whether I should pull my students aside (thus forcing them to miss the lectures) or to simply sit and listen while their teachers spoke (thus wasting my own time). The teachers, in those classrooms, were at the center of everything, and I sometimes felt less like an educator than like a fly on the wall.

When I eventually became a teacher myself, I kept this experience in mind. I was never lucky enough to teach with a City Year corps member in my room but I often had special education teachers and instructional aides in my room, not to mention bright students who would have been eager to help their peers learn. I wanted to empower these co-educators, not relegate them to the sides of my classroom. But how?

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As teachers, we're trained to view our classrooms as our own small kingdoms. We organize the desks, we deliver the lessons, we set the rules. We are—or, at least, seek to be—in control.

The traditional classroom, therefore, is highly teacher-centered: The teacher leads from the front of the room, and the students follow along. This is, in some ways, highly efficient. A single teacher can teach a class of 20, 30, or even, in a university lecture hall, 500-plus students. Teacher talks, students listen. Simple as that.

In other ways, however, this traditional lecture model is highly inefficient. Consider, for instance, the student who missed yesterday's class. Is it efficient for that student to sit silently through a lecture that he might not be able to understand? Or the student who's already mastered the material—is it efficient for that student to relisten to things she already understands? Or, for that matter, the AmeriCorps member, the instructional aide, or the volunteer: Is it efficient for that educator to sit quietly rather than sharing his or her knowledge, encouragement, and support with the students who need it?

It isn't. So, what I've tried to do in my own classroom is to create an environment in which every single person can become a teacher. I've stopped lecturing and created instructional videos instead; this allows students to learn at their own paces and empowers me—as well as anyone else in the room—to spend my time offering students individual and small-group support. I no longer need to give other adults directions for helping my students learn, nor do I need to tell my students to work together. I've created a classroom structure in which that happens organically.

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Teachers often hear about the power of collaborative learning experiences, and most educators believe that teamwork is both essential to learning and an essential skill in itself. Why then, are so many classrooms structured in a way that stifles authentic collaboration? As educators, we need a new paradigm, one that prioritizes and enhances opportunities for individuals within a classroom, regardless of who they are, to work together. I believe the model my colleagues and I have developed, and which we share with other educators through The Modern Classrooms Project, provides a way forward.

As I prepare to teach my classes today, I'll think back to myself as a City Year corps member, eager to help young people but unsure how. Is my classroom, I'll ask myself, a place where an additional teacher would be welcomed and utilized? If not, how can I take myself off stage and empower others to contribute?  And, even if so, what else can I do to ensure that every teacher, and every learner, contributes as much as possible?

I don't have all the answers—far from it. But I know that the many-teacher classroom is a place where every single one of my students, regardless of background, can truly learn. I'll keep striving to cultivate it.

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