When And Why You Should Leave Your Students Alone

When And Why You Should Leave Your Students AloneThe picture of an entire class lost in their work is the most beautiful sight in teaching.

Because it’s irrefutable proof that your lesson was effective, and that learning, deep and meaningful, is taking place.

Sadly, it’s a scene that rarely plays out.

Most teachers find themselves rushing from one student to the next, reteaching what was taught just minutes before.

They find themselves calling out reminders and encouragements.

They find themselves tamping down disruptions and redirecting off-task behavior.

For some this is done out of necessity. Their lessons and classroom management skills aren’t strong enough to support their students through more than a few minutes of truly independent work.

For others, it’s become an unfortunate habit. Somewhere along the line they’ve been led to believe that if they aren’t perpetually moving, talking, helping, and cajoling, then they’re not being a good teacher.

In either case, they’re doing a disservice to their students. They’re encouraging (learned) helplessness, shirking responsibility, and poor listening and attending skills. They’re teaching their students to throw in the towel at the slightest adversity.

Exceptional teachers, on the other hand, know that their effectiveness is tied to how well and how long their students are able to work without their direct input.

They know that when they recede into a corner of their classroom to observe, while their students are immersed in deep thought or animated conversation, then true and reliable growth is taking place.

Connections are made. New pathways are discovered. Grooves are deepened. Learning blossoms and flourishes. The students get so lost in the challenges placed before them that the teacher no longer exists.

You know you’re on the right track when no hands go up in the air, no one looks in your direction, and you have an intense desire to become invisible—for fear of disrupting the tender hum of production coursing throughout the room.

This is teaching.

Of course, you must present great lessons. You must have spot-on classroom management skills and a stage actor’s ability to model precisely what you want. You must wean your students off years of relying on teachers to do much of their work for them.

And you must bite your tongue—for many teachers can’t help themselves.

As soon as their students get down to work, they go into micromanagement mode. They interrupt and bellow suggestions, hints, and asides. They ramble and pace and crash unannounced through personal space.

They disrupt learning.

In this day and age, far too much emphasis is placed on helping individual students and not nearly enough on empowering them to take ownership of their education. When we spoon-feed students we limit their chances for success.

We take the curiosity, the fascination, and the magic out of school. We encourage dependence and immaturity and discourage original thought and action. We throw a wet blanket over inspired learning, boring and supporting our students into submission.

To reverse this devastating trend, work on increasing the amount of time your students spend engaged, engrossed, and immersed in learning activities devoid of your hovering presence, even if in the beginning it’s only a few minutes a day

Teach cool, high-interest lessons and then hand the ball over to them. Give them back the joy of school, of discovery, of challenge. Let them feel the heady brew of responsibility and exploration.

Do your part, and do it well.

Then step aside and allow your students to do theirs.

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21 Responses to When And Why You Should Leave Your Students Alone

  1. Jo Prestia November 2, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Thanks for this Michael, a thought provoking piece. I have to admit that even I have been guilty of this sometimes – talking while they are actually engaged in learning tasks. I can’t say I ‘bellow’ suggestions but certainly I do offer them at times. Happily I also let them be, to see, hear, feel and think.

    • Michael Linsin November 2, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

      You’re welcome, Jo! Thanks for sharing.


  2. Chuck November 3, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    This is a good reminder. I like that you review strategies and techniques you’ve talked about in the past, because I sometimes forget, and fall back into bad habits.

    Can you add a feature where you can be taken to a random article? I’d love that so that I could pick a random article of the day and practice that for that day until it becomes second nature.

    • Michael Linsin November 3, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

      Hi Chuck,

      I try to circle back occasionally to previously covered strategies, but approach them from a different angle. I’ll look into your idea. I like it.


  3. Barb November 6, 2014 at 12:25 am #

    Your posts always get me thinking and right now I’m wondering if I’m inadvertently promoting learned helplessness. I’m going to observe myself tomorrow.

    • Michael Linsin November 6, 2014 at 7:04 am #

      You’re welcome, Barb!


  4. Denise November 13, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    Thanks so much…I have been thinking for years that it is NOT my job teach my students WHAT to learn…it IS MY JOB to teach them HOW TO LEARN….I also use the term “spoon-feeding” when my students become a bit too dependent on me…they are 5th and 6th graders and NEED the independence and learning strategies to become TRUE discoverers! Thanks for this great reminder..sometimes I feel alone with this opinion. Nice to know others agree and see the value of allowing students to LEARN. =)

    • Michael Linsin November 14, 2014 at 7:08 am #

      You’re welcome, Denise! I’m glad you found our site.


  5. Emily November 21, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    There’s a little girl in my class. Since the beginning of the school year, we’ve been watching her and keeping records on her to decide if she needs some interventions. She has mini lessons with aids several times a week.

    Now, we are still considering her for an intervention program, she is still getting extra lessons, BUT…

    I’ve started to leave her alone at other times for her lessons. If she comes up, I ask her to try it herself before asking for further help.

    Her scholarly performance has shot up. I like to think her extra catch-up lessons is helping, but I also like to think just leaving her alone to try and do her work has also helped.

  6. Kim Green March 31, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    The facts or points that stick out are when teachers are constantly running aroung the classroom reteaching what has been taught 2 minutes prior.Teachers feel that if they don’t constantly move around and reteach, they are not teaching. Yes, teachers are doing a disservice to their students by not allowing them to think for themselves, develop poor listening skills and attending skills. I will constanty encourage my students to think and first try their best and motivate them that they can work independently and work through each situation to solve the problem or problems, before asking for help. I will also constanly show them how to take notes while Im reviewing a lesson to keep them focus.

    • Michael Linsin March 31, 2015 at 4:54 pm #

      Excellent, Kim!


  7. Heidi December 12, 2015 at 6:02 am #

    Thank you for this article, it takes the pressure off feeling you ought to be going round and helping lots of children. What do you do for children who just don’t do anything or very little? Do you prompt them or keep them in at play? Or something different?

    • Michael Linsin December 12, 2015 at 8:17 am #

      Hi Heidi,

      I’ve written about this some in the past, and it will be a topic in my upcoming book, but I’ll put it on the list of future articles.


  8. Gary April 29, 2016 at 10:41 pm #

    Hi Michael

    Your excellent advice has really helped me become a calmer, and more focused teacher and my students have moved a lot closer to independence.

    One question: I teach ESL and often my students must complete quick exercises like fill in the gaps, connect two parts of a sentence. Naturally some finish quicker than others. These students and some who are only half finished call me over to check if their answers are correct. I usually tell them how many are incorrect (but usually not which ones) and let them check their work again. Do you think it would be better to tell them to wait until everyone is finished and we check all the answers together as a class? Could you tell me what you do in similar circumstances?

    • Michael Linsin April 30, 2016 at 7:57 am #

      Hi Gary,

      I think what you’re doing is a good strategy, for a few reasons. I’ll be sure to write about this topic in a future article.


      • Gary April 30, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

        Thanks Michael,

        That’s good to hear. I really appreciate your prompt replies.

  9. Gary June 10, 2016 at 10:33 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    Another question relating to this excellent article.

    Are you able to monitor whether every student in the classroom is engaged from one spot in the classroom without changing position? For instance When students do independent work in your class, do you:

    1. Only stand at the front of class while students are working in one spot, only?


    2. Stand in one spot, but change the position where you stand. I mean a couple of minutes in one spot, then a couple of minutes in another…?


    3. Walk around the classroom, among the student’s desks, just to make sure all students are on task?


    4. A combination of the above depending on the circumstances?

    My point is, can you effectively monitor every student’s participation, by standing in one spot, only, for the duration of an exercise when students are doing independent work?


    • Michael Linsin June 11, 2016 at 8:20 am #

      Hi Gary,

      You may initially recede into the corner, but you’ll most definitely move along the edges, watching, monitoring, and considering adjustments to the next lesson.


  10. Tiffany June 17, 2016 at 5:18 pm #

    I just finished reading one of your books and am enjoying your blog. Summer has only just started, and I’m already looking forward to implementing your advice next year. This post has left me with a question though. According to my state’s evaluation rubric, a teacher is “proficient” if she provides individualized feedback and “exemplary” if she encourages peer feedback. Providing no or minimal feedback makes her “developing” or “below standard.” What advice do you have for providing timely and actionable feedback while still “leav[ing] students alone”?

    • Michael Linsin June 18, 2016 at 7:35 am #

      Hi Tiffany,

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Our aim is to provide strategies that are most effective and best for students. For this particular strategy, the idea is not to provide too much help, which is a common problem among teachers. Feedback is an area we’ll have to cover in a future article, but know that here at SCM we often disagree with the “best practices” emphasized and endorsed by many districts and educational leaders.