Recently, a teacher with whom I was working confessed to me, “Robyn, I cannot work any harder than I am already working. And yet, my kids aren’t making the progress they need to make to pass the AP test. I am so frustrated.”
I hear this a lot. Teachers are working as hard as they can – they stay after school, they are up until midnight each night planning new lessons and grading papers. They are giving everything they have and yet it seems to them that their kids, are working hardly at all.
And yet, as common and as frustrating as this situation is, I get into a lot of trouble for the title of my book Never Work Harder Than Your Students.
Some critics (who aren’t teachers by the way) have read the title and been immediately offended. They say that I am trying to let teachers — who are already lazy enough — off the hook for doing the work that they should be doing. Even some teachers prickle at the title. They argue that of course they should work harder than their students. That’s their job.
The other day I read a story that illustrates the danger of such a view. . .
A cow and a mule worked on the small farm. Each morning, the farmer would start the day by milking the cow. Then he would hitch up the mule to plow his fields. At the end of the day, he would return to the cow and milk her again. One evening, the mule weary from a day of plowing approached the cow.
“I am so exhausted. All day long I plow the fields. My legs are sore. My back is chafed by the plow. I need some rest.”
The cow felt sympathy for the poor, tired mule and suggested,
“Why don’t you pretend to be sick tomorrow. That way you can get a day off.”
The mule thought that was an excellent idea so the next morning, when the farmer came to hitch him to the plow, he lay down in his stall and moaned. The farmer, seeing that the mule was sick closed the stall door and took the plow to the cow’s stall and hitched her up instead. All day long she pulled the plow through the fields and that evening she returned to the barn to be milked. The mule on the other hand, enjoyed a relaxing day grazing in the meadows.
Angry and exhausted, the cow scolded the mule. “You spent a day of leisure while I had to do your work and mine. Now I am tired and my legs are sore and my back is chafed by the plow.”
The mule felt a twinge of guilt and apologized but he had enjoyed such a relaxing day that the next morning, he pretended to be sick again. The cow spent another day of milking, plowing, then milking again. That evening, she was too tired to fuss at the mule. The mule saw that the cow was doing a great job at doing both of their work so he felt less guilty and decided to take the rest of the week off.
By Thursday, the cow’s milk began to dry out. Her legs were shaky and although she gave it her best effort, she was unable to plow as much of the field as she had at the beginning of the week. The farmer became frustrated because he was unable to get as much work done and there was no milk. That evening he walked into the barn and made a decision. Because the mule seemed so sick, he would sell him to a glue factory and use the money he earned to buy a healthy mule. And, because the cow no longer produced good milk, he would use her for meat instead. When the mule and the cow heard the farmer, they quickly got back to doing their jobs.
How many times does this story play out in our classrooms? The students, like the mule, don’t do their jobs of learning. And we, like the cow, attempt to do both our work and the students’ work. Often we think we are helping students by doing things this way, but in the end, we are doing harm to both them and us.
Instead let’s recognize what is our work and what is the students’ work. The bulk of our work happens before students enter the classroom and after students leave. We plan and prepare learning experiences and after class is over, we assess and provide students feedback on how well they engaged in those learning experiences so that we can all improve the next day.
The students’ work happens during the class period where it is their jobs to do the work of learning. It’s not that we should sit idle during class time, but we should never do anything that lets students off the hook for doing the work of learning of themselves. When we do our jobs properly, we set students up for meaningful and engaging learning experiences. But, when we work harder than our students, we cheat them and ourselves.