To Exist or Not Exist? How Student Autonomy Changes the Classroom: Part 1


By Kristin DeJong

The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist.”

As a new school year begins, I’m reminded of this quotation from the famed physician and educator, Maria Montessori, and I often point to this goal of rigorous classroom culture when coaching and working with colleagues.

Some laugh. Some are skeptical. Some think it is a rather lofty goal. Some are curious, but don’t think it’s possible with their kids. And still others feel that this is not acceptable when being observed and evaluated. After all, the point of observations is to see what the teacher is doing, not what the students are doing, right?

Ironically, I first posted that Montessori quotation in my classroom when I started to wonder the same exact thing the night before my own evaluation—would my evaluator think I wasn’t doing anything or would they recognize that I had laid a firm foundation for student independence and ownership? I wasn’t taking any chances, so I made a giant poster with Montessori’s words and up it went at the very front of the classroom for all to see!

These days, I more often than not encounter teachers who are eager to create this kind of culture with the understanding that it doesn’t happen without consistency, modeling, and setting high expectations for students. Achieving an environment of “children working… as if the teacher does not exist” is not going to magically happen, but it can and will happen if you follow a few simple steps from day one.

Lay a Firm Foundation

First, establish routines and create a set of conditions within your classroom to encourage autonomy. These routines consist of a solid set of expectations for classroom responsibilities, achievement, safety, and mutual respect. Then, by encouraging the students to help you establish those expectations from the first day of school, it sends a strong message that you value their input in how the classroom operates from “bell to bell” and day to day.

Maintaining consistency with these routines and expectations communicates to students that your classroom is one where teaching and learning are the focal point.

Establish Norms and Expectations

Next, communicate a set of “teaming” norms with seating arrangements, team roles and responsibilities, along with the expectations that support comes from a student team member first and the teacher second. This helps achieve the goal of a “non-existent” teacher.

Abandon your rows and arrange the furniture in the classroom to suit a variety of purposes, which can transition easily and quickly from a horseshoe setting to pairs, triads, or quads. But note: this takes some planning prior to school and you might even put tape marks on the floor as guidelines.

The ability to demonstrate to students how to transition their desks into each arrangement and practicing this movement allows for smooth transitioning into a variety of furniture groupings for effective teaming, including traditional testing rows within or across lessons. Soon, all you’ll have to do is say the word for each arrangement and students will be able to move quickly and quietly in a matter of seconds.

But Techniques Like These Don’t End There

Continue to part 2 of this series, where we explore items like “accountable talk” and good supply placement within the classroom, all of which can further promote a vibrant learning environment in which you can take a back seat and watch the cognition sparks fly!

>> Continue to Part II of this article