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Easy Does It: 7 Ways for Teachers to Simplify Student Learning

Nothing about education in the age of coronavirus is easy.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Even so, people are more likely to succeed in an environment that nurtures and supports them. No adult wants to go into a workplace each day where their bosses assign impossible tasks, don’t train them adequately, and demean them for their inability to succeed.

In a good-faith attempt to encourage their students, teachers might tell them, “You can do it! It’s easy!” We say this to lower our students’ fear of failure. In a teacher’s mind, “It’s easy,” is the equivalent of assuring a student, “I believe in you.”

However, if the students found this skill easy, they wouldn’t be struggling with it. When you tell your students that a lesson is easy, you might be denying their experience and setting them up for failure. For them at this moment, it isn’t easy at all. It’s hard. Maybe too hard. Asserting the simplicity of a lesson can break a student’s spirit. It tells struggling students that they’re not smart and that they’re incapable of accomplishing easy tasks. This can create a stigma and engender hatred of school that may last a lifetime.

Plus, if it’s that easy, why are you teaching it? You should be gauging the Zone of Proximal Development, designing lessons accordingly, and differentiating your instruction through content, process, and product. No one wants to sit through a lesson that’s easy; students get bored, and their behaviors deteriorate.

Even the best teachers might not know who is currently struggling and who isn’t. To assert something is easy might hinder students from asking for help or clarification because they do not want to risk embarrassment by asking for assistance on such an “easy” assignment.

So, what can you as a teacher do instead of asserting that an assignment is easy? Let me offer seven interconnected suggestions.

1. Nurture a Culture of Trust.

Your integrity is the only currency you have with your students, so your students must know that you will always level with them on everything. Nurturing trust happens in everything you say and do, in all the small details, and throughout the year. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never make mistakes, but you’ll own your mistakes and apologize when necessary. When students trust their teacher, they are more willing to attempt difficult tasks, even if it means they struggle at first or even throughout the year. However, if you tell your students that an assignment is easy, but for them, it is not, they will be unwilling to believe you the next time. If you anticipate a lesson could be challenging, let your students know. Bud do it in a way that includes assurance that you will provide the supports and scaffolding that your students need.

2. Build Belief.

As an educator, one of your most important duties is to nurture authentic self-confidence in your students. Tell your students often that you believe in them and celebrate their successes regularly. I had a poster in my classroom as a visual reminder: “My teacher believes in me.” As you assure your students that you believe in them, your students will begin to believe in themselves. When they believe in themselves, they will be more willing to attempt new tasks and persevere through difficult times. There’s no ingredient more important to learning than believing you can learn.

3. Explain and Support.

Students know they make mistakes. Making mistakes is necessary for learning. If a person never made mistakes, they would have nothing to learn. Your job as a teacher is not simply to show students’ their mistakes; it is to help students understand their errors and to aid them in thinking about creating solutions to problems. Students can live with making mistakes if you give them appropriate analysis and proper support.

4. Be Transparent.

Let students know what isn’t easy for you now and what wasn’t easy for you in school. Students often look at their teachers as superhumans who can do no wrong. By sharing your struggles with your students, you are giving them implicit permission to struggle. I often told my students stories of my struggles with math. “I cried in second-grade math because I thought it was so hard.” By sharing your difficulties, you humanize yourself and build empathetic connections with your students.

5. Model Things Not Being Easy.

I’m not much of an artist, so I created mini-lessons that required me to draw. By showing them how difficult this is for me, I had the opportunity to model how to deal with adversity. How should students behave when things aren’t easy? Do you want them to quit, misbehave, or sit silently without asking for help? Of course not! It is up to you to model behavior in a difficult lesson. How should your students ask for help? Do they have peer models or partners? Can they get up for a walk or go for a sensory break? Additionally, you need to model a counterexample. Toss your pencil, crumpling up paper, or bash a keyboard. Then, have a group discussion of what students can do instead of these undesirable behaviors.

6. Correct Yourself.

I’ve heard myself in mid-sentence promising students that an assignment will be easy. When this happens, I quickly add, “It might be easy for some, but not for others. Is that alright?” Students know that certain tasks will be easier for some of the class. In this way, you acknowledge what they already know and give the students permission to wrestle with new learning.

7. Be Open to Receiving Feedback.

Part of your instructions should always be, “Please let me know if it’s too easy or too hard.” This kind of feedback is data that you can use in designing instruction. Plus, it empowers students to advocate for themselves. You can also add, “Let me know if my directions were not understandable, maybe it’s me (the teacher) not you.” There’s no perfect teacher; your instructions or teaching might need clarification. Being open to receiving this kind of feedback demonstrates that you trust your students, and it models the way you want students to receive your feedback.

School is not easy — for students or teachers. The way we teachers create our classroom environment can make school easier or more difficult for our students. There’s no good reason why education should be more difficult than it already is. Students have enough difficulty in their lives already, especially during these uncertain times. Redirecting our language, expectations, and persona in the classroom may not be easy for us teachers, but I believe in you.

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