Faculty Focus


Letting Go of the Reins

Sometimes we are so concerned with following our lesson plans to the letter that we miss what is truly important: teaching moments. A teacher has to learn to listen to his or her class and realize when the moment to abandon the lesson plan has come. This willingness to release some control over the class and allow it to develop more or less organically does not always come easily, however. Goal-induced anxiety can make a teacher reluctant to let go of the reins out of fear that the class will go off in some random direction.

I still vividly recall the first day I ever taught a class. It was August 1991, and I was a graduate student. Sitting on some steps just outside of the classroom building, I was literally trembling with worry. Would 22 freshmen really believe I had anything worthwhile to say? Could I convince them of the content’s value? Would I be able to maintain control of the class? On that day, and for many semesters to come, I held very closely to my prearranged lesson plan, rarely loosening my grip on the reins for fear that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to accomplish the goals that my department and I myself had set. My mistake was in believing that only one path, that is, the narrow path revealed by my lesson plans, would lead my students to those goals. The lesson was too much with me.

In February 2008, I had two of the best classes I have ever had, and their success had next to nothing to do with my lesson plan for those days. My students had read John Milton’s Areopagitica, and my intention was to use the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as the paradigm for a discussion of Milton’s arguments for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. I introduced this scheme, and the first class proceeded (with modest success) with the students, for some little time, analyzing Areopagitica along this line.

As the discussion continued, however, Milton’s unorthodox opinion of the transgression of Adam and Eve emerged from the text. I hadn’t planned to make too much of this point, but I quickly noticed a change in the tenor of the class as it was broached. The students were genuinely interested in what Milton had to say on this point.

I let go of the reins.

The ensuing discussion, which continued from one class into the next, was one of the most vibrant in which I have ever participated. More important, the students, recognizing Milton’s connection between humans’ ability to use reason and Adam and Eve’s transgression, almost unwittingly got to the foundation of his arguments for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. In other words, they achieved the desired goal by walking a path very different from the one provided by my lesson plan.

During my 17 years of teaching, I have tried to make myself more aware of the fact that a lesson plan is a tool, not an end in itself. A teacher has to be willing to let a class develop organically because classes are organic. Every class is different, and the teacher has to listen to know when an opportunity for a teaching moment has arisen, for such moments are more valuable than whole semesters of rote.

John A. Dern, Intellectual Heritage Program, Temple University.

Excerpted from The Lesson is Too Much with Us: Recognizing Teaching Moments, The Teaching Professor, October 2008.