The Silent Teacher


The strength of a teacher can be found in their silence. It’s often not what they say, but what they don’t say. 

You might wonder how I know that. Well, my first few years of teaching, I did ALL of the talking. I was putting on a show of my talent and desire to impart knowledge. Did my students learn? Absolutely. I thought I was a strong teacher and was told as such. But, I was not helping my students develop their own cognitive muscles. They were just memorizing the information I gave and then regurgitated it when necessary. That wasn’t REAL learning- that was sedentary learning.

As the years went on, I was passing more and more of the learning on to students. They were developing leadership skills as I delegated tasks and responsibilities since the classroom was becoming OUR home. The more chaotic my classroom became, the more students were learning about the content, each other, and life skills. It felt like a messy, out-of-control process. But, learning isn’t meant to be neat and streamlined. It is meant to be unique and exhilarating.

I feel bad about those first few years where I had a super structured class. I wish I could go back with all the knowledge I have gained over the years about what is best for students in terms of a learning environment. Unfortunately, I cannot turn back time.

But, I can help other teachers avoid the mistakes I have made. Here are 5 ways to start being a silent teacher who empowers students:

  • Pose a question and step back. Let your students have time to soak in the question, formulate their own response, and then collaborate with their peers. They don’t need you to help with the cognitive process. A learner needs to grapple with ideas on their own first. This helps them get to know themselves as learners and strengthens their cognitive muscles. Its exercise!
  • When a student asks a question, redirect it back to the group. Let their peers soak in the question, formulate their own response and collaborate with their peers.
  • Step in to redirect, not to save. If you see students are stuck in their reasoning pathway or are having a hard time coming to consensus, provide a quick insight or pose another question to get students moving in the right direction again.
  • Give answers and ask for the process. Students need to gain experience with thinking, not arriving at one right answer. So just give away the answer. Spend the rest of the class on how to get there. Many right answers will arise and students will realize that there are multiple avenues to solve a problem.
  • Speak in terms of mini-lessons. Don’t instruct for longer than 10 minutes at a time. Give the most important information and send students off to work with it. Bring them back in to share more and send them back out to work with it some more. Repeat as often as necessary.

To be a silent teacher, it takes just as much preparation as it does to be on stage- its just different. Someones its a lot of prep behind the scenes to create scaffolded questions, know who you will be calling on or brainstorming strategies for student discussion. Other times it requires being flexible in the moment, to think on your feet and respond to what is happening in front of you. That means having multiple game plans prepped so you are ready to respond in the best way for students when the moment arrives.

This type of teaching requires a different skill set. You are still imparting knowledge, just without direct control. Its giving the class a bike with training wheels, coaxing them to get on, standing beside them as they figure out how to make the bike work, running along side as they gain momentum, chiming in with a quick touch to realign the bike to the track and then step back and let them ride around  gaining knowledge and exchanging ideas with their friends.

I am not sure that universities are teaching teachers in this fashion. I know there is a lot of focus on knowing your content, behavioral management techniques, and assessment strategies- all of which are important. Maybe this type of teaching is introduced during training the first few years in a teacher’s career. Regardless of when its introduced, every teacher needs to use it.

It drives me nuts that every sport or recreational pastime requires practice but we do not allow teachers to practice. We keep throwing them into the game hoping they just start figuring it out. We sometimes call them to the bench to “sit and get” a new strategy, approach or technique to then just send them off to the game again…WITHOUT PRACTICE! How in the world can teachers become better if we do not train them, allow them to practice, give them feedback, allow them to practice, hone in on an area, allow them to practice… ? You get the picture. No other craft is perfected by “sit and ge”t PD (professional development) + game time scenario.

I am so glad I came across The New Teacher Project. In helping new teachers learn to become outstanding teachers in our neediest schools, I became a better teacher. I learned how to prepare for rigorous lessons where students are engaging with each other and the material instead of just with me. I learned how to prepare questioning that layered a foundation of creative cognition. I learned how to pass the baton to my students so they controlled the pace and progress of the lesson (Eek! That was scary). Mainly, I learned to do what was best for kids and I learned how to truly practice my craft before being on stage.

No matter where you are on your teaching journey, I ask one thing of you: LET GO.

Let your students sit in the driver’s seat. Pull up a chair along side them. Allow them to struggle, grapple, challenge, construct, and solve. Be there when they need you. The best thing you can do for a child is teach them to think and to take action. They can’t learn that by sitting in your neat rows staring back at you putting on the show of a lifetime.

I learned its not about me and its not about you. Its about them.

Change one thing about your instructional practice today that puts students first. Tomorrow, change another. The day after that, change another. Soon you will have a new classroom where attendance is high, engagement is real, and students are happy. Learning is messy and unpredictable- just the way its supposed to be.

The best gift you can give a student is your silence. Your confidence in them will be the fuel that lights the fire for a life long learning journey. Embrace being a silent teacher- your impact will be loud, I promise!


How have you tried to be a silent teacher? Share your success and your struggles!

About the author, Gretchen

I am a teacher trainer and coach. Working elbow to elbow with teachers and teacher leaders to ensure instructional proficiency and student achievement soar lights me up. We have a real need in our nation for strong educators to remain in the field. My blog, book, podcast, courses and instructional materials are geared towards empowering teachers (and those that lead them) to receive the support needed to grow and thrive today, tomorrow and always.