From Strict Seating Charts to ‘Starbucks for Kids’: Why Letting Go Brings Power

Kayla Delzer

Kayla Delzer was a self-described “master of the seating chart.” The second-grade teacher from South Dakota knew exactly which kids she could put by each other and which kids needed to be separated, she says.

“I was super strategic about it,” says Delzer, a teacher at West Fargo Public School. But as time went on, she realized that her structured approach might not be best for kids. Gradually, she began releasing more power and control to her students — and the results have been amazing.

Long gone are the strict seating charts. Today, Delzer and her students learn alongside one another in an environment she describes as “Starbucks for kids.” Her students are engaged, enthusiastic and excelling.

We asked Delzer about how releasing control to students can improve education and college- and career-readiness.

What are some of the skills students need to be college- and career-ready?

There’s a statistic out there that says 65 percent of the jobs my kids will have when they graduate don’t exist yet. That requires a real paradigm shift in education. We’re trying to give kids skills they might need for jobs that don’t exist yet.

In my classroom, I focus on the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and cooperation. Some people say there’s a fifth C — caring — and I believe that’s really important, too, because if you don’t have that, even if you have all the other skills, how far are you going to make it?

We also work a lot on perseverance. Our classrooms often are set up for kids to be successful, but I think it’s important for our kids to see some failure, too. If they’re only successful, what are they really learning?

How does releasing power to your students help them develop these skills?

In my first two years as a teacher, I felt it was my job to know everything so I could give that knowledge to my kids. In the last two years, I’ve really let go of a lot of that power. I’ve gotten my kids involved in projects like Genius Hour; they get one hour a week to study whatever they are passionate about. I’ve got kids studying everything from 3D printers to monkeys to the original six hockey teams, and it’s great.

Allowing my kids that time to immerse themselves in things they want to know means that my kids are going to know more than me — and that’s amazing. They get up and they do Genius Hour presentations and teach me and their classmates about what they are now an expert in. That’s very rewarding and very humbling.

It’s important to remember that we’re preparing kids for their future, not the future we envision. What’s really innovative to me might not be that innovative to them, and it’s important to keep that in mind. It’s also freeing, as a teacher, to realize that you don’t have to master every single app or tool before you give it to your kids. Have your kids learn how to use them and then have them teach all of the other kids — and you — how to use it.

A motto in my classroom is, everyone’s a teacher and everyone’s a learner. We really take that to heart. Lots of times my kids will teach the lesson. I may start it off or give an example and then say, “Who feels like they can teach this now?”

Be willing to let go of the power and the belief that you need to have all the attention all the time, the idea that you are the most important person in the room, and give that power to your kids, it’s really essential.

The idea of the teacher being all-knowing and all-powerful has been part of education for a long time. What are the first steps to turning power over to your students?

The first step is simply saying, “I need help” and letting your kids help you with something, whether it’s an app or a tool. Try handing an app over to a student and say, “I need some help. Can you teach me how to use this?”

Another step is to allow your kids to get up and teach things. Sometimes kids can explain concepts in kid language and suddenly, other kids can understand it.

My best advice is to ask your kids what they want. For years, I designed the classroom with me in mind. What do I like? How do I want this set up? This year, for the first time ever, it was developed with my kids in mind.  Try asking your kids, “What do you need or what do you want? How can I help you learn best?”

How do you respond to arguments that structure and discipline of school are necessary to prepare students for college and careers?

The most dangerous phrase in education is it’s always been done this way. We’ve had the same education system in this country since 1893.

It’s been working OK, but think of Finland. Finland uses a whole different model than we use, and their way is very successful. If our students aren’t as successful as students in other countries, maybe we need to look at changing what we’re doing because maybe what we’re doing isn’t the best practice.

Structure and discipline and conformity may be really important for some jobs that adults have right now, but keep in mind, 65 percent of the jobs these kids are going to have don’t exist yet.

What words of encouragement do you have for a teacher who’s a little hesitant about giving up power?

I’ve found that the more power I give up in my classroom, the more power I get back.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.