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Teaching Styles: Guide on the Side or Sage on the Stage?
In the early 1990s, California’s teachers were fired in record numbers. There was a huge budget crisis, districts were increasing class sizes and losing classrooms, which meant many of us had to go. I was a second-year teacher, without tenure. I got my farewell letter in March, then started looking for another place.
I found myself surveying the growing community of Moreno Valley. I felt like I was prepared for anything, but I’ll never forget the interviewer who asked about my teaching style. He asked, “Would you consider yourself a Sage on the stage or a guide on the side?”
What a great question. Just asking a question means so much. When I say I’m Stage Smart, you can immediately think of me as a micro-manager. A power-hungry control freak of a teacher who needs his students to act only on command. Or worse, I might be seen as a show-off whose main goal in teaching is to have my voice heard.
Sitting in the interview room, it seemed that the more politically correct answer would be to side with the Guide. “Guide” doesn’t seem like a loaded word like “sage.” The guide leads the way. The guide draws attention to the facts. Guides know which pitfalls to avoid.
I had to give a quick answer. It’s been almost two decades and I’m still thinking about my answer. I expected to change my answer over time. Surprisingly, I still feel good about the answer I gave.
Basically, I believe that there are times when a teacher needs to be Stage Wise and times when a teacher needs to get out of the way and be on the sidelines. Additionally, I have seen very effective teachers who can work with a class, create amazing discussions, and help students build learning in front of the class. In contrast, I have seen other teachers who spend very little time in front of the class, choosing to do most of their teaching in groups. Therefore, the situation and the teacher’s personality play a big role in the discussion: Sage on stage or the guide next to him.
Contemplating the “sage” or “guide” question is not a bad idea. My philosophy in both teaching and life has always been balance and moderation. There have been times when I’ve been on the Supply or Guide roll for longer than necessary. Just asking yourself this question can lead to meaningful soul-searching and a deeper understanding of yourself as a person and teacher.
Smart pros and cons on stage
The Sage on the Stage approach has definite advantages. The teacher on his own stage, controlling the flow of information is definitely faster than the Guide next to him. I’ve tried incorporating instruction-on-the-side strategies into my grammar lessons, but I’ve found that direct instruction works best when introducing initial concepts. I can use “guide” strategies to help me master information. However, there are dozens of grammar and punctuation that students must learn in ten months that do not fit the Guide on the Side philosophy.
This benefit is also the biggest argument against Sage’s approach. As more and more demands are placed on teachers, this method makes it easier to get through the curriculum. But besides being on stage all day is exhausting for the teacher, students need time to digest and process the information. Sage techniques like lecture and group discussion tend to favor quick thinkers. These students do most of the critical thinking for the class. Consequently, most of the class misses out on this important skill.
Pros and cons of the adjacent guide
I recently started a sixth grade Hebrew lesson on the exodus from Egypt like this:
Imagining that you are a guest in someone’s house. After a few weeks, you realized that you did all the housework, your mom cooked all the meals, and your dad started paying all the bills. You were once a guest in this house. Now what has become of you?
Students had to read material from their social studies books and explain how the Hebrews were related to your family. The connections they found were great. The follow-up discussion continued to bear fruit as one group after another pointed out new ways of handling the analogy. I was a guide from the side, dropping hints along the way.
The follow up was for the students to create the second part of my “guest” analogy. They read about Moses and the exodus and had to create an analogy about how they were able to move out of the house they were enslaved in.
The lesson was time-consuming, but very effective. As effective as this was, I noticed that there were still things that needed to be taught directly to the students. Many students who had no background knowledge of the topic needed me to put it in the context of the history of history. Once again, I was back to being Smart on Stage.
The moral of the story is that the art of teaching is knowing when to be “guide” and when to be “wise.” I return once again to my original point: simply asking myself the question “What kind of teacher am I?” is enough to help you become a better teacher. Constantly monitoring the balance between the two provides the opportunity for self-reflection that we all need.
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