In his fascinating and quick Anything You Want, thinker Derek Sivers tells a story to explain a lesson he learned about delegation.
(And yes, I understand that you and I are teachers, and that most of us lack assistants to delegate to. But there are key parallels. More after the story.)
The story goes like this. Derek was running a company that helped musicians distribute their work, and one of the company's most important services was distributing albums to 50+ digital music retailers like iTunes and Amazon and Napster. But Derek realized that as long as he was the only one doing this, the company couldn't do its best work because his time wouldn't be spent on the creating and tinkering and innovating that he was best at.
So, he hired someone, trained the person, and, in all caps on the new employee's job agreement wrote “EVERY ALBUM, TO EVERY COMPANY, EVERY WEEK, NO MATTER WHAT.” He didn't cover the importance of this once — it was repeated, again and again and again.
So after teaching the employee how to do the work and repetitively stating the work's most important objective, Derek entrusted it to the employee and turned his attention back to other things.
Months later, he started hearing complaints from musicians that their work wasn't appearing on the digital retailer sites, and Derek came to find that the employee he'd hired was weeks and weeks behind.
Derek said, “What's rule number one? The sole mission of your job?”
And the employee said, “I know. Every album to every company no matter what. But I've been swamped. I just couldn't.”
After firing the employee and building a better system to avoid such a big and costly lapse in the future, the lesson Derek took away was this:
Trust, but verify.
So while the beauty of our job prevents us from hiring or firing students, there are still clear parallels between what we do and what Derek Sivers does.
We teach students to do the work it takes to master our disciplines. We repeat, again and again, in all kinds of ways, why and how this work matters. We do everything in our power to build classrooms where the five beliefs beneath motivation can grow.
And then we trust that kids do the work. But the verification bit is key, too.
So. Trust that students are using the learning strategies you've taught them — but verify with low-stakes quizzing and polling and informal conversation.
Trust that students are reading and writing about the article of the week — but verify by keeping track of your turn-in rates and spot checking the quality of submitted work. (More on that latter part here.)
Trust that you are providing students with a world-class curriculum with lots of reading and writing and speaking at its core — but verify by keeping track of how many texts kids have been asked to read this year, or writing prompts they've had, or pop-up debates you've held.
Trust, but verify.
And when the verification comes back negative, don't throw up your hands. Don't run to a colleague to complain. Work the problem. Ask more questions. And keep building a better system for optimizing results.