Tell Me What To Do/Don’t Tell Me What To Do

In my role as a coach over the past few years, I’ve had many conversations with teachers where someone said to me, “Please just tell me what to do,” and then, sometimes in the same breath, followed that with, “I don’t want to be told what to do.” I have had similar thoughts myself as a teacher, a coach, and a parent. Just tell me what to do…except I’m the expert on my students/teachers/children so don’t tell me what to do. Every time I’ve heard or felt this, I’ve been confused. We can’t have it both ways…right? How can these seemingly polar opposite ideas coexist?

I’ve recently had an epiphany.

As with many of my epiphanies, this one came to me while I was reading…and reading something not related to education at that.

In the book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande explores aging, dying, and death in the modern medical age.  He uses research and storytelling to bring forth the idea that quality of life is what we are looking for at the end of our time. My epiphany occurred while reading a chapter on nursing homes and assisted living.  What Gawande brings to light is that in elder care structure, routine, and autonomy are key.  Nursing homes have the structure and routine part working like a well-oiled machine, but they often neglect the autonomy. The elderly who live on their own have their autonomy, but they may lack the structures and supports to keep them as safe and healthy as possible. For a successful, healthy, fulfilling life both components are necessary. I immediately connected this idea with my experiences as an early childhood special education teacher. My students needed a predictable routine and classroom structures in order to feel safe and to know what to expect.  They also needed time and space to practice being independent and to explore their interests.  If I structured every minute of their day, not only would they be bored and rebel, but they wouldn’t learn anything.  On the other hand, if I just made my classroom a free for all, it would be stressful environment that lacked the safety necessary for learning. It’s about the balance of both.

In my work as a coach, I’ve discovered that these conversations about support and autonomy happen across grade levels.  All of our learners thrive on the healthy balance of structure and independence.  This is where is hit me: teachers ARE learners.  If this is true for our students, it’s true for us as teachers too. When we say, “Tell me what to do but don’t tell me what to do,” we are asking for support in finding that balance.  Show me how to structure my work, but don’t hand me a script to read off of.  Help me have a routine for what I need to do, but recognize that I bring my own expertise into the classroom.  As a coach, I need to recognize that teachers may be seeking structure and routine as well as autonomy and independence. I need to be aware that they may need more structure in some areas than others, and I need to help them find the right balance.  Now that I have a better handle on what, “Tell me but don’t tell me,” means, I can use this knowledge to better serve and support teachers…and myself!


  1. It’s a fine line to walk!! A tightrope even! 🙂 Very well said – thanks for your wisdom!! ~Alison

  2. Firstly, I loved “Being Mortal.”

    Secondly, I *love* that this is what you got out of that book. Your brain is fabulous.


  3. “As a coach, I need to recognize that teachers may be seeking structure and routine as well as autonomy and independence.” BINGO!

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  4. I feel this so often too, “Tell me what to do but don’t tell me what to do.” Your analogy to the assisted living and early special education realms is spot on. This is why it is so important that in our role, we help those teachers see that they DO have the answers. Our job is to help them get there. That way we can still “Tell them what to do, but not tell them what to do.”

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