Voices of Concerned Educators: Steal [Marcy Webb]

MarcyEducation, Jose4 Comments

Ocean Swim

“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Satoro

Why is it that in teaching, ideas have to be stolen?

In April of 2009, a colleague observed one of my “Twosies” (Spanish Two) classes. She observed the first 45 minutes of an 85 minute block. During the time she observed, I performed a game with the students called, “Pass the Envelope”. Like many of the activities I use, it is not original – i.e. not created by me. I glean from many different sources, as most teachers do.

First, allow me to explain the objective of “Pass the Envelope”: an envelope is filled with whatever it is the students need to review, and the students pass it as music – in my case music of the Spanish-speaking world – is playing in the background. When the music stops, the student holding the envelope must take out a sentence strip, and translate the sentence. On this particular day, the students reviewed the preterite. On strips of paper were sentences, in English, using regular and irregular verbs. The objective was for the students to translate the sentence, using the correct form of the verb, in the preterite.

The students enjoyed the activity, as did my colleague. The following week, when she and I had some time to decompress what she had observed, she said, “I liked that activity with the envelope. I’m going to steal it.”

I know I had that look on my face – the one my mother says I wear that lets everyone know exactly what I am thinking. I responded matter-of-factly, “Ideas are for sharing, and, if you feel it can help your students learn, please, feel free.”

My colleague’s choice of word – steal – troubles me, even nearly one year later.   How did we teachers get to the point where ideas are stolen, and not shared?  In fact, why didn’t my colleague simply say, “I would like to borrow your idea”, or, “Would you mind sharing that with me?”

You, the reader, are probably saying, “It’s a matter of semantics. Why are you being so sensitive?” But, I happen to think it is a matter which runs much deeper, one which in part formulates the psychology of teaching and of teachers.

Perhaps it is because so many of us work in isolation, cut off from each other, despite the fact that a colleague from the very same department may be teaching in the classroom next door.

Another thought is that each teacher feels the need to be better and do better than the next, because tenure and job preservation are reliant on us keeping the proverbial cards close to the vest.

Regardless, such a mindset will lead teachers to sink their own ship before anyone or anything else will.




Comments 4

  1. Marcy,

    Excellent story..it’s actually a 2-fer: You provided a great teaching/reteaching strategy (I had never thought of that game) and some thought-provoking questions for current and future teachers. I completely understand your point about use of the word ‘steal.’ If we see something that engages the kids and reinforces the lesson, why do we liken it to stealing? Your post also made me think about the fact that I observed many teachers teach with their doors closed; I always kept mine open (unless there was a day when the kids were just too unruly). Why are we so isolated when we are in the midst of shaping minds? Why do we only keep the door open when we need a colleague to watch our class while we go to the restroom? I think if we all worked on becoming more open and collaborative, we could certainly address some of the real issues we perceive as barriers to both reaching kids and getting admins to ‘see’ that teaching and learning really do occur inside the four walls.


  2. Certainly, there’s a negative connotation when it comes to the word “steal,” which sounds innocuous at first, but is damaging in proof. It’s like someone who freely gives you dinner and the person feels like shouting out loud that they’ll pilfer your goods. It’s almost inappropriate in that respect. Having said that, I would hope that the teacher’s tone wasn’t that damaging to the professional environment or your openness in the classroom.

  3. We preach “collaboration” but fail to make this a part of our practice. I applaud your attempt to initiate the collaboration (teacher observation & discussion). You’re correct. It’s not simply a matter of semantics. It’s a mindset. Stealing = taking. I’ve never know a thief to return to a convenience store after robbing it (taking) to discuss ways in which he can use the stolen goods/funds. The mindset needs to shift from “taking” to “sharing.” I’ve been fortunate to be a part of collaborative teams in my career, but I’ve also worked with teachers like your colleague. Keep speaking the language of sharing. It will eventually move from “language,” to “action.”

    1. I’ve always said it with a twinkle in my eye. To me, it was always clear that we were twisting the meaning of the word. Perhaps the habit came about because everything else used to cost, so to get something good for free must be stealing. Now that we have the internet, that mindset is changing. It will be interesting to see if our way of talking about this changes.

      I think part of why people like saying it is that it’s a compliment in a way. “What you are doing is so good, I feel like I’m stealing something if I take your idea without compensating you.” So we get: “This is a gem! I am so stealing it.”

      I’ll definitely be thinking about this the next time I’m moved to claim I’m stealing someone’s idea. Thanks!

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