Being ‘The Guide on the Side’ is not Enough. Become The COO.

Being ‘The Guide on the Side’ is not Enough. Become The COO.

Alice Johnson said, “the teacher for the gifted and talented will be more of a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’.” As far as I can tell, Johnson was the first to use the terms ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘guide on the side’. Since Alice Johnson though, these terms have found their way into the mouths of almost every “educational thought leader” and administrator as a way to describe the role of the teacher in the 21st century classroom. The thing is, Alice Johnson said that in 1981. Things have changed since 1981 and things are going to change even faster as our students graduate into the 4th industrial revolution. That is why the role of ‘guide on the side’ must evolve, too. We need to become the COO of our classrooms, the Chief Opportunity Orchestrator.

I first heard ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘guide on the side’ early in my teaching career when I decided to try The Flipped Classroom™. It was a disaster. Through my flipped classroom failure, though, I did learn how to create a student-centered classroom. The student-centered classroom is the home of the ‘guide on the side’ but it is only a part of the bigger whole that being the COO is.

In the latter part of my high school English career and throughout my time at Fair Haven running my Fair Haven Innovates program, I have seen myself as the Chief Opportunity Orchestrator. My job as the COO is to create as many opportunities as possible for my students and then get out of their way by being their ‘guide on the side’ so they can chase these opportunities. The job of the COO is to create as many dare to be great moments as possible and help their students rise to the occasion. It may sound like a tall order, but I’m sure at one time being the ‘guide on the side’ sounded intimidating, too. But just like many teachers took up the call and became the ‘guide on the side’, it’s time to go further by becoming the COO of the classroom.

In the last five years of being the COO of the classroom, my students have remodeled their entire classroom, completed yearlong passion projects, turned a profit running real businesses, and worked with companies like Slack, Google, Microsoft, and Skype. My kids have been featured in a bunch of publications, spoken at numerous conferences, and have teamed up with their community to do amazing things and much, much more. In fact, just the other day, a group of my rockstar girls pitched a new dog toy via Twitter and are now set to meet with the awesome people at Planet Dog to see if their toy would be a fit for their product line. My Instagram has picture after picture of students who have taken advantage of the opportunities I have created for them or they have created for themselves. Picture after picture of students who have dared to be great.

Understand: I don’t say this to brag. I say this to let you know it is possible, I’m not special, and that there’s no secret to this. Like most things in life, it just comes down to hard work. If I am one thing, it is relentless. I don’t stop. I work hard to create opportunities for my kids and and work even harder to help them take advantage of the opportunities before them. I want your kids to have opportunities too, so here are some tips to becoming the COO of your classroom.

Move Toward Making

The differences between project-based, problem-based, and passion-based learning are subtle, but one of the things they have in common is that they all involve the student-centered art of making. As the COO, you need to create opportunities in your curriculum for students to make because with making comes great opportunity.

Making doesn’t have to come all at once in your class. I didn’t start out being the COO of the classroom full time. At first, being the COO and letting my kids make was just a part time thing, usually at the end of a unit. After completing what I had to do in the classroom, I would ask students “how do you want to show me what you learned?” This was an invitation for students to make. They came up with their own projects, solved problems they cared about, and shared their passions with the world. I got a ton of mileage out of “how would you like to show me what you learned?”. This question helped me learn how to be the COO of the classroom full time by introducing making to my kids (and myself honestly) slowly. Ask your kids how they’d like to show you what they learned.

Amplify What Students Make

When students told me what they wanted to make, I would ‘yes and’ them with a challenge that involved a wider audience. Students who wanted to record something, were 10x’d into starting their own YouTube channel or podcast so they could teach others what they learned. Students were challenged to make what they built go viral or help others. Students were dared to contact experts or idols and get their opinions or share their passion. Everything was pushed to a wider, authentic audience. As the COO, amplify what students do. Challenge them to go further. Not only is this a great opportunity to teach digital citizenship and soft skills, it also helps students learn to find help and develop their creative confidence. As the COO, I both orchestrate and help kids orchestrate ways that they can take what they’re learning and do something amazing with it by ‘shipping it’ outside the classroom walls and pushing it to a wider audience. Go big or go home. Yes and. 10x. Dare. Challenge. Amplify. Students will never work harder than when the whole world is watching.

You Don’t Have To Be The Expert

Many orchestrated opportunities lead students down a path outside of my areas of expertise. That’s OK. In fact, it’s great because I get to learn something new! Once upon a time, I had students who wanted to learn in Minecraft, but I didn’t know what Minecraft was. Students suggested starting an agriculture business together, but I didn’t know much about agriculture. I’m an above average coder, so I often have to ask my friends at Raspberry Pi for help. When we do ask for help, my students and I both get better! As the COO, just because it is outside your area of expertise or the subject you teach, doesn’t mean it you can’t let it into your classroom. To me, really being a ‘guide on the side’ means being comfortable learning alongside students, together. It means saying, I don’t know but let’s find out together. It means saying, I’ve taken you as far as I can, we’ll need to find someone else, together, to take us farther. You become the COO when you make connections and help students make connections with people who can help them or who they can help. More on this topic here.


You don’t have to be the expert, but you need to hunt the experts down. As the COO, you need to open your classroom to anyone who can make it a better place through bringing their own experience and expertise to your students. One way is by using a technique I call carpet emailing. I find a group or organization who I think we can learn from or can help us, dig up every email I can find of the people who work there, then email me them all… sometimes multiple times. Eventually someone gets back to me, and way more times than not, they couldn’t be happier to help or refer me to someone who can.

Carpet emailing works great, Twitter is even better. Tweeting someone is a public thing. Many people or organizations are extra helpful on Twitter because of the good publicity supporting student learning can bring; it’s easy marketing for them and a great way to cultivate opportunities for the COO.

How you ask is important, too. Never ask by saying “I want too..” ask by saying “what we’ve already done is…”. What I’, saying is, have something to done already to show the people you’re asking. A rough draft, a prototype, something. Showing is better than telling. Assume the people you’re going to ask will say yes and have half the work done before you ask them. Finally, opportunities are reciprocal. The COO does everything in his or her power to make the relationship beneficial to both parties. You and your students should find ways to give back and promote the causes of the people and groups who step up to support your students. Let them know how you’ll give back during the ask.

Guide Them Toward Success

Once you have orchestrated the opportunity, ‘guide on the side’ them toward success. This is the hard part. A lot of the opportunities I create for my kids or they create for themselves don’t always work out. We email people and may never hear back. Times, dates, or costs may not be feasible. And sometimes we just straight up fail. For example, we worked with our local hospital this year and weren’t able to solve any of their challenges. We still learned a lot, but ultimately we failed.

Helping students understand that failing is fine as long as they’ve learned something is important. Getting them to email someone else after not hearing back from three other people is important. Sharing something like this amazing paper that talks about the difficulties students may face in a student-centered, maker classroom is important. Letting them know that done is better than perfect, teaching them about choice paralysis, and how to let their light shine when the opportunity to be great presents itself is important. As the COO, it is important to keep your kids moving forward, guiding them toward success, through all the adversity they will face. Understand, though, our job as the COO is to create the conditions where success is possible, but it is not my job to make sure students are successful. That’s up to them. I do everything I can to guide them toward success, but they must ultimately be the ones that go for it. I just do everything I can to make sure they are ready when it is time for them to be great.

This is my 100th post. Beyond totally rebuilding the site, I wanted to share something I’ve never talked about before, but has been at the heart of what I believe at teacher should be. If you haven’t realize it yet, I write for myself. This site is for me. This site is a collection of the imperfect thoughts of a COO who is trying to do his best. If I can help someone along the way, even better. Amplify. This is the first time I’ve ever openly talked about my “COO mindset”. Rereading this post, you know those times when your thoughts make sense in your head, but when you say them out loud they suddenly don’t make total sense anymore… this post feels like that. But, despite that, I feel this to be true: guiding students is important, but guiding them toward success through opportunities that let them showcase and amplify their passions, talents, and their ability to help others and make a difference is what ‘guide on the side’ means to me. Whether you buy into the idea of the COO or not, the 4th industrial revolution is a world of opportunity. What are you doing to make sure your students dare to be great when the opportunity arises?

Until Next Time,

Here’s to a hundred more.

cross-posted at Teched Up Teacher

Chris Aviles presents on education topics including gamification, technology integration, BYOD, blended learning, and the flipped classroom. Read more at Teched Up Teacher.

Chris Aviles is a STEM teacher, edtech specialist, and president of Garden State Esports. He is also a regular contributor to Tech & Learning.