How to Avoid Helicopter Professoring: A Student-Directed Activity

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


Many times in my teaching career, I've found myself hovering over students to make sure I can help them if they need it. There is nothing innately wrong with my desire to help; it’s just that many of us have this desire to help so ingrained in us that we can go overboard. I will never forget when a student said "Professor, please step away from my computer. I've got this. Also, you scared the crap out of me." I often have to remind myself to step back (literally!) and trust students.

In contemplating my propensity for hovering, I’ve thought about how my late grandmother, Mabel, would send her four children out the door to explore nature, fully trusting their ability to play and learn independently. As part of my commitment to be more like Grandmom Mabel and not be a helicopter professor, I’ve made a commitment to incorporate in each unit of study at least one self-directed student activity that takes place during the class timeframe but outside of the walls of the classroom.

Recently, I designed a photography activity for my Humanities 101 class that was based on Ancient Chinese philosophy and aesthetics: specifically, Taoism, ancient Chinese landscape painting, and Confucianism. I asked students to pair up and take twenty-five minutes in the halls of the college or outside on nearby Spring Garden Street to take a photo with a smartphone (or make a drawing) that represented an element of one of the spiritual or aesthetic philosophies. Afterward, students answered questions about their photograph, what the composition represented, and how contemporary American culture was present in their photo.

Students’ responses were rich; they identified spaces on campus meant for collaboration that wound up being devoid of students. They talked about how architecture communicates feelings of stability even if that stability might not exist, and they mentioned some of their thoughts about why our college’s new learning commons might mirror a more collectivist ideology, despite the fact that we are living in an individualistic culture. A few students who had been shy about participating in class showed their creativity in this activity by turning Wawa coffee cups into timber-frame-inspired ancient Chinese architecture and photographing the results. Without my hovering over and actively surveilling them, my students could breathe, think, and engage with each other more freely, all in service of our class’s learning goals. Because the activity happened during class time, we were able to debrief and look at the photos together once they returned to our classroom, while the energy of their discoveries was still alive in the students.

Be like Grandmom Mabel: open the door and send students through it. And with a lesson plan that invites students back at the end of class to share and synthesize their discoveries as a group, you can confirm, as I have, that students make important discoveries and take insight-producing creative risks when freed from the distracting noise of a helicopter hovering nearby.