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Esther Wojcicki on Parenting, Teaching, and Why It’s Okay to Smile Before Christmas

by Brendan Dowling on May 10, 2019

In How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results, Esther Wojcicki distills the techniques she’s developed for over fifty years as an educator and parent to help readers raise self-reliant children. Combining research and reflection, Wojcicki’s outlines how her method, TRICK (for Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness), empowers children to develop skills to be resilient members of society. Wojcicki is the founder of the Media Arts programs at Palo Alto High School as well as the CEO of Global Moonshots in Education, a non-profit which aims to instruct teachers and business leaders in the TRICK methodology. Library Journal’s starred review of the book noted that “in a time of increased anxiety and helicopter parenting, Wojcicki’s advice on helping your child lead seems to speak for itself,” and Booklist praised it as “a must-read for all parents.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Wojcicki via telephone on April 22nd, 2019.

How did this book come about?

It came about because I wanted to share this TRICK model with everybody because I realized how effective it was in my classes and how effective it was with my children. A lot of people were asking me on a repeated basis why was I so effective? What was I doing in my class? Rather than repeat myself a hundred times, I thought, “I’ll write a book and this is how you’ll be able to get the information. I’ll just give you a copy, and that will take care of that.” It was very simple. (laughs)

How did you first come up with the concept of TRICK?

I had to research it, to be honest. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. It took me a while to realize that trust was so important. Students had told me early on that the reason they took my class was because of trust. I dismissed it. I said, “There must be another reason. They must like the way I was teaching.” It didn’t register. (laughs) After several years of students saying the same thing, I thought, “Well, maybe that’s true. Maybe it is trust and respect.”

I also didn’t believe it because I thought other teachers were doing the same thing. It turns out they weren’t. Trust and respect are a real driving force. Students wanted to feel more trusted and respected on a regular basis. It made a big difference to them personally and how they talk about themselves.

I also realized I was giving them a lot of independence. It wasn’t just once in a while. The whole point of my parenting was giving my kids as much independence as possible as early on. The same thing with my students. Students don’t get a lot of independence. As a matter of fact, I was with a group of people yesterday from New Zealand who said they were trying out some of these methods in their classes. They found that one of the hardest things was to teach students how to feel independent and how to be trusted, because students are so used to being told what to do. I’m telling you it’s a real problem. It’s hard to see unless you’re in a classroom.

I’ve taught English, Social Studies, Math, and Journalism. In all instances, collaboration is the way to learn because you’re talking to some other person about what it is that you’ve just learned or read about. In order to really learn it, you have to make it a part of you and you have to talk about it. In talking about it and reacting, that’s that’s where all the learning takes place.

All the educational research out there says that about eighty percent of all learning takes place outside of the classroom. When I was structuring my classes, I thought, “If all the learning takes place outside of the classroom, what do they have outside the classroom that I don’t have inside the classroom? It’s interaction.” So I thought, “Okay, in my class you’re going to learn, you’re going to interact.”

Early in the book, you talk about how important it is for children to be self-motivated. Why has that been so critical for you as a parent and as a teacher?

If you don’t want to monitor your own child all the time, they have to be self-motivated. As a teacher, you don’t want to monitor the kids all the time. That’s what burns teachers out, is this constant monitoring. You’re actually like a policeman in the classroom: “Put down your pen” or “Stop talking” or “Open that book.” If you don’t want to keep doing that, then you have to engage them in a way where they personally want to do the work. They have to be engaged, because otherwise you’re going to be constantly telling them what to do. That’s draining. Not only that, it’s ineffective.

I tried [the other method] because I was told that’s the the way you were supposed to be a teacher. When I started teaching in the 1960s and 70s, the number one thing was you were in charge of the class, and they gave you all of these “tricks” to make you in charge. One of the things we were told before we ever went into a classroom was, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” (laughs) Because they didn’t want you to ever be friends with your students. They just wanted you to maintain this rigid authoritarian appearance.

So how did you get your students to be self-motivated?

As a journalism teacher, I have multiple publications: newspapers, magazines, television, radio. First, they get to pick their medium. When they do that, they get to write about whatever they’re interested or concerned about, but they have to collaborate with their peers. They come up with the story idea, talk to other people about it, and make sure that everybody thinks it’s a good idea. They learn to collaborate, communicate, and think critically and creatively—the Four Cs.

What do they do with those skills? They go out into the world and they become leaders. They become empowered and confident people. That’s what we need—people who are willing to take a risk. My students trust themselves, they respect themselves, they forgive themselves if they make mistakes, and they continue to work. They don’t overreact to life so when something doesn’t go the way they expected. They don’t beat themselves up and they don’t let other people do that either. It’s a very different model than the one we have going in the schools today.

You recommend that parents in the books to write and reflect about their own childhood. Why is that so helpful to their parenting?

When you parent, what happens is you somehow instinctively parent the way you were parented. When you have the child in the hospital, you get instructions on how to feed the child and change their diaper, but there are very little instructions on how to parent them. So you need to think about what it was that happened in your childhood that you want to continue, and what happened in your childhood that you think needs to change. If it’s on the conscious level, then you can make those changes. But otherwise, it’s very difficult to make the change.

In teaching, we tend to teach the way we were taught. A lot of parents expect their kids to go to school, sit in rows, listen to lectures, and suffer because that’s what they went through. And if you don’t suffer you’re clearly not learning. (laughs)

The model has to change. If you want to bring up kids who can follow instructions and who are afraid of you well then you can consider the model that was popular in the 1900s. If you want to bring up kids who are going to be your friends when they’re adults, who are going to want to collaborate in their workplace, who are good thinkers, and who have the four Cs embedded in them, then you should probably change your model.

You also write about your goal as a parent is to make yourself obsolete. What do you mean by that?

That was my goal as a parent and that was my goal as a teacher. I want my children to be as capable as possible without my intervention. I’m there as a coach, which is reassuring. But if they can do whatever it is they want to do in the world, they will be empowered and they will be happier. We’re all happier when we have control.

What role has the public library played in your life?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the library. Every week when my daughters were growing up, we’d take a laundry basket to the library. We’d take back the books we checked out the week before and fill the basket back up again. The public library is the best thing available for everybody, and people should take advantage of it. Especially now. The public library doesn’t just have books, they have computers. They’ll teach you how to do a lot of things on the computers.

A lot of my students prefer books, by the way. Isn’t that crazy? People don’t think young people don’t like books. Let me tell you, they all like books and they’re all tired of reading on the computer. So there! I probably shouldn’t have said that so strongly. (laughs) They actually wrote an editorial a few years ago asking the school board to stop buying them so many computers and to please buy books. People couldn’t believe it!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.