Leaners or Lifters?

By: Pam Kessinger, PCC Faculty Librarian

October 1, 2009

The title of this article could easily be misread in a couple of ways, with the first word as “learners” or “leaders” instead of “leaners.” In the former, the pejorative (or secondary) term seems to be “lifter”. We easily recognize the value of learners, and the importance of leaders, and may assume that “lifters” are a secondary role. However, in groups focused on a common goal, there is often shared leadership, where designated leaders are essential, but so too are supportive people, who help others be recognized, and lift up their ideas and efforts.

Reading Lifters and Leaners as it is meant, as taken from verse by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, clears the ambiguity.

“There’s only one lifter to twenty who lean.
In which class are you? Are you easing the load
Of overtaxed lifters who toil down the road?
Or are you a leaner who lets others bear
Your portion of labor and worry and care?”

Students who are independent learners are not usually solo artists. They work with others well in group work, and participate in class discussions. They may take on clear leadership roles, or less explicitly, they raise the rest of the group by facilitating communication.

How can we empower inexperienced or unprepared students to share their questions and subsequently, their growing understanding? To find their own place in the group? There are many demands upon them as they adjust to college level study, and knowing how to connect students to college services serves an important part. Helping them to determine and utilize their personal learning styles is also useful.

The next, and most important step, however, is to look at your own teaching. Work through a “reflective inventory” to determine where to begin to enhance the learning environment of your classroom, whether face-to-face or online.


  1. What am I proudest of in my work as a teacher?
  2. What would I like my students to say about me when I’m out of the room?
  3. What do I most need to learn about in my teaching?
  4. What do I worry about most in my work as a teacher?
  5. When do I know I’ve done good work
  6. What’s the mistake I’ve made that I’ve learned the most from? (Brookfield, p. 146)

I’ll bet the most positive answers you’ll see for your self are focused on moments when there is not only cohesion among the students about a topic, but also deep engagement with the larger subject, to the point that active questioning is taking place.

Parker Palmer refers to this as the “third thing.” He says, “If we want a community of truth in the classroom, a community that can keep us honest, we must put a third thing, a great thing, at the center of the pedagogical circle….” He argues that by making both teacher and student accountable for the vividness of the subject, to the point that a teacher celebrates being caught by students in any seeming contradictions, the tension between teacher-centered (rigor) or learner-centered (active learning) models can lessen. (116)

In a “subject-centered classroom,” he says, “teachers and students are more likely to come into a genuine learning community, a community that does not collapse into the egos of students or teacher but knows itself accountable to the subject at its core.” (118) Teachers then, are to be lifters as much as leaders, and nobody gets to lean back for long.

Have a look at the TEDtalk video of Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall Project” in which he asks, what can students teach themselves? And how is it that schools far outside of urban areas are creating successful learning? Mitra asserts, provocatively, “primary education can happen on it’s own.”


  • Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Butscher , E. “Wilcox, Ella Wheeler” The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Ian Hamilton. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Portland Community College. 27 August 2009.
  • Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Library & Learning
Vol. 1 Issue 1 October 2009

⇑ Top