LEARNING is a big part of teaching…

…I already know this, but sometimes it’s really hard for me to feel stupid in front of my students. David Foster Wallace warned, in his powerful 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, that if you “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

This is my first year teaching grade 6 science. It’s a new curriculum, these are advanced students, and I haven’t taken a science class since college astronomy in 2005. So it’s been a fun challenge getting to know the students’ textbook and attempting to answer their numerous questions. I’m all for encouraging inquisitiveness, but when I have to say “I have no idea!” to question after question, I start feeling completely unqualified for my job. Each time I don’t know the answer to a question I have a decision to make. I can be humble and vulnerable and show my students my own weaknesses by saying, “Wow! Great question! I don’t know. Let me look that up for you and get back to you.” I can make something up. (Just kidding; I don’t do that, but sometimes I want to.) Or I can tell them to stop asking me questions (i.e. write down your question and I’ll answer it later!). I remember talking about this with Kelly Mack and Julianne Foxworthy last year — that we as teachers have the responsibility to be experts in what we’re teaching, but also to be humble enough to show our imperfections to our students. Kids need to know that we don’t know everything and that we’re learning too. There’s a limit, however, to how much of my ignorance that I want my students to see. At some point, won’t I lose all validity?

The discomfort of this has been amplified by having more than one teacher in the classroom. Another challenge that comes with co-teaching is that if you think feeling dumb in front of 32 kids is bad…try 32 kids plus four adults. I study up before starting a new chapter in the grade 6 science textbook, but it’s their questions about stuff not in the book that really throw me off. My co-teacher has been teaching science for several years and she has a degree in a science, so she’s simply more prepared than me to answer questions about the atmosphere of Jupiter, mitosis vs. meiosis, the intricacies of genetics, and whether the plants in our school garden are angiosperms or not. So I often direct their questions to her, and I am so thankful that I can, but it gets exhausting to constantly tell my students, who assume that I know the material I’m expected to teach, that I just simply don’t know the answers to their questions.

Recently a young chemist from England joined our staff, and to get a feel for the school before throwing him into a classroom of his own, he’s been observing other teachers. So one day a couple months ago he came into my class during grade 6 science, and he’s been coming every day since. It’s awesome having a chemist around while preparing a chemistry experiment for the science fair. But it’s also very intimidating. Most of the time, I just tell the kids to ask him why bromine can tell us if a soap is biodegradable, for example. Other times, I get flustered while answering a question and wonder if he thinks I’m a complete idiot.

It turns out, I don’t think he thinks I’m a complete idiot, and I’ve been able to have him help out my class in very productive ways. I’ve realized that my expertise lies more in teaching, not the accumulation of facts. I need to continue to learn the science that I’m helping students learn, of course, but I need to cut myself a little slack and also recognize my strengths. No, I can’t remember from high school chem how to balance chemical equations, but it’ll come back to me with reading and practice. But I CAN plan a good lesson, and I can encourage my students to find the answers to their questions on their own. I will continue to add to my own knowledge, and I will continue trying to balance showing my ignorance to my students and hiding it from them for the sake of my expert power!

I cannot wait until next year. I will be so much more prepared! I’ll continue to learn from next year’s students, but maybe I won’t feel quite as stupid.

For other science teachers who need help remembering/relearning science stuff, I recommend:

Khan Academy (learn almost anything for free)

ptable.com (interactive periodic table of elements)

YouTube (just search any science term; someone has made a video!)




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