On not being the expert

Back in my first year of teaching, I didn’t know anything.  Sure, I’d been teaching for close to 20 years, but I’d never taught middle school or high school and I’d never taught CS.  I’d taught a “boot camp” but not a full length course.  And rather than teach what I’d taught in that boot camp, I did my research and selected a language that I hadn’t learned yet, but that the research showed was a good first language.  That first year, I learned alongside my students.  I had spent the summer doing online courses, going through books, so certainly I knew more than they did, and conceptually, I knew a lot more.  But I wasn’t an expert, and that meant that I didn’t always have the answer.

And that still happens to me, because rather than have everyone do the same assignment, they choose what they want to do, and inevitably, they choose things that I’ve never done.  I just said a couple of days ago in my CS II class to a group that was struggling to figure something out, “You remember I told you I’d never done this before, right?”  Even in my web design class, which is truly an area of expertise for me, I was looking at a student’s CSS and I said, “I don’t think you can do that.” And she said, “It’s in the book.” And sure enough it was, and sure enough, she saved her code, refreshed her page, and I said, “Cool! I learned something new.”  And it happened again about 5 minutes later.

Not knowing everything about your content can be unnerving, but it can also be enlightening, and you can be a good model for your students.  You’re showing them that learning doesn’t end; it’s always happening and will continue to happen for them, hopefully all their lives.  And you can empathize with them more.  You know what it’s like to struggle to understand something.  This is a common theme for me, because I’ve yet to have a year where I’m not teaching something that’s brand new to me.  That’s how I roll.

I was reminded of this whole feeling by a post from Teaching Humans by Meghan Paris. She writes about how not knowing everything has brought joy back to her teaching:

For the first time in my professional life, I enjoy the act of teaching. Most freeing of all, perhaps, is the feeling of not knowing exactly what I’m doing while actively doing it.

The next two paragraphs are worth reading.  We ask our students to learn everyday, to struggle to understand, to keep learning even when it’s hard.  When we do that alongside them, it’s so much better for us as teachers, but more importantly, it’s better for the students.


2 Replies to “On not being the expert”

  1. In math every kid that gets the correct answer gets it pretty much the same way. In programming the kids usually give different code for the same problem. Sometimes completely different problem solving strategies. Keeps you on your toes. My toes are worn down to nubs.

Comments are closed.