A few years ago, I invited a friend of mine, who was working as a local television meteorologist, to do a weather presentation for our third graders. He talked about thunderstorms and rainbows, and even did that awesome tornado-in-a-bottle trick to teach them about a twister’s rotating winds. At the end of his presentation, he opened it up for a Q&A. Kids asked questions about his job, and more questions about tornadoes. Then he called on a student who happened to be one of the most brilliantly gifted children anyone on my team had ever taught. Using vocabulary I didn’t even know, she proceeded to ask a complex question about positively and negatively charged lightning.
Needless to say, our weatherman was stunned, the teachers shot the “this-kid-is-smarter-than-I’ll-ever-be” look at each other, and the students sat waiting to know if the expert knew the answer. After a moment of shocked silence, he was able to answer her question, but later shared with me that it made him sweat!
Now, he is an expert in this field. Adept in math, science, and technology, he was well-equipped to respond, even if he didn’t expect such a high level question from an 8 year old.
We, as educators, especially elementary educators who teach across curricular areas, are experts in our field, but I will be the first to admit that my students stump me regularly. And you don’t have to be a child genius to be able to do that to teachers. I don’t always have the answers.
Early in my teaching career, when I was asked a question, I remember scrambling to compose coherent responses, because I was the teacher. Wasn’t I supposed to know and have the answers? I have learned a lot in my journey as an educator, but one of the most valuable realizations was this:
My job as an educator is not to have all the answers. My job as an educator is not to demand that students have all the answers either. My job as an educator is to teach students that questions are worth asking, how to ask questions, and how to seek answers through critical thinking and problem solving.
The most powerfully honest words you can speak to a child who has asked a question you don’t know the answer to are “I don’t know…yet.”
Modeling what it looks like to not know yet, and then sharing how to seek knowledge and understanding is what we are ultimately hoping to teach our children in their pursuit of lifelong learning.
And sometimes, our students come to us, with a bounty of expertise and background knowledge on subjects we have barely dabbled in. If we insist on being the “sage on the stage”, only our experiences and range of knowledge is shared and blessed. But if we create student-centered environments in which learners have opportunities to be teachers, and teachers become learners, we communicate to children that they are worthy and capable of being heard and acknowledged. They see that even teachers are always in the midst of a learning process.
No one has proved that more than the brave teenagers of Parkland, Florida who have demanded “never again”. They have taught their peers, and young ones looking up, but especially adults, that they will not be defined by others’ generational marks of criticism: they are addicted to their phones, lazy, and have no attention span. Instead, they started a movement. They leveraged their social media skills to garner international attention for gun reform, organizing a nationwide walkout just a week ago to honor the victims and to make visible their voices. They changed laws. They are unrelenting. Grassroots planning, conducting interviews, giving speeches, organizing a march in the nation’s capital. Every single day since that tragedy, they have been active and vocal. They wondered what could be done to ensure this never happens again, and they have been seeking the answers since then.
No adult told them to initiate this movement. It is of their own creation. Circumstances demanded that the kids become the teachers this time, and if we are wise, we will support and sustain them, because this time, this time, the adults need to listen.
Being the expert in the room doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It means we are experts in teaching children that learning is wondering, thinking, and following their inquiries. We should be expert enough to know that it also means descending from the stage and taking a seat to listen to our next generation of wonderers, thinkers, and doers. What will they learn, accomplish, invent, change, and solve?
We don’t know…yet.