Three Magic Words
As a teenager in a high school classroom, I have received many an eye roll. I had a reputation for being brainy, but certainly wasn’t the teacher’s pet. “Boy, am I in for it” was one of the thoughts that teachers had when they found out I was to be in their class. (Yes, one of them actually told me.)
I asked a lot of questions. If a teacher didn’t explain something clearly, I asked him to clarify. If there was a point that she skipped over in order to avoid something controversial, I asked the very question she hoped to avoid. I had a sponge-like brain that was thirsty for knowledge, but that also refused to let something sink in until I had wrestled the concept to the ground and taken a good bite out of it.
(One of my mentors gave me that “wrestling” analogy recently. I think it’s pretty accurate.)
I have calmed down a bit since then. My overzealous passion for asking questions and need to understand ideas deeply has not gone away, but I have worked on my classroom attitude; I no longer ask questions unless I feel that the answer will benefit the whole class, and I try not to bring something up that teacher might not want to discuss. I avoid embarrassing others at any cost, even though it means biting my tongue (often). Now, I save my conundrums and approach the teacher after the class is over.
I want to share a story with you.
There is something that a teacher of mine did in high school that I will never forget. Something that I aim to keep with me every time that I teach or try to explain something to another human being.
It was a class that I always looked forward to. It wasn’t a mandatory credit, and the subject was difficult, so the class was small and filled with only the kids that really wanted to be there. Our teacher would often teach us stuff that was much more comprehensive than the curriculum he was given, because the class was always asking questions more advanced than what we were supposed to be learning. Even though I don’t use any of the specific concepts that we learned back then in my every day life, I regularly use the kind of learning style he encouraged. We learned the subject so well that I still get excited when I meet someone that shares a passion for it, and surprisingly, I can still hold my own (somewhat) in such nerdy conversations.
It was a normal day in the class, meaning that the lesson had already been taught and we all understood it well. Now was the time for questions and discussions; I was on a roll with my usual, “But what if…?” “How is it possible that…?” “Would one be able to…?” “Could we say that…?” The flow of the discussion was, as always, quite lively. Our teacher loved how much we enjoyed learning, and we loved how much he cared about the subject and our education. He answered our questions quickly and concisely, and we always made him clarify if we didn’t understand. Finally, I came out with a “But what about ____? How is it possible that ____ if ____?” My teacher opened his mouth, closed it and looked thoughtful. He started to speak again but then stopped himself once more to think. Finally, he gave me the answer that I will never forget: “You know what Andrea? I don’t know.”
He did even more, but first let me explain why this first part was so revolutionary. You see, up until that moment, I had never heard a teacher of mine say those three words. If I asked questions that teachers weren’t sure of, I would usually get scolded, be given extra homework, or get an eye roll with some sort of transparent answer. I had always felt that my need to seek truth and ask questions was a bad thing, an annoyance, and something that I would be much better off without. Not only did this class with the “I don’t know” teacher give me some much needed sense of self worth, it also taught me to like teachers. It taught me to recognize that they too, were human, which vastly increased my respect for them. My teacher’s “I don’t know” came from a deeply humble place. He recognized that the subject that we were discussing was important, and in that moment, he put his ego aside in order to do the right thing. My mind was blown.
But there’s more. The next thing he said was, in an excited voice, “I’m going to find out and I will let you guys know!”
And he did. The next time we had class together, he told us that he had gone to an old professor that did research on the exact subject we were discussing. This professor even brought the question to some of his colleagues before giving our teacher a definitive answer. My teacher told this answer to our class to the best extent that we could understand it.
What was so important about what my teacher did?
First of all, he was humble enough to tell his students when he wasn’t sure about an answer. He put any need that he might have to exert authority upon us on the backburner because he knew that our quest for truth and love for learning was so much more important. He didn’t have to preach respect to us, because the very fact that he loved teaching meant that he already had it. However, to simply say “I don’t know” and leave it at that could easily become a form of laziness. Instead, he took the extra time to find out the answer and give it over to us the next day. His love and passion for the subject was real. This was not just a job for him… this was important! And he was not afraid to show us that.
Since this class, I have had a few more opportunities to witness such passion and humility from another human being. And for each time it has happened, I have carried the answer given to me until this very day. I remember, in every instance, the person starting to give an answer and then realizing that he or she didn’t have the tools to give it over. I can remember how much joy it gave the person, to realize that a student had asked a question that she or he didn’t have the answer to. Most of all, I remember the spark of excitement. The curiosity. The need to find out. And the phone call or email the next day with the answer. I am smiling now from those memories, even as I write this.
This is what teaching is about.
This is an important lesson that we also have to learn as friends, parents and spouses. But especially teachers. We teach because we have something that we want to give. But that does not mean that we should stop learning ourselves. And we should be learning the most from our students. Instead of being annoyed when a student asks a question that we don’t know, we should feel indescribable nachat (pride). Because it is when a student starts creating his or her own fire that we know we have actually given something real. And you cannot give what you don’t have yourself.
Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know”.