In the four and a half years that I was a college student majoring in secondary education, I knew everything there was to know about education. I knew how I would run my classroom. I knew how to meet the needs of all my future students. I knew how to motivate kids. If there was a question posed about poverty and race and how it affects education I knew how to solve that problem. I knew how to fix it. I knew how to change the world.
I was passionate about my chosen profession. I believed what I had been promised, that if I only worked hard enough, dreamed big enough, wanted it bad enough, then I could be the kind of teacher they made movies about. I already had the answers, of that I was sure. I just needed a classroom to implement these brilliant ideas in. After that, Oprah would call. She always wants to interview the country’s best teachers.
The first inkling I had no idea what I was doing was the first day in my real classroom. I didn’t even know how to pronounce most of the kids’ names. I didn’t know how to fit enough desks into my classroom. I didn’t even know where to get enough desks. I struggled with relating ancient texts to the lives of my students. I remembered saying in a college class, “you have to show the kids why it matters to them, otherwise they won’t read the book.” Somehow, it had never occurred to me to ask how you were supposed to show them it mattered.
Today was my first day of my seventh year of teaching. I am claiming it as my year of Jubilee. I have taught in three different schools with three very different student populations. In all of the knowledge I have gained, I know far less than I used to. But now, I ask better questions.
When my students disengage and their grades start tanking, I have learned to look a kid straight in the face and ask him, “Is everything okay?” When a student refuses to email me the assignment I know they are capable of, I have learned to ask them if they have internet access at home. I have learned to ask “What happened today? Who said angry things to you?” when a student lashes out uncharacteristically. I have learned the hard way that it is almost never about me.
It is the questions with the hardest answers that I am just now learning to voice. How can we support students who have no support at home? How can we create schools where success is expected, and success is accepted in a neighborhood where everything else is falling apart? I don’t have answers for these questions. I hope someday I will. Asking questions with seemingly impossible answers is so much harder than having the answers. Some days all it does is lead to even harder questions. How can we support a community? How can we change a neighborhood culture? How can we stop the bleeding out that poverty causes?
The answer to these questions is terrifying; the answer is, “I don’t know.” But I am learning to lean in to the not knowing. Not knowing forces me to listen better than I ever have before. It forces me to stop, to look, to really see what is in front of me. People who have the answers don’t really need anyone else.
It is scary to speak questions you don’t know the answer to. I avoided doing it for as long as I could. But if someone doesn’t ask the questions, how will we even know an answer is needed?