Professional Learning

The Power of Admitting What We Don’t Know

When you’re teaching a new subject or age group, use these six tips to tackle what you don’t know—and leverage what you do.

October 17, 2017

Although I’m a former high school English teacher who now works to prepare new teachers for the secondary classroom, I had a stint early in my career as a sixth-grade science and math teacher at a startup charter school. I loved the science lessons and preparing, taking the students through lessons on inquiry, experimentation, and hypothesis. But preparing math lessons? Not so much. I remember fretting over those lessons, and if I’m honest, the science lessons received more classroom time than the math ones.

If I could only go back all those years to when I was young and just emerging in my craft (and in my understanding of myself), I would dive headfirst into bettering my skills and strategies for teaching sixth graders math.

Facing Fears

What I now know about the fear in not feeling comfortable teaching something is to go toward it rather than move away from it. Here’s an example of this idea: Several years back, a high school teacher I know transitioned from teaching American history (in 11th grade) for 12 years to teaching world history (in 10th grade). She was nervous, as she felt she couldn’t teach with the same nuance and depth when she had so many countries and time periods to cover. She also felt shaky about her expertise and understanding of some of the world history content she was required to teach.

A few months into the school year, I asked her how it was going. “You know, I decided to be a learner alongside the students for the content where I feel I have less expertise. I work more as a facilitator when that content comes around, and question and probe with the students. I think they’re learning more than they would have if I was doing more direct instruction and had more content expertise. Go figure!”

Taking Action

In my years of observation, this is not a common approach. What’s more common—with experienced teachers and new ones alike—is avoidance (as I did with those sixth-grade math lessons). There’s a lot of expectation that we’re already supposed to know our content through and through since, hey, we’re the teachers.

So how do we tackle avoidance syndrome, move toward our weaknesses, and become more proactive? I offer up these suggestions.

1. First, admit what you don’t know. We have to admit this to ourselves and then to others who can help. Are you great at writing thesis statements but not sure how to plan the teaching and learning of it for a room full of 12-year-olds? Ask a more experienced colleague for guidance and materials. Then dive in. We only learn by doing and reflecting when it comes to this craft—or any craft for that matter. Kurt Vonnegut said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

2. Use what you do know. A good number of teaching and learning strategies do carry over from content to content. If the content and subject are new for you, remember that you’re trained to teach and are already equipped with an array of pedagogical tools.

3. Observe colleagues. Find those teachers who have mastery of the subject or content you are weak in and who have pedagogical practices that are effective and engaging for teaching that content. Every chance you get, sit in their room and watch, take notes, ask questions after the lessons, and reflect on your next steps.

4. Make sure you understand what you’re teaching before you teach it. Break it down for yourself so you can break it down for kids. Slow down if you have to. If you barrel ahead, you’ll confuse them, and as we know, teaching something incorrectly or inefficiently can be difficult to undo. Be prepared, but allow yourself to be a learner alongside your students. Both are possible simultaneously.

5. Actively seek professional development. You may need to go beyond what is offered by your school or district. You can sign up for professional development online (such as webinars) through organizations such as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) or the National Education Association (NEA). You can also enroll in a class (or two) at a local university. Find content experts on your campus, have routine discussions with these master teachers, and acquire their well-developed materials.

6. Keep moving toward, not away from, what you don’t know. If you’re a new teacher—or not so new but grappling with a new grade level, a new subject, or simply new content—embrace the discomfort and keep that learner’s hat firmly on. Trust me, this will make you a better teacher because none of us are ever done learning as teachers.

Perhaps you’ve been teaching third grade at the same school for 10 years? Most likely there’s somewhere in your practice you feel vulnerable. Move toward that place and dive in. And if there’s a novice at your school, someone you know who is experiencing a lot of uncertainty and vulnerability, reach out as soon as you have a moment and offer guidance and support.

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