The Case of the Teacher Who Knows Everything
I remember being a third-year college student who had just finished her Graph a Saddle calculus classes. Math came easy to me. I loved it, whether I was calculating car speeds or sinking my teeth into partial derivatives; everything was fun and challenging. Mind you, when I say “easy”, I don’t mean that I got everything on my first shot. I simply felt that I could overcome challenges swiftly without going through too much frustration.
I went through my very last math class that year, as I closed my calculus series. The professor walked into the classroom with an open notebook, a collection of pens, and a rather unsettling stare on her notes. She greeted us all, and then told us something that made us all give a collective, inward groan.
“Class,” she said, fingers clutching her notes nervously, “I’m still learning, too, so we’re all going to learn this together.”
What followed was a semester of hell.
We all struggled together, as the professor scribbled equations, attempted to explain them, then attempted to solve them – only to find herself retracing her steps, correcting herself, and asking us to bear with her. We pitied her at first, but eventually became so annoyed and disengaged. I received my lowest math grade ever.
Years later, the grade is not as important as the lesson. I don’t remember what I learned in that final math class, but I do remember how my classmates and I wanted a teacher who knew a lot…a teacher who knew better – a teacher who knew everything.
Science is, by nature, tentative. What was true yesterday may not be true today, and constant experimentation and documentation are needed to support findings. You can only disprove something; you can never prove it. Knowledge will change, and you can never know all that there is to know.
So why did we want a teacher who knew everything?
Perhaps the need comes with youth. As I grew older, and studied more, I realized that I could never claim to know everything. I would always be at the frontier, searching, looking out into the horizon and waiting to see through the fog.
Now, as a dance teacher, I realize that there is no such thing as a teacher who knows everything. I have to admit to myself and my students that like them, I am still learning. I will never be able to completely encapsulate the culture and dances of the Middle East. I will not know everything, and I can’t ever claim to be perfect. Every day will be a learning experience. I will need workshops and master classes aplenty. The learning will never end.
Which brings me to my original question: why did we want a teacher who knew everything? But perhaps, more importantly: why are some students so preoccupied with wanting a teacher who knows everything? Why do some students – especially in dance – bristle when their teacher tells them that she, too, is still learning?
I am now wrestling with this question of knowing, or perhaps giving the impression of knowing everything. On the one hand, I would appreciate a truthful, humble teacher who impressed upon me the reality of knowledge. On the other hand, I would want a teacher who knew something.
Perhaps that is where the resolution lies: it is not an admission of complete knowledge that I was after when I was a college student, finishing off her math credit hours. I wanted a teacher who came to class prepared, so that even if she was only a step ahead of us, she was still ahead. She didn’t have to be perfect; but she had to know things well enough before she attempted to teach them.
At the end of Tribal Revolution this summer, my fellow dancers and I were talking to Rachel Brice. When one dancer asked for advice on teaching, Rachel said, “Don’t teach something that you don’t know.”
Her advice is practical, but frightening. Rachel Brice has 20 years of dance experience, is the leader in tribal fusion belly dance, and teaches workshops all over the world. Her expertise, however, has also shown her that there are things that she still knows nothing about. It is not her place to teach them – it is not her place to pretend to know.
Perhaps what I was waiting for was not knowledge, on that afternoon when my math grades began to fall. All I wanted was a professor who could prepare well enough, stay ahead of her tasks, and still be honest with us.
And perhaps that is what is missing in education. We might fill our students with knowledge, and how to use that knowledge – but have we ever trained them, to be humble? To know that knowledge has its limits? To admit that knowledge is still expanding, and that questions must always be asked for any field to keep moving forward? Have we trained them to think?
Have we trained them to learn?
I, myself, am daunted by the task of still learning. It is a challenge, to say the least; but I must recognize that challenge, and admit that I, too, am but a speck of nothingness in the vastness of the universe. The thousands of other dances, I am alien to; the dance that I know, I shall continue to learn until I die.
And, at that point, silent in the grave, I know I shall have left a world full of questions still.