My first day of teaching was sixteen years ago this past January. I was a full-time graduate student, assistant volleyball coach, and regular substitute. I was not planning on teaching full-time until I finished my Master’s Degree. Well, I grew tired of dorm living quickly after the carefree undergraduate years were behind me and accepted a teaching position to replace someone leaving to work in the state legislature. I was to teach seventh grade language arts and civics.
I was hired very quickly. It was January. I had a degree and a license; they were probably desperate. I was given a textbook and chose the most interesting story I could find to wow the kids on my first day: “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze. The story was scary and suspenseful (a shipwreck and rats)…it was everything I needed to hold the attention of 25 seventh graders. I went in armed with my textbook and overhead sheets for pre-reading instruction. I launched into the background information while gesturing above the hum of the overhead projector about the story. I was the expert in the room (since I had read the story once).
I butchered the pronunciation of French Guiana and was promptly interrupted. A heavier–set boy with dark hair raised his hand. He corrected my pronunciation of French Guiana (fren(t)SH ɡēˈänə) and gave a short lecture for my edification regarding the South American land mass. I was in shock. How was I going to save face? How would I make sure that these kids knew that I was the smartest one in the room? That I was the one in charge? It had never even occurred to me to look it up or practice saying it beforehand. These were 7th graders. I was 21 years-old. I had been to England and Australia. What did these rural pre-teens know?
I made a decision right then and there that has continued to drive my teaching career since that day. I was not the smartest one in the room (at least not on that topic), and I wasn’t going to pretend to be. I asked Jay a few questions about the location and then told him I would like to hear more about it. He was delighted. I quickly found out that he was the school’s geography bee champion and a sponge regarding facts and figures of not only geography, but just about any subject that interested him.
Whenever we read a new story with a specific geographical setting, I would have Jay tell the class about the location. The students, who were used to his know-it-all demeanor, grew to groan less and accept his information because they saw that I was genuinely interested in what he had to offer.
Since then, there have been many times when I was not the smartest in the room. And that is the way that I like it. In my Advanced Placement classes, if I am the smartest one in the room, then there is probably something wrong with my program. Each year, I have between one and a handful of students that consistently beat me on multiple choice passages and even essay scores. I take tests with my kids, and I am honest when they best me. We acknowledge and celebrate these feats.
I could have shut Jay down that day. I could have insisted that I was correct or asked him not to interrupt me. But I didn’t. I am thankful that Jay was there that day and that he felt the need to correct his new teacher. And my students past, present, (you know who you are, smarty pants) and future thank you too.