Sunday, February 14, 2010

Feigning Knowledge

I have a friend who seemed to know everything. Whether we were talking about politics, football, wildflowers, or couches he had a story that seemed to show expert knowledge about the topic. One day I figured him out. He was able to convince the people around him of his expertise on topics he often had very limited experience in. I don't know where he learned that talent, but it is a tactic used by all teachers, and one I had to pick up quickly.

He reminds me of my students, who often pretend to be experts on something they have extremely limited understanding of. They pick up tid bits of information from parents and friends, and regurgitate it verbatim as holy truth. When confronted with contradictory information students sometimes suffer from cognitive dissonance. I don't work that way. I need to have more understanding of something before I share an opinion.

This is why I was terrified when my school asked me to teach subjects that I had limited understanding of. I was shocked that the school would arbitrarily give out classes within departments without placing teachers in their strength. I was asked to teach Law and Ancient History. These are classes I had never taken in college, or done much outside research. On top of that, you can't make me care about Ancient Egypt, I really just don't care. I didn't know where to start. Worst of all, students are like raptors. They smell anxiety, nervousness, and fear. How was I going to hide this?

I found out two factors that allowed me to teach what I don't know. Student surveys during my student teaching, and from my first years told me that the students believed I was an expert at what I taught. Students always believe you are an expert unless proven wrong. How else could you be a teacher? I realized all I needed to do was carry the same air of confidence with my weaknesses as my strengths. Confidence can take you far in the classroom.

The second factor I found out was that I did not have to be an expert. So long as I had a unit plan, with a clear objective, and I stayed one step ahead of the students, everything would be ok. I could still go into depth and do involved, fun lessons. So long as I was confident, prepared, and one step ahead, the students would have no idea that I resented the subject or had a serious lack of knowledge.

With teaching, knowledge is not everything anyway. Sure, most teachers are smart, but whats most important is that they know how to structure lessons to help people learn and retain knowledge and skills. Kids don't care about minute details and serious intellectual controversy within a field. Yes, I had some flops, and some great successes, but what's most important is that you don't let it faze you, and that you keep coming back day after day. Teaching those courses taught me that you really don't have to be a college professor to teach. In reality, all you do need is organization, diverse strategies, passion, and most of all, confidence.

Let me tell you about dark matter...

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