Still a beginner

14th March 2014 at 00:00

The first time I took my son to a really big book shop at the age of 2, he waddle-galloped up and down the aisles shrieking: "Look at all de books!" Then he weed his pants. I have a similar reaction almost every time I go in there, admittedly with slightly more bladder control.

I access the majority of my reading content digitally, so seeing all the information I don't have staring down at me from the shelves is overwhelming. I regularly tell students that I don't have all the answers. If I'm contextualising functional literacy around a beauty therapy course I won't have in-depth knowledge of threading techniques or be au fait with the etiquette of waxing private bits. I'll need them to teach me as I teach them. Only the theory, I hasten to add.

This doesn't apply exclusively to their vocational area. In my English class, if a 16-year-old voices an idea that is far superior to mine, why would I insist that I'm right just because I'm the teacher?

I have worked in further education for a few years now, but not long enough to become over-confident about my level of expertise. The colleagues I admire the most are those who have been around seemingly forever but are still dedicated to their own learning. Although I am secure that I have a broad understanding of the sector and how to teach my subject within it, I find that the more I learn, the more I discover there is to learn. As long as I still feel like a beginner, I must be doing something right.

So when I meet people who seem to believe they are the cleverest in every room, it renders me irritable and I have to suppress the urge to pretend-cough the word "bollocks" into my hand every time they speak.

The most memorable case of misplaced intellectual superiority I have encountered came from the worst teacher I have ever met. Not only did she routinely use words such as thick and stupid to "motivate" her students but she also regularly set them exam targets far below their capability in order to garner stellar stats for herself.

As education professionals, we should be challenging our own beliefs and assumptions by putting ourselves in positions where we are struggling to keep up intellectually. I attend academic conferences where I understand about a quarter of what's going on, get a pounding headache by about 3pm and lose the will to tweet. However, some of the learning does seep in.

The best continuing professional development is when I'm stretched. The richest learning is when I leave exhausted and intoxicated with thought. But I have to keep reminding myself of that feeling. Much like my exercise regime, when I'm huffing my way up a hill it's not always easy to remember how exhilarated I'll feel afterwards.

Of course, it's far easier to lean back and assume the superior, defensive position - but acknowledging your ignorance is vital to addressing it.

You don't know it all. You don't even know a fraction of some of it. Next time you catch yourself thinking that you do, get yourself down to your nearest really big book shop and look at all de books.

Sarah Simons works in further education colleges in Nottinghamshire, England

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