The Secret Teacher: It is okay not to have the answer

We’re living through a prime opportunity for growth and learning

“Keep calm and carry on, miss, what else can you do?”, says the young man, 30 years my junior.

My Leaving Certs were trying to make decisions about calculated grades and sitting exams, or not. They would have liked me to have answers. The way I usually do.

I always encourage them to ask questions, and it is something they embrace. On this occasion I knew that they were deliberately avoiding asking. They knew and I knew that many of their questions were simply not appropriate.

They recognised that they could not look to me, their teacher, for pedagogical advice. And I recognised that I was in no position to give it. To avoid remaining totally silent, I did say at one stage during the process: “I’m loath to say anything – things are changing so quickly right now that my advice might not be valid for long.” Sure enough, shortly afterwards, a significant change was announced and as a result pretty much every student questioned what they had decided. Such is the unnerving nature of what they are experiencing.

The experienced teacher in me recognises what we are continuing to live through as a real opportunity for growth and learning

It is time to call a halt to pretending that we have answers. There is nothing wrong with not having answers when there simply are none. We are in crystal ball territory if we claim to know anything definitively. Ryan, the student who so wisely suggested that I keep calm and carry on, has that figured out.

The experienced teacher in me recognises what we are continuing to live through as a real opportunity for growth and learning. As one who genuinely invites questions from students on the content of lessons, it seems only reasonable to raise a few myself.

Lesson one: The Leaving Cert is not the be-all and end-all. Only a small proportion of last year's Leaving Certs sat any exams at all and they are not lesser beings as a result. Soon a second cohort will move through, with far from a 100 per cent take-up for the formal examination. This forced abandonment of things as we have always done them has taught us there are other ways. Question: when are we going to fully embrace and explore alternatives? Or could it be that fears that we will simply revert to the traditional Leaving Cert are not entirely unfounded?

Lesson two: We underestimate young people and it is time to stop. Time and time again those far younger than me have shown the way forward during this pandemic. This was sometimes in practical ways by guiding me to the right settings in the online classroom, but even more so in the way they have lived in the moment and kept their heads down knowing there was no alternative. While there have of course been stories of young people breaching restrictions, these have in no way outnumbered the breaches committed by grown adults. This is true of both the volume and the gravity of the breaches. Least often perhaps, but most powerfully, it has at times fallen to a much younger person to deliver the necessary wisdom in a conversation. Ryan, above, is just one example.

A more extreme case is that of Jessie, age three, who delivered a hammer blow of a reality check when she pulled up a mask to cover an adult’s nose. I was talking to Jessie and her parents in a car park when she corrected the positioning of her father’s mask, which was lying far too low and most definitely under his nostrils. This may have just been something for her to do to keep herself occupied while waiting for the conversation to end, but it was nonetheless poignant to observe. Question: when will we make the shift from telling those younger than us what we know to asking them what they know? For a multitude of reasons, technology and the lived experience of a global pandemic being just two, we need to consciously change how we treat young people.

Lesson three: It may be a cliché, but not knowing what you have until it is gone comes to mind as another lesson learned. For all we complain about school, the vast majority of us missed it when we were deprived of it. School management teams traditionally spend a good deal of time firefighting and troubleshooting entirely unnecessary and avoidable incidents. Given the newfound appreciation of schools this is a tradition we could perhaps shed post-pandemic. Question: When are we going to harness the strength of public feeling around how valuable schools are to our young people and use it to build some momentum around treating schools and schooldays respectfully?

Lesson four: It is really and truly okay not to have the answer. This pandemic has totally upset the status quo in terms of shaking our conviction that we know. Just as I had no answers for my Leaving Certs, experts often had no answers for us. The virus was in charge, and while it was fast-moving and unpredictable we literally could not say with any certainty what was going to happen. We have survived not having the answers. Question: isn't it time to embrace not being all-knowing? In doing so, we as teachers would gain huge ground in supporting our learners to be more independent. Having broken the trend of students looking to us for a quick answer, wouldn't we do well to maintain this afterwards?

These ideas may seem radical, but in the context of all that has come our way over the past year or so are they really? Could it be that we are just too set in our ways?