I have been teaching now for 14 years, so it is not often that students ask me a question that I can’t answer. I remember the days when I’d be puzzled and confused by an off-the-wall question and, when I was particularly green, afraid of not having the answer. I finally figured out, thankfully, that I can admit not knowing an answer and promise to get back to them after I looked it up (or challenge them to find the answer). By now, I’ve heard the same questions so often that I can anticipate them, and I know that a class isn’t working quite well when the right questions aren’t being asked.
As I raise my children, I feel thrust back to the days when I was bombarded with unexpected questions that I’m not sure how to answer. At least with teaching, I knew to expect questions during that hour and twenty minutes I was standing in front of the room. With my kids, however, the questions come at any hour. I have found that the more preoccupied I am, the more likely the question will be one that could be formative.
Take this morning, for example. I was busy trying to get my three children off to camp and already thinking about the overdue recommendation letter for a student that I promised to write. I’m trying to locate the sunblock stick (without the stick, the girls will organize a sunblock strike). At that moment, my son says to me that he’s figured out that there are important jobs in this world and unimportant ones, and he thinks he’ll want an important job when he grows up.
I try to probe further while locating the towels and water bottles. “Offer me examples of unimportant jobs,” I ask him. He says working at a gas station or as a cashier at a clothing store is not important, but being a professor or a scientist is. I’m horrified by what I perceive as his judgment of the value of some work, but I try to quickly turn this into a teaching moment by reframing how all jobs are important but require different skills. I could tell he wasn’t convinced.
At this point we all have to leave the house or we will be late for camp, and my son has moved on. Since this morning, I’ve had some time to think how I will explain different types of skilled versus unskilled labor, have a discussion about perceptions of jobs as important or less important (and why we reach those conclusions), and maybe even throw in how we over-value actors and sports stars, but I also recognize that I lost the moment when he was most interested. It’s like when I had to go back to my class ten years ago and explain how I confused FM and AM radio transmission the day before. Then, I was embarrassed but knew I had to right a wrong. Now, I’m driven by the perception my 9 year-old listens to what I say (that time will soon be gone), and I have the power to frame how he sees the world. While I may have been doing that for 14 years for my 18-21 year-old students, an hour and twenty minutes twice a week is less scary than 24 hours every day. I’ll proceed after I buy some more sunblock sticks.