Ten years ago this classroom situation was normal in my English as a foreign language lessons.
Student question: -How do you say "osteoporosis" in English?
My answer: -I don't know.
Students found it hard to explain why they apologised for asking something I didn't know. I think it had to do with respect for the teacher being some kind of authority in their subject resulting from hard work . By spotting the language gap, they were exposing my not knowing (perhaps not being good enough?). They liked the idea of learning with a good teacher. They were demystifying the classroom hero they admired. They felt genuinely sorry for it.
I always made it part of my job to explain there was nothing to be sorry about. I would explain that medical terms tend to be similar in English, but I would look it up in my dictionaries and bring the answer next time. I thank them for their questions because they made me curious and helped me to learn more than I could on my own.
Silence in the classroom. They looked puzzled. The "Sorry" died hard.
In later years, I was happy to find surprised faces at asking something I could not answer immediately. I think they felt thrilled, perhaps powerful, at seeing they could make the teacher learn with their questions. They could even take it as a game: "Let's ask more difficult questions" or"Let's ask questions at the level of the teacher". I enjoyed this change. This is the classroom atmosphere I am most comfortable with, I thought. More vibrant.
Back to the present...
Yesterday something completely different happened in my class. I corrected a student who was using two words as synonyms when they are not.
-Are you sure? -he asked.
-(Why ever would I correct him if I wasn't? -I thought.) Positive. -I answered.
Next, he produces his Blackberry from his pocket and goes to an online dictionary to check.
At this point I saw the two roads diverging in the woods... and I determined to take it easy while I sensed my authority as a teacher being put to the Internet test.
Silence in the classroom.
I decided to join his efforts and look it up in my netbook as well. We ended up exchanging what we had found out.
He looked at me with a smile of satisfaction and admitted: -You're right.
That moment was a turning point in my lessons. I had read before I am no longer the most authoritative person in a connected classroom. Reading it is one thing. Going through it is quite another. The more travelled by road is soothing. New paths are challenging for the teacher not in academic terms, or new technology literacy, but in human terms. To flow in the current teaching context, you need to give your ego a sanity check.
Authority is not a given. It is earned. A student at a time. Everything you have studied for is not enough. The best tools used for the right purposes will not give you that either. Authority in today's classroom is a humble attitude towards the student and the subject being taught. It is about sharing how you get there as opposed to how you once got there. Authority is the result of transparent processes unhindered by the knowledge possession illusions of a distant educational past.
Do I like this new scenario? Frankly, I'm getting used to it. For starters, reading my two reactions to the previous situations makes me feel amused now. Clearly, I didn't get it back then. I barely hinted at it. You need your students to evolve enough for you to experience a comfort zone stretch. Then, we can talk about authentic, timely learning.