Are You Curious?

Great question, right? I was asked this question many times by one of my mentors, Kurt Graves, during our monthly meetings. It wasn’t until after the second or third time he asked me that I caught on to the fact that he wasn’t just asking me a question. He was asking me to ask questions. He could have just said, “Dee, you need to ask more questions.” But instead, his inquiry caused me to pause. Am I truly curious? Do I want to go through the effort to discover the answers pertaining to my job, my family, my friends, or do I think I already know all of the answers? If I already know the answers, then my meetings with Kurt were pointless. No need for mentors if I already have this life thing figured out. But I know that’s not true.

Somehow the teacher in me forgot the most important ingredient to education- being a learner. When I taught in the classroom, I used to pride myself in being willing to try new things with my students, diving into subject areas I did not necessarily have expertise in, but I knew that if we as a class asked the right questions, we could discover the right answers. Yes, we often Googled it, but even that requires a level of humility. To admit that I didn’t know the answer to something, and to show my students that I had to look up the answers, sometimes made me feel very incompetent. It wasn’t until several years into teaching that I grew comfortable openly acknowledging that the best lesson I could teach my students was to not know all the answers, but to know the right questions to ask, and where to find the answers.

I remember a time when the lesson of curiosity diffused a tenuous personal relationship between me and a former student. I was in my sixth year of teaching at the same school, and by this point, I had gained a reputation as being one of the “cool teachers.” I aimed to remain fair and firm, but I also smiled and laughed a lot, and brought my passion as an educator to the classroom everyday. Nonetheless, there was one particular student who seemingly hated me, and I had no idea why. I didn’t even have him in any of my classes that semester, but he would walk by my class and make snide comments, give me dirty looks in the hallway, tap on his friends’ shoulder when walking by me in the hallway. I thought for a second I was in high school, and not a teacher!

One day, I had it. I was in this student’s class, speaking to his teacher, and I heard him making comments about me under his breath. That was it! I asked the student with a stern voice to meet me outside of the classroom. I was so mad, I didn’t even ask his teacher for permission first. As soon as I we got outside, I asked the question, with enough aggression in my voice that it was clear this was a confrontation, “what seems to be the problem between us?” Barely looking me in the eyes now that it was just the two of us, the student sheepishly said, “You failed me.” Stunned and confused, I had to stop and ask him to repeat himself. He then went on to tell me that I failed him during summer school, and he would have graduated if I didn’t fail him. Immediately my frustration turned to compassion, and quite honestly, a bit of shame.

I softened my tone and asked, “is that why you’ve been mad at me?”
“Did you do your work in class? What happened?”
“I did some of the work, but you didn’t have to fail me.”
I then said, “I remember you having your head down a lot, and me regularly bugging you to sit up. What was going on then?”
“I was mad that I was in summer school.”
“I see. So you were mad about being in my class in the first place.”
“But you didn’t do the work?”
“And you’re mad at me now because you’re back here for another semester.”
“Do you think I should have passed you though you didn’t do your work?”
“Well I could have, but of course that wouldn’t have been fair to the other students who did do their work, and did it well enough to pass. My professionalism could have been called into question. I could lose my job. Not cool.”
“I hear you.”
“I wish we had a do over. If you were in my class now, I hope you would do the work, and come to me when you were having difficulties. How are you doing now?”
“Fine. I’m going to graduate.”
“Good stuff. I want you to succeed”

That was it. Our tension was alleviated because once I got over myself, and my personal offense, I became curious again. From the questions come the solution.

It’s been a busy summer with UNCOMMEN, and unfortunately, Kurt and I haven’t met in a while. Not so surprisingly, he recently sent me a short email that asked, “how are you?” I knew his question was sincere. I know he’s curious.

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