For thousands of years, human beings believed the earth was in charge of the universe and the sun merely one of its satellites, and for thousands of years we have believed that the adult is the only teacher in the classroom and the children the only students—but what if the second belief is as flawed as the first?
I actually pondered this occasionally during my 45 years as a middle school teacher. What if, someday in the future, it becomes indisputably clear that we were wrong in our assessment of how education works? What if it turns out that my young students were actually my co-teachers all along, and I, the certified adult educator, was actually as much a pupil as a teacher? Strange is it sounds, is it any stranger than thinking, back in the Middle Ages, that the sun might actually be the center of the universe and the earth merely a minor satellite? Surely that would have been considered a crazy notion, but perhaps not much crazier than the idea that the students might be among the finest teachers in any classroom. I saw hints of this countless times. My students regularly taught me (and each other) new truths about the literature we read. I recall, for instance, being in class discussions about poems which I thought I thoroughly understood – poems I had loved for decades – and listening quietly as the 8th grade scholars turned the light of their young thoughts on the lines and showed me new doors into the poem. I recall listening with a strange kind of respect and astonishment as 13-year-olds explained a sentence in To Kill a Mockingbird that had always perplexed me, listening to teenagers unveil for me the meaning of a metaphor in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, listening to young scholars explain to their senior-citizen teacher young Pip’s sadness in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Of course, I was the professional educator in my classroom, so I hope I did a considerable amount of teaching, but I wonder who was really the center of the teaching. Was it me with all my years of pedagogic experience and degrees and weighty how-to-teach books and cumbersome theories, or was it the spirited and almost-brand-new people sitting before me in class? Was I really the central source of light in my classes, or did an equally bright light perhaps come from the youngest people in the room, my teenage students, who often seemed to have nothing but new ideas arising inside them.
I recall a famous person saying something about the kingdom of God being found where children are, and it sometimes seemed to me that this kingdom was in Room 2 at my school.