The Problem of Expertise

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- Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash. -

“Who is that 3D printer for?” Glenn asked me through a wry smile.

“What…?” I murmured back, throwing a quick glance in his direction barely acknowledging his sincere and challenging question. I went back to my task quickly, feeling that maybe this time I’d finally leveled the damn printer bed.

“Who is it for?” He repeated, this time in a pointy-er tone.

“Glenn…what!? It’s for the kids. What are you even talking about!?!” I snapped back, now frustrated with the printer AND my prying teaching partner.

“You’ve had that thing on your desk for two weeks now, fiddling with it. How many kids have seen it, let alone had the chance to use it?” He added.

“Um…” I stammered. “Uh, well… Casey maybe? Junia was interested so she helped me unbox it but… no one really I guess.”

Here again I was drawn lovingly into another important lesson in the care and safety of my partner Glenn Williams. Have I told you about the one time he enthusiastically told me, “that’s an awesome prototype!” Intending sincere encouragement but only succeeding in crushing me into a paste? I’ll have to tell you about that one too… It’s a doozy.

Glenn Williams is a master teacher in every sense of the word. If you know him, you already know that. But if you ask him, he’ll deny it. Which too, is part of his influence and charm. On our first day working together in our shared office he asked if we could make our space, “like a locker room.” Knowing Glenn to be a man of character, I quickly set down my initial fear that it was gonna get real misogynistic, real fast.

“You know…” he continued, “can we please just be honest with each other about everything and hold each other accountable?” What I didn’t realize that day was that he was setting a tone in which he could both invite my critique and safely offer his own. I didn’t know that because he chose to show me what he meant by making a self-deprecating joke about one of his very real insecurities. “Oh, so you want us to flip each other shit?” I asked. “Yeah he said, can we do that?”

I know now that wasn’t his ultimate goal, but he was an incredible teammate and team-builder who was intentionally leaning into our shared sports playing and coaching experiences and trying to build a partnership where we could both truly be ourselves. But if you ask him about that day, I doubt he’d remember it. He has so internalized what it means to be a good teammate that I doubt he put any conscious thought into it.

And so it was in the fall of our second year together, that one morning Glenn asked me, “who is that 3D printer for?” I felt safe with Glenn. Our relationship had grown tremendously beyond the initial bravado and one-upmanship that initially bonded us and still made us giggle. We’d been through deep challenges together trying to help build a unified Language Arts, Computer Science, and Humanities learning experience for high school kids in a new project-based school. Many of our days the previous year ended with Glenn saying, “Well, I need to wash my car before I go home. That way, at least I’ll know I’ve actually accomplished one thing before I go to bed.” Starting a school is hard. Learning to radically collaborate is hard. Being vulnerable ALL THE TIME is hard.

And so that morning, unraveled by his question, I was invited to be vulnerable again. I knew what he was getting at, but I’d prefer to ignore it. I wanted to learn to master that 3D printer. I was the one who did the research. I was the one who picked it out. I was the one who helped write the grant to get it. I… I… I… Me… Me… Me…

Looking back, I can see more clearly now what Glenn knew as he prodded me. My need to be the expert was keeping kids from learning. Let me write that again, please read it out loud, slowly.

My need to be the expert was keeping kids from learning.

I wasn’t just clinging to an arrogant need to be first… to be right. I was clinging to my identity. I’m the teacher. I’m supposed to be the expert in the stuff I’m teaching. That’s why I was hired for my first job, that’s why I succeeded, and that’s why I got this new job. Right? That’s certainly what I was trained to be. That’s certainly who I knew me to be. My arrogance and competitiveness were in service of my fear. I was terrified and embarrassed to walk out into the makerspace, carrying the printer that my students knew I’d been trying to master for weeks and admit defeat.

“Casey, I’m getting my butt kicked by this thing. Can you get it leveled and running?” I asked my sophomore student.

“Heck yes! He shouted. He literally shouted.

And before lunch the printer was running and hummed along beautifully for the next three years.

My need to be the expert was keeping kids from learning. It kept Casey from the opportunity to master the machine. It stole status from Casey that he could earn by teaching other students how to use and maintain it. It hindered me from seeing who I really could be — who I really must be as a teacher. My need to be the expert was keeping kids from learning.

The problem of my expertise was a lesson that our principal, and founding teachers had been trying to help me learn from the beginning. At the district-wide robotics competition held annually, I was introduced to the robotics teachers from the two comprehensive high schools in my new district. Dan introduced me as the new robotics teacher at RA. I definitely felt under-qualified and thought I was an obvious imposter. I was so convinced that they’d made a mistake in hiring me that I had a panic attack in the commons at Mt. Spokane high school.

Dan, Danette, and Matt circled around me as I expressed my deep concern about the mountain of things I didn’t know and was terrified I wouldn’t be able to learn quickly enough. I expressed my passion for the school and my deep desire to be the very best for our students and my conviction that I couldn’t possibly be that person. Dan looked at me with his gentle smile and said, “We didn’t hire you for what you know. You are an expert learner, and you get excited when you’re learning things. We hired you so that you could go learn things and take kids with you.”

As I handed Casey the printer, my shame and embarrassment surfaced, and despite my eager attempt to frame this event as, “an important way for Casey to learn about printers,” Both Casey and I knew that the only reason I was actually giving him the printer was because I needed his help. We both knew I couldn’t do it.

But Casey didn’t care.

He never once brought it up, or held it against me. It’s an odd thing to want the respect of your students, but I think he knew I’d do anything to help him — and each of his classmates — learn as much as possible while in my care.

In the days that followed, Glenn was ready to listen and reflect with me. They were hard days. The embarrassment and defeat didn’t pass quickly. It was the first time in my life that I’d been bested by a piece of technology and some six years later I’m still frustrated by it.

An even scarier question began to emerge: “If I can’t be the content expert, then what’s my purpose here? What value do I really add?”

That day marks a turning point in my primary identity as a teacher, a day I was forced to stop believing that my content expertise was the thing that really mattered. What slowly began to replace it was the growing conviction that my modeling of persistence as a learner and a stubborn belief that anyone can learn anything began to reveal a far better foundation — a far more robust identity — one that was impervious to the changing demands of our world.

Today I’d say I’m an expert learner — which itself is a task that cannot be mastered. I hope too that I’ll learn to be the kind of teammate to others that Glenn was to me.

Originally published at https://matthewalangreen.com on October 22, 2020.

Written by

I learn and I teach. matthewalangreen.com

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