Ben Peters: Answering the Unanswerable Questions

As a first-year teacher one thing that can stop me dead in my tracks is when a student asks me a question that I am unable to answer. The unanswerable questions themselves are not what stop me; rather, it is the inability to help one of my students that makes me pause. My faults and the limitations of knowledge are things that I am really familiar with going back to my early days as a philosophy major. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is one that I learned at the beginning of my studies while reading of the Trial of Socrates: “I am the smartest person in this room, if only because I am the only one who knows that they do not know everything.” Fortunately, as I look at my life now my philosophical studies unexpectedly prepared me for these perplexing questions from students and—with strenuous reinforcement and implementation this past semester—taught me how to truly listen, as a sixth-eighth grade teacher, to the questions of my students.

Everyday a single student might ask hundreds of questions, from the inane, “Mr. Peters, can I go to the bathroom,” over and over … and over again, to the deep, “Why do we believe in Hell?” Furthermore, a single study hall of 50 minutes might cover the breadth of helping create variable equations, symbolism in Fahrenheit 451, and balancing the sides of a chemical reaction. Previous schooling prepared me to solve and answer some of these questions on a basic level, but in most cases I have not practiced any real technical stuff in several years. But, what do I actually do when I get questions I forgot or never thought to learn?

Like a good student, we always begin by reading the instructions. Next, I do what I learned as a philosophy major, I ask simple questions until the student and I have a firm foundation—a foundation where both the student and I know the basic building blocks of the subject. Finally, we return the original question. The key to start solving a problem is knowing which questions to ask and, ultimately, listening to how someone answers. Students and I have answered many homework questions, but they have also taught me a great deal more.

My students have taught me that I need to ask a lot more questions in general. They have also taught me that I need to be more precise with my directions, like the times that I had them all get up and start walking somewhere without the “go” word. And, my students have taught me that I need to break things down to more simple questions at first, like when I asked for the definition of a word from my eighth grade English class, which I thought should be obvious and instead I got 16 eighth graders staring at me with deer-in-the-headlight eyes.

All 92 of my San Miguel students are a work in progress. I work hard to help them learn something new every day, and each day I hope that they ask me more questions on their own prerogative (if only so they can eventually teach themselves and I can just sit back and relax.) Overall, we have already grown a lot together, and my hope is that they grow—at least as much as they have helped me grow—because they have definitely shown me the way.

Ben Peters is a first-year LV serving at San Miguel School in Washington, DC. He is a 2018 graduate of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

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