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Trust Yourself as an Expert

Jordan Catapano

Early in my teaching career, I remember fretting to a colleague about how I felt “unsuited” to teach sophomore honors students. When I realized I would teach a section of the honors class the following year, I stressed that I “wouldn’t have anything new to teach them” and that “they’d already be perfect” in all the areas we would focus on. Boy, was I clueless!

Fortunately, my more level-headed colleague assured me, “Jordan, you have a high school degree, a college degree, a master’s degree, and loads more experience than these 15-year-olds. Don’t you think you’ll have plenty to show them? They might be talented, but they’re in school to learn from people like you! You know how to motivate students!”

These and more words of wisdom helped to reassure me that I wasn’t just going to waste kids’ time, but that I actually had something to offer them. While I often believe the best about students’ abilities, I do myself and my students a disservice when I fail to recognize my own abilities. But never again will I doubt that I am, in fact, an expert in my content area and that I truly do have plenty to offer to anyone willing to learn from me.

So I offer you the same encouragement: You are an expert in your field. Your students deserve to learn from an expert like you. Trust yourself – you know how to motivate students.

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Our problem as educators is twofold. It’s not that we don’t know enough, but it’s that we 1) know too much about our subject, and 2) need to get students to learn and master the content themselves. Sometimes teachers take a highly student-centered approach and allow students to pursue their own interests and take charge of their own learning. This is absolutely necessary -- to an extent; however, students also miss out when their talented, knowledgeable, and articulate educator keeps all their wisdom to themselves. As educators, we want to strike that balance between sharing from our vast treasure store of knowledge and equip students with opportunities to apply it themselves.

Another advantage to sharing our expertise with students is that the more they see an adult professional demonstrate their proficiency with certain fields, the more likely they are to trust that adult to confer that knowledge to them. We don’t have to “show off” our abilities to students, but it is important that we establish that we know what we’re talking about, that we can identify a good product from a poor one, that we possess the ability to help students progress to the next level of their educations, and that we know how to motivate students.

So we don’t need to hold back, to second-guess what we’re telling students, or to rely too heavily on students leading themselves to higher learning. Instead, we can tell students what we know and do our best to get them to know it too.

Of course, as an “expert,” I know that I still have plenty of room to grow. And just like I want my students to get better, I believe I need to actively make myself better as well. Here are some activities I engage in as often as possible so that I continually apply what I know and improve upon it:

  • Read books about my subject.
  • Apply my skills in areas outside of the classroom.
  • Surround myself with like-minded “experts.”
  • Take part in my self-designed professional development.
  • Receive feedback from friends and colleagues.
  • Teach people other than my students.
  • Take more classes; earn more degrees.
  • Join professional organizations.
  • Set goals and work towards achieving them.

I figure that if I tell my students to “never stop learning,” then I better apply that philosophy to myself as well. And of course, if I’m to consider myself an expert who can genuinely instruct others, then I should at least be applying my “expertise” to real-world areas!

So I definitely used to doubt whether or not I had anything to offer those honors students. Now, I see that with the passing of each year, I possess more and more skills and knowledge to offer anyone. It is my joy to share that knowledge with students, as I hope it is their joy to witness it, learn from it, and take ownership of the little slice of the world I can show them. You, too, should take pride in your achievements and knowledge, and do your best to let them shine so that your students can learn from your expertise.

What are you an expert in? What skills or knowledge do you feel you can truly give to students? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. Jordan also owns ACTWritingTips.com, a website created to give students additional support for the writing section of the ACT.