The very first class I taught was at 8:15 am to a room full of 6th graders. Correction: kids who had just left the 5th grade, because there is no difference between a 5th grader in June and one in August.
I was learning everything about teaching as it happened. For example, what do you do when you’ve covered all your material for the next hour within the first 15 minutes of class? This is how I learned about fancy pedagogical concepts like “activating prior knowledge”, “cooperative learning”, and “quiet time” (ok that last one is not so much pedagogical as it is necessary). Or, how do you teach a class of 20 6th graders when 5 of them are on a 12th grade reading level, 5 of them are on a 3rd grade reading level, 3 of them have emotional/behavioral needs, and you’ve only been teaching for one day? And remind me again which Bible verse I’m supposed to write on the board (remember, I was at a private Christian school at the time).
So here I was in my first year of teaching. I had figured some things out, like which classroom to go to at which time. I was also becoming a master of time management in the classroom, and I was actually having fun figuring out different ways to connect students with learning objectives. For our unit on ancient Egypt, they mummified themselves and created artifacts from ancient Egyptian history inside the mummies. It was fun, and these kids were actually decent to be around.
One morning we were in the middle of our unit on Ancient Greece, learning about Alexander the Great. The boys were thrilled with the more militaristic details, and I found myself at that dreaded point during class when we still had 10 minutes left, but I was all out of material. (Later, I would learn from my lead teacher some useful ideas for my “bag of tricks”, but that’s later). So I had no choice. I had to let the children speak.
We were going around the room discussing things that they enjoyed learning, or something they might still have a question about. Most of them said lame stuff like, “I can’t believe they wore dresses”, or “Why didn’t he just kill everyone he conquered?”
Then we came to the one kid who must have watched The HIstory Channel all. the. time. He raised his hand and asked, “Is it true that Alexander the Great was gay?”
Laughter erupted across half of the classroom – the half who knew what the word “gay” meant in this context. I wondered a million different things. How did he know to ask that? What kind of parents did he have? His parents must be cool. Can I tell him “Yes, and Jesus still loved him”?
I can’t remember what happened after that in class, but I do remember the realization of what I was now doing as a teacher. “Oh, these are small people, little adults. I am responsible for giving them content, and teaching them how to think.” When he asked that curious and innocent question, it became so clear to me that I was now spending my days with adults who just didn’t look like it yet. My response would influence his association with that topic. Forever. The way I answered his questions or chose to remain open to conversations would teach him more than any prepared lesson could. My willingness to entertain his curiosity had to be more important than a “right” or “wrong” answer.
(For the record, I don’t know if Alexander the Great was gay, and I really don’t think it matters.)