I once got into a huge argument, as a 7th grade student, in a “talented and gifted” section of Social Studies. The issue: how many countries are there in the continent of Australia?
The assignment was to choose a continent, and draw a map of it on a full-size posterboard. I had worked for hours on this map, only to get it back, ruined, for the teacher had taken a red ball-point pen, slashed through my line “state and territorial boundaries” in my map’s key, and had written, as a correction, “not states — COUNTRIES.” She also docked points from my grade, but that was a minor issue, to me, compared to her ruining my map. She could have, at least, written her incorrect comment on the back of my map!
When I confronted her about her mistake, she maintained that the political divisions you see above are independent countries. In my opinion, “Northern Territory,” especially, doesn’t sound particularly sovereign, and I said so, but she may not have understood the definition of “sovereign,” for that did not work. Confronted with this absurd situation, I proceeded to grab the “Q” volume of a nearby encyclopedia, and began reading the article about Queensland, loudly enough for the entire class to hear: “Queensland: one of the states of Australia….” I freely admit that, at the time, my goal was to embarrass and humiliate her right out of the teaching profession — for the benefit of her present and future students. I’ve changed my approach, a lot, since then.
A huge brouhaha ensued, and we ended up taking each other to the assistant principal’s office: her, to report a disruptive and defiant student; and me, to report an incompetent teacher, who, in my view, at that age, should have been fired on the spot. Dealing with this situation was probably one of the stranger, and more difficult, situations of that assistant principal’s career, for he knew that Australia is both a single country, and a continent — but he could not, for political reasons I did not yet understand, agree with me in front of this teacher. As for me, I was simply incredulous that someone could be a certified social studies teacher, and not know this basic fact about world geography. The whole scenario, to me, was surreal.
The assistant principal handled it well. To the teacher, he said, “You can go back to class — I’ll handle Robert.” He then “handled” me, after she left, in the only way that could have possibly worked: with an apology, and a polite request to do my best to endure her ignorance until the upcoming end of the year. I respect honesty, was being given a request, not an order, and he had conceded that I was correct. I therefore chose to cooperate — with his polite request.
If he had not taken this approach, I likely would have added him to the list I had, at the time, of people (a mixture of administrators and teachers) whom I was trying to drive out of the education profession, for the benefit of all — but he did the right thing, thus earning my respect.
As for the teacher, I survived the rest of her class, brain intact, and assume she is now retired, this being well over thirty years ago. I’m now in my twentieth year as a teacher, myself, and am pleased to report that average teacher quality has dramatically improved since this fiasco happened. (I wish I could say the same about average administrator quality, but there are, at least, a few competent people working in that field, as well.) During my years of teaching, I haven’t encountered a single teacher who lacked this basic bit of knowledge about world geography. In fact, I count, among my colleagues, many of the smartest people I know.
I am glad, however, that I don’t have to call the teacher in this story a colleague. I simply cannot respect willful, stubborn ignorance, especially in the face of evidence that one is wrong. When one of my students catches me making a mistake, I do the right thing: I thank them, make certain everyone understands the correction, and then we move on with the lesson. That’s what this 7th grade teacher of mine should have done, as well.