Good. Let's start the journey.

This blog was first published in TES FE, April 2021

“A well-educated mind will always have more questions than answers.”

The above quote from Helen Keller is emblazoned in bright colours in the entrance foyer of the college where I currently teach. I take some comfort in it each day as I routinely perch on the (also very brightly coloured) seating beneath it to rummage around in my oversized rucksack.

I search underneath my Chromebook, beyond my diary and my morning breakfast smoothie, through the mountain of pens and dangerous, stabbing button badges (which I seem to collect from various work events only to immediately store indefinitely in my bag) in a twisted game of educator’s Russian roulette to try and unearth my staff badge.

I return my attention to the quote on the wall as I gently place the lanyard around my neck for the day, managing to avoid smearing blood from my button badge-pricked fingers through my hair as I do. It is very comforting indeed to know that Helen Keller, the prolific author, respected lecturer and fierce political activist, still had questions, because I feel like I have many, many questions, constantly.

Yet, it can sometimes feel a little unfashionable to have questions when you work in education. It can seem like everyone around you has effortlessly absorbed masses of information that you vaguely recall skimming in an email last year but now apparently forms the structural foundation of education reform and ultimate pedagogical breakthrough, and anyone who has not yet memorised the entirety of both is now failing everyone, and must hand in their lanyard immediately.

To ease my guilt, I attended a yoga workshop with a new teacher early last year. The promotional information around the event had been quite vague, and the session opened with an incense-shrouded conversation about certainty. The teacher offered an introductory monologue in which she reflected on her own practice, and rhetorically asked the audience how she could be certain that what she had learned and experienced on her personal journey was right for each individual in the room. She acknowledged that the sequence of postures she had planned for the day’s lesson could be ideal for some, perhaps even most of us, but questioned the restrictions imposed on others by her structured guidance.

As a result, throughout the class, she consistently offered us the option not to follow her instruction, and my initial reaction surprised me: I was irritated. I felt a tangible inner conflict when faced with the given options; a small wave of anxiety with each choice that I found myself having to make. I muttered and fretted quietly to myself, initially convinced that I was somehow being wronged. I felt that I had attended seeking expertise, and grumbled inaudibly to myself about saving the class fee and joining Joe Wicks on YouTube.

I feel confident in saying that others around me shared my initial reluctance to explore this unexpected freedom, but very gradually, there began to appear little signs of yogic bravery. The adaptations were slight; a widened stance, a softened posture, a held resting pose. But this gentle liberation spread quietly from mat to mat, and I placed a little more scrutiny on to the resentment I was carrying through every downward dog.

I was a dancer and competitive runner for many years, and my knees know all about it. I’m now a keen but clumsy climber, and my upper back and shoulders like to remind me of their plight with tense and tender muscles. This teacher knew none of this, yet was offering me the opportunity to be mindful of past injuries and current needs regardless. The decisions I was being presented with required considerably more presence and autonomy on my part, and here I found a root to my discontent. I had hoped to switch off; to passively follow instruction from one posture to the next, allowing my mind to wander amidst its usual turbulence of to-dos. Instead, I had been presented with choice, coaxing me into a far more present and active role in my practice.

The teacher here brought expertise in yoga, but absolutely no prior knowledge of me or my needs. I alone brought that. The collaborative approach she had devised combined our individual mastery with mutual trust to achieve what I now believe to be my most beneficial form of practice. 

Because here lies the beauty of questions. In order to answer effectively, one must actively consider options. What do I need? What is the best way to achieve this goal? 

Questions carry the potential to drive thinking, and fresh thinking sparks progress. Questions mark the beginning of a journey. And every person you have addressed is gifted the opportunity to become a travelling companion in the expedition, creating and sharing winding pathways of thought, illuminated by bright ideas and always moving forwards. Answers are the finalising punctuation; the full stops. But nurture a working environment that relishes the whole sentence and watch the cartography of your questions unfold. 

Please, ask away.