Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q:I’m a new teacher and I learn a great deal from you columns. I’m curious. Will you answer two questions of mine. The first question is, where do you get your questions? They’re so varied and interesting. And, two, how do you answer them? Do you have a routine? I want to answer my students’ questions well. Thank you very much.

Learning adult

Mary Jo’s response: What interesting questions! I’ll be happy to answer them.

Your first question is one I often receive. Let me tell you a quick story. In 2004, I approached the Observer-Reporter to ask if I could create a column responding to the many questions I receive from young people. They graciously agreed. A monthly column was suggested; would I have sufficient numbers to respond weekly? I knew I would. I do. I doubt I’ll ever run out of questions!

I made a decision in 2005 with my first column – I will never “make up” a question. I’d written for a professional parenting magazine in the past, and the “questions” were created to promote the education the editor sought. I wanted my column to be honest. I’ve kept my decision; I’m happy to share all my questions are real.

I receive questions in many ways. First, many questions come directly from my Curiosity Bag. I created this bag to give my students a chance to connect anonymously. I use a simple technique. Each student receives a sticky note. My directions include the “right to pass.” I do require each student write something on their note. I’m careful to protect students who do want to ask anything, so young people may write “Nothing today,” or “I’m not curious about anything.” Everyone writes. No names or ages or gender are added to the notes. I don’t answer the notes by opening them in front of my students. I’ve learned too many young people self-identify by body language or words. Instead, I take the notes home, read them all, and type them on a document I print and take to school with me. I then weave my responses into the rest of my sessions.

Words matter. I selected the word curiosity because some young people are educationally scarred. They may be afraid to ask a “question,” since questions can signify a lack of knowledge. It can be embarrassing to appear uninformed. Everyone is curious. I find the word less threatening.

The second way I receive questions is one-on-one. I’m “on call” for the young people I serve 24/7, 365 days a year. Responding to young people is a labor of love to me; I don’t consider it work. In today’s culture I receive texts or FB messages; in years past, my home phone was my connection. A few young people do call my cell directly, but most text.

The final way I receive questions is via email at Most email questions are from adults.

Your second question is insightful. I started as an educator after working as a pediatric nurse. My nursing experience taught me the skill of listening. A sick child isn’t a peds nurse’s only patient; parents, grandparents and siblings are also part of the circle of care. When I began teaching, I consciously avoided the concept of students as empty cups waiting for knowledge. Teens are my best teachers. I learned to facilitate conversations with them and to teach with them, not at them. Teaching is not about me; it is always about my students.

I began an Ask Mary Jo Advisory Board in 2006 to give my peer educators a voice. My routine is easy. I select a question on Sunday and write my own response. I then submit it to peer educators on Monday. We discuss and they formulate their own response. I write my response prior to connecting with teens to avoid their influence! I re-read and edit the column on Tuesdays and submit on Wednesday mornings.

May I share three key points to teaching with young people instead of at them?

1. Each encounter with a young person is a cross-cultural experience. Honor and respect your students. Each one is worthy. Articulate the obvious. Show appreciation. Offer sincere affirmations. Listen. Don’t be afraid to step back and let young people teach.

2. Be trauma informed. Temper adult expectations for behavior with empathy. Each of your students has a story. Behavior may be a cry for help. Adults often misuse the word empower. One cannot give a young person power; a teacher connects with young people to guide them to their own power. A teacher is more than a dispenser of knowledge.

3. Build trust. Shrek said ogres are onions. Each student is an onion. Many young people wear layers of protective masks; it takes time to connect with trust. Be the teacher young people trust.

Thanks for writing and good luck!

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at

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