Tag Archives: authenticity

The Power of I Don’t Know

As a teacher, it feels like I am often expected to have all of the answers. To everything. In every aspect of my life. I misspelled recently something and the response I got from someone was, “But you’re an English teacher!”

Yes. I am. But my name is not Merriam Webster.

This expectation certainly extends to the classroom, but I try to quash that as soon as I can, with a story if possible. I regularly tell my students that I always have the answers to the handout I’ve given them right in front of me. One of my favorite stories comes from my first year of teaching.

I was trying to make a point to a class of high school students. (No idea what the point was, not a part of the story.) I wrote on the board: 120 ÷ 30 =. (I actually did it with the Long Division Symbol used in English speaking countries.) Then I stood there and stared at it. I had no idea how I would even begin to proceed to solve that problem.

In class, I turn to them and say, “Before you say it, I know the answer is 4. However, that convinced me that I am not good at standing up here and thinking.” Yes, that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I think that sort of slightly self-deprecating humor works with this audience.

There are colleagues I’ve worked who seemed to think that the place of power in their classroom depends on them having all the answers. They were the one who was always right. They were the last word.

My research into Generation Z tells me that they appreciate authenticity. And me being not perfect and telling them that I don’t have all of the answers is part of me being coming from a place of authenticity. If you have all the answers, that is probably your place of authenticity.

(However, I will warn you that if they find out that you don’t have all of the answers, you’re sunk.

Not having all the answers, telling them that I don’t know something, also gives me the opportunity to ask questions. I’ve asked about YouTube personalities, pop stars, catch phrases, TV shows, festivals and other topics that are not part of my life experience. I’ve gotten students to open up about school-specific topics, things they like about what they are studying, things they don’t, teachers who they find tedious or difficult. (This is a touchy subject and I generally ask about behaviors rather than specific colleagues. And I’ll always steer it back to the behaviors once the teacher’s identity has been revealed. Also, I would never tell a colleague what student said. That is not my pot to stir.)

Telling students that I don’t know something has been one way to open a door to dialogue, which is part of having a good relationship with my students. I’m still the one in control of the classroom. I’m still the one in charge, but they get to be the expert for a bit, and it seems to work.



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First Day Jitters

I walked into class yesterday and found myself nervous. The class was a whole new group of students. They’d had a different teacher the previous period, Joan, a wonderful British woman I’ve come to enjoy working with. My reptilian brain went into competitive mode: they probably liked Joan so much that they’ll be dissatisfied with me or even hate me.

Realistically, I know it’s not a contest. And moreover, I know that students don’t have that much invested into who’s teaching them. It’s like I’m always saying: “No one is paying as much attention to you as you are.” Still, I wanted them to like me. But mostly, I wanted to set a tone, and, as always, I want to be authentic, since I feel like that is the best way to go. Joan had told me that one of the three groups I was getting this period was restless and that there was a group of young men in particular that was very difficult.

“Don’t tell me which group,” I said. I love a game. I love to guess.

However, I was also afraid of being influenced by her experience with this group of students. It would be confirmation bias: if she says, “Group 2 won’t sit still,” my brain will see Group 2 as never sitting still. Right?

So what happened? I walked into the room with each new group, and I treated them exactly how I treat all groups of new students. I take attendance, looking up and at each student as they say, “Here.” I tell them that they need to put their cell phones away, informing them that it’s one of my ‘things’. (The other being chatter during the lesson.) And I structured the lesson around trying to learn everyone’s name, which I explain in a separate post. I’ve read up on learning names, and I realize I have my own method.

And they were all pretty well behaved. The third group that was unbelievably loud while they were entering the room and while I was setting things up to start the lesson. It was that kind of racket that rattles my bones. (I haven’t felt that kind of ‘loud’ since my last school, which entailed teaching young dance students who had issues with sitting still.) But even the third group settled down, listened to me and participated in the lesson. I haven’t asked my colleague which group it was, and I will wait to do that. I want to see how things progress.

In the end, all of the lessons went as planned, which is to say they went well. The tone was set, and we set a good foundation for moving forward. It’s interesting to observe myself in these lessons. I learn a lot: namely, that I’ll be fine.

Update: The third group was the group Joan was talking about.

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