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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