When I was at school, my chemistry teacher told me that one of the most vital and valuable skills in life is having a sound understanding of your capabilities, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and, subsequently, knowing the right avenues to ask for help when faced with a task that you may not be confident in completing.
Nobody knows everything. No one walks into every single situation with the confidence that they are perfectly capable to achieve success without mistake. And if they do, that confidence, whilst admirable, is likely to be misplaced.
Even teachers have gaps in their knowledge. Even English teachers who have taught Shakespeare for over twenty years will, every now and then, come across a question about The Bard that they just can’t answer. And that’s okay. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing something. But you must admit to it.
Don’t just pass it off, ignore the question, or claim that it’s not relevant. My Biology teacher at secondary school would often pass off questions by saying, “you don’t need to know that; that’s A-level, and it won’t help with your exams,” or “that’s degree level, we don’t need to go over that.” I think that he thought he was quite cleverly diverting the question, but we all saw right through him. He didn’t know the answers. And none of us would have minded; we wouldn’t have questioned his ability to teach the subject. We would have much rather he said “I don’t know the answer to that one, but I will find out by next lesson.”
Sir, if you’re reading this, these are the three steps you should have taken.
1. Admit that you don’t know
‘I don’t know.’ It’s really not that tough to say. Don’t get me wrong: I understand why you might be reluctant to say it. You want your students to see you as knowledgeable. You want them to respect your position as the teacher. Admitting that you don’t know something in front of a class of 30 young people can be intimidating, but it is vital.
Firstly, your student deserves a well-informed, accurate answer, not just an improvised “I think this is pretty much the answer” answer.
Secondly, you should aim to be honest with your students at all times. You may think that they will lose respect for you if you don’t know an answer, but believe me: they will lose far more respect if they suspect that you’re lying to them.
Finally, you will be teaching them an important life skill. You will be teaching them that it is okay to admit that you don’t know something. As a teacher, your responsibilities don’t just stop at teaching algebra.
If you really do find it impossible to utter the words “I don’t know”, you can try to be cute about it. I personally believe that the more direct the better, but if that’s really not for you, try something like “It’s been a while since I last read up on that, so rather than giving you a hazy answer, let me go away to do some reading and answer properly next lesson,” or “There is so much research being done on that exact topic all of the time; let me check that I am giving you the most up-to-date explanation there is before I get back to you.” I know that those examples both sound a little stuffy, but you get the idea.
2. Challenge the student to research the question themselves
You’re going to go away and research the question. Whether it requires a quick Google at lunchtime, or some more in-depth research in the evening, you’re going to find out the answer. That doesn’t mean that your students should rely on you for the answer.
Self-directed learning is vital. You need to encourage your students to do their own research and find their own answers – so challenge them to do so. Explain that, whilst you will go away and do the research, you think that they should do the same. In your next lesson together, you can discuss what you have discovered.
This can also be a great opportunity to encourage the rest of your class to undertake some research of their own. Ask them all to look into the question, and see who can return to class next lesson with the most accurate and in-depth answer.
3. Answer the question next time
Whatever you do, don’t just assume that the student will forget that they ever asked the question by the time the next lesson with them comes around.
Maybe they’ll forget; maybe they’ll remember. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you remember. Make a note of the question in your teacher planner. Just make sure that you follow through on you promise. At the start of the next lesson, either take that student aside, or single them out during class and tell them that you did as you promised, and that you can now properly answer their question.
Finally, thank them for asking such an interesting and difficult question. In doing so, they will not only have improved their knowledge; they have improved the entire class’s knowledge, and they have improved your knowledge. Acknowledge that you are grateful for the question. They’ll appreciate it, and it will ensure that they’re not put off asking you any challenging questions in the future.