Why saying “I don’t know” is the most powerful tool a teacher has.

As educators, we tend to think that our students look at us as always have the answers to their questions. We often go to great lengths to research a unit so that we make sure we have the answers to all sorts of ridiculous and banal question that could possibly come up in class.

I started my career spending countless hours creating lists of seemingly irrelevant questions that might come up in class so I could be prepared with an answer. It was my perception that a teacher should be omnipotent about the content they were to teach. Boy was I wrong on so very many levels.

It has taken me years to come around to my current perspective. Being a great teacher means that you can own the fact that you know almost as little as your students. You may know what appears to be a lot more on the surface but the reality is that you probably do not have a PhD in Anglo-Saxon migrations and the origins of Beowulf (I certainly do not but teach this unit every year).

My purpose in class is not to know more than the kids sitting in front of me. It is to coach them in becoming inquisitive life long learners. I may impart some of my personal experience along the way with a witty remark or interesting anecdote that I have built up over the year, but I have come to realize that the most powerful tool I have in my tool belt is the ability to say “I don’t know”…. and own that statement.

We get caught up in feeling like we have to have all the answers. There is so much pressure on teachers to be the sage on the stage, perfect and infallible. I’ve heard from so very many teachers that they are afraid to look stupid in front of their class and more importantly in front of parents and administrators. Well, I ask you this as a counterpoint:

Will you look more or less ignorant by espousing incorrect or irrelevant information rather than enthusiastically saying “I have no idea, how do you think we should find the answer?”?

The answer is plain. When you try to be a know-it-all, even if you are an expert in the subject, you will invariably end up looking the fool when you make that one mistake. Your students will never remember all the countless times you were correct. They will only remember that one time you told them the capital of Australia was Sydney… and they will never let you forget it.

Teachers have a responsibility to their students to be a human being first and a teacher second. We need to be students along side our charges and learn with them. Teach them skills needed to ask questions they don’t know the answers to. and help them discover how to go about finding answers. More importantly we need to coach them on the reality that the most interesting and difficult questions in life have no right or wrong answers. Only perspectives that can be supported or refuted.

The next time you are in class and a student asks a question you don’t know the answer to, what are you going to do?

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