What to Say When You Don’t Know the Answer

Image for post
Image for post

Before I began teaching, I hated to admit that I didn’t know something. When driving, for example, I’d never admit that I was lost. So, instead of asking for help, I’d drive around and look for my destination or try to figure out how to get there with a map. Fortunately, teaching has corrected this flaw in my character, and the change began the first time I stood in front of a class.

As a college student in my first education course, I was required to teach one period of junior-high English. My subject was satire, so I spent 30 minutes explaining what satire was and giving examples from literature and from comedians popular at that time. When I finished my presentation, I said, “Does anyone have any questions?”

A small, shy girl in the back corner of the room timidly raised her hand. I had noticed her earlier because she appeared to be the only one who was really listening to everything I said. When I called on her, she asked: “Would you consider Dostoevsky’s short story ‘A Christmas Tree and a Wedding’ an example of satire?”

Dostoevsky? I panicked. Though I had heard of this 19th-century Russian writer, I had never read any of his work. I thought for a second of simply saying, “Yes” and moving on, but I didn’t feel comfortable. I wondered if this were a test. Maybe my supervising teacher planted the question to see how I would react. Fortunately, within seconds, I knew what to say. With the rest of the class waiting and wondering, I said: “I’m sorry. I don’t know. I’m not at all familiar with Dostoevsky.”

“I don’t know.” What a dreaded phrase. No one really likes to admit he or she doesn’t know something. Yet, I think it’s even tougher for teachers to admit it because our students expect us to know.

Obviously, though, all teachers will be faced with this predicament at some point, and each teacher will handle it differently. For example, Al McGuire — a former college teacher, basketball coach, and television commentator — once told this story on the air. He said that when he taught, he always requested a classroom with two doors. Then, when a student asked him a question he couldn’t answer, he’d ask the student to see him after class, noting which door was closer to the student. And, as soon as the class was over, he’d leave through the other door and find the answer before that class met again.

During my student days, I watched many teachers use a variation on this approach. When they were stumped by a question, these teachers would first say, “That’s an excellent question.” Then, they followed up with, “Can anyone here give us the answer?” or “For homework, I’d like the entire class to find the answer to that question.”

And though mailman Cliff Clavin — from the old television show Cheers — isn’t a professional teacher, I suspect his tactic is used often, as well. Rather than admit he doesn’t know something, Cliff typically dives into a long-winded discourse intended to confuse and divert his listeners rather than answer the question.

What’s missing from these approaches is the key phrase mentioned earlier: “I don’t know.” I think that’s wrong. I think our students need to hear us say “I don’t know” once in a while. I think they need to see how we react when we don’t know. And I think they need to see us do one of two things: either search for the information ourselves or work with them to find the answer they’re seeking. Personally, I’ve found that curiosity works well with honesty.

For instance, as an English teacher, students are always asking me if I’ve read whatever book they happen to be reading. Naturally, they assume that I have, or, if not, that I should have. When I tell them I haven’t, they often look at me with either disbelief or disappointment. I’m an English teacher, after all, and I should have read every book ever written.

Early in my teaching career, this bothered me, maybe because I wasn’t as well read as I should have been. As a result, I often acted defensively. I tried to explain the impossibility of reading everything instead of taking advantage of a teachable moment.

Today, I simply say, “No, I haven’t. Can you tell me about it?” or, “No. Would you recommend I read it?” The student response is typically enthusiastic and energetic. Readers love to tell me what their book is about or why they think I’ll enjoy it. And if I subsequently read the book they’ve recommended, we have a much fuller conversation later about the book and about literature in general. The experience is contagious.

Over 40 years have passed since I first stood in front of that junior-high class to teach satire. However, since I never took the initiative as a college student to return to that particular classroom, I never answered that girl’s question — for her sake or for my own. Somehow, though, her question stayed with me, so I went to the library recently and read that Dostoevsky short story. As a result, I can honestly say, “Yes, ‘A Christmas Tree and a Wedding’ is an example of satire.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store