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'I Don't Know' and Other Educator Truths

At first, there was a rush of warmth.

It wasn't wholly uncomfortable, but definitely unsettling. Unsettling enough to struggle for a second with how to respond in a meaningful and honest way.

In the past, I probably would have lied. Desperate for the students not to know the truth, I would have gotten defensive and turned it around on them. I would have gone home and done my research and would have come back with answers with no one being the wiser about my ignorance.

Now it's different.

If I'm asked a question that I don't know the answer to, rather than feel put on the spot, I say, "I don't know.

Let's figure it out together." Or "What do you think? Where do you think we can find out?"

It's not nearly as scary as I once thought the truth of my not knowing everything was. I mean, obviously I don't know everything, but surely I should at least know more than my students about literature and writing.

Or should I?

Granted, my life experience and studies will put in my position of knowing more than my adolescent counterparts, but that doesn't always mean I'm more qualified to talk about what I know. This has been a developed understanding since I started teaching AP Literature and Composition and we have looked at critical theories that prize the context of the reader's experience.

Something I enjoy about literature is the limitless possibilities of meaning and interpretation. The most essential part of what I feel my job is is to teach students to discover through their own understanding of what things mean. As long as they can support what they are saying with evidence from the text or multiple texts, then it's all good in my book.

The Common Core supports this approach too, in that all students need to be reading with a keen eye and using evidence from text appropriately to make arguments. Adolescents do this naturally when the arguments suit them, but they don't realize how to connect this natural skill with their learning.

That's where the role of the teacher will never be lost.

I may not know everything there is to know about literature or the English language, but that's okay. The 21st-century teacher is always a lead learner, showing students how to acquire knowledge and more importantly apply it to new situations. We must take every opportunity to show students how to navigate this world of infinite scholars and information and teach them how to vet it and use it in meaningful ways, to become creators of information themselves.

Synthesis of understanding and experience can't be replaced by information presented in any form. Teachers are an essential part of the learning experience, not just because they know, but because they are willing to learn when they don't know and share that moment with their kids.

Have you ever had a situation where you didn't know and it became a great teachable moment? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher Blog Work in Progress in October 2014. It has been modified.

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