I Don't Know



Is it OK for teachers to say, "I don't know"? Recently, I was talking with a teacher about a disturbing incident in her classroom. My role was to help her figure out what had happened so she could go back in there and avoid a repeat. She didn’t know what to do; she was feeling terrible; and my job was to help her.

And I didn’t know what to say.

I didn’t know!

I felt a twinge of panic. Here I was, someone who was ostensibly capable of “working through” teachers’ and students’ feelings and actions, and I did not know what to tell this teacher. I was a sham, a disappointment. The teacher would judge me. I would be laughed out of the school in derision. How could I ever hold my head up as a professional -- or a person -- again?

This was an extremely difficult moment for me. It was also quite familiar. I have felt it often as a therapist, and I have felt it often as a teacher and as a supervisor of teachers.

When I feel as though I don’t know (when I should) or I didn’t say the right thing or I said the totally wrong thing, I can feel intensely vulnerable. This feeling comes, in part, from life experiences that taught me it was not OK to be wrong. What I’ve learned to expect is that, if I make a mistake, I’ll be jumped on or ridiculed or put down.

I’ve also internalized a particular model of education, which claims that learning happens when a knower (the teacher) gives the not-knower (the student) necessary information. The teacher is supposed to know what to tell the student, and the student packs that knowledge away and becomes smarter. This is called the “conduit metaphor” or the “banking” approach to learning. It makes the teacher wholly responsible for filling the void called the student. And, as NCLB makes so ridiculously explicit, the stakes are high for the teacher (and school) who fails.

So part of my insecurity about not knowing comes from my life experiences. Part of it comes from cultural and political norms and expectations. Wherever it comes from, it is wholly unpleasant. And, like everybody who wants to avoid unpleasant feelings, realizing I don’t know can lead me to do unfortunate things:

I can put down a student, making him feel stupid instead of me. I can hold forth ad nauseum, trying to focus myself and my students on what I do know. I can become concerned with details or behaviors that are irrelevant. I can deny the importance of knowing what it is I don’t know, ignoring a question or minimizing it. I can try to control the people who I believe are causing my distress.

What I tend not to do is sink comfortably into the feeling of not knowing and just leave it be. After all, what is so bad about not knowing? What would it mean if a teacher admitted to her students, right out loud, “I don’t know”? Might anything good come of it? Students, by definition, are supposed to not know some important things. How do teachers expect students to be comfortable not knowing if those very same teachers aren’t comfortable saying, “I don’t know” themselves?