One of the most formative yet mundane things that a teacher ever told me was, "I don't know." It didn't happen until I was in college. I remember being shocked by the novelty of someone in a position of intellectual authority so candidly admitting their lack of knowledge on a subject. It was refreshing and inspiring.
Since that time, I have also become an instructor in higher education. I have embraced the transparency that my former teacher demonstrated so many years ago. By acknowledging what I do not know, I am modeling the truth that we never stop learning, a potent reminder to students who often mistakenly believe that teachers know everything. Not to mention, it is always exciting to take an unexpected journey down a research rabbit hole prompted by a student's question. These experiences reinforce our human penchant for curiosity and remind us how exhilarating learning can be.
In addition to modeling this idea that it is ok not to know and that not knowing sparks research, I have also made a habit of calling attention to the numerous complexities of a teacher's real and perceived authority in the classroom. Students often regard this authority as the final verdict on a topic. It is important to openly acknowledge that there are countless authority figures for any subject, and as a teacher, I am but one. Many experts disagree about various aspects of their field of study and offer diverse perspectives on the same topic. Teachers are a resource, and as any good researcher knows, we should all consult many resources on a subject before forming our own hypotheses and opinions.
One of the most significant responsibilities of a teacher is to build trust with their students. Openly conceding that we don't always have the answers and we are always learning goes a long way in building that trust. So, the next time a student asks a question you don't have the answer to, proudly say "I don't know," and prepare to embark on a journey to find the answer together.