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Don't Act Like You Know Everything

In my early years of teaching, I thought I had to know all the answers.  If a student asked about some arcane grammatical question, I would divert the query by saying: “Well, how do you think subjunctive tense changes indicative verbs?” I could justify it as higher order re-directing all I wanted, but honestly I just didn’t want to say, “Uh, I have no clue.”  Now I’m ancient and worn out and perfectly willing to admit I don’t know jack. In fact, increasingly, I am less and less sure about anything.

Young teachers often feel that to maintain control in their classrooms, they must project an image of Gandalf the White, but that stance can be, at worst, dangerous and in the very least, disingenuous.   What you might gain by momentarily averting exposure, you will lose in the long run by the students’ awareness you lack credibility. 

To any teacher suffering from Sheldon Cooper disease, I would like to offer the model of brokenness.  Spiritual circles of all stripes are big on boasting in weaknesses for the purposes of humility and godliness, but brokenness in teachers can become a means to forge relationships with students for whom school, education, and intellectualism is a daunting, alienating space. 

Several years ago, I had a class of struggling learners.  During our time together, I discovered that every student in my classroom was related to someone who was currently serving time in prison, but not one student had any member of their family who had been to college. In this power-vacuum, I stood as The Teacher, the historical symbol of correction and rightness, among students who had very little interest or investment in symbols or power, or any of that noise. How would it have profited me to establish correctness and control as the bridge over which they had to walk to be successful in my classroom?  When I laid out my own difficulties with writing, all of them perked up.  I attempted to use my own humanity as a way to forge a relationship of mutual struggle with them.  In the words of teacher Nanci Atwell, when I took the top of my head off and showed them the back-tracks, failures, foibles, and misunderstandings, they were more willing to buy in to the class, and I was in a better position to help them become successful readers and writers.   

I am not a good speller.  It used to bother me when I misspelled a word on the board and a student pointed it out and then followed up their discovery with, “And you call yourself an English teacher!” Which I followed up with, "How am I supposed to know how to spell all 1,025,109.8 words in the English language?!"  I also have horrible handwriting.  Going quasi-paperless last year was a god-send for me because I typed in my comments on student writing in a shared Google doc. But I’ve spent 18-years chicken-scratching in the margins of student papers, and invariably, some kid suggests perhaps I’m not a real teacher since I can barely write a sentence in legible penmanship. 

Now, when that happens, I just roll my eyes and say, “I, too, am a mortal,” which generally elicits a chuckle, and we go on our merry way. But the remarks still smart a bit.  It doesn't feel good when people point out our weaknesses. Especially when you really have tried to overcome them. I use these moments to reflect on how it must feel when I make corrections in my students' work, and I vow again to deliver instruction with encouragement, awareness, and grace. 

There are a couple of benefits to showing students your cracks – wait, …. I mean, showing them your flaws and struggles as a learner.  One, it helps them understand that learning never stops. No one knows everything, and there's always something new to learn. The winner in the learning game is the curious.  Two, its helps them understand they can question me, challenge me, and that I too am responsible for marshalling evidence and supporting my claims in an argument.  Third, it’s good to show vulnerability, so students can feel comfortable admitting their own weaknesses and fears. Fourth, it helps students become more vocal and independent when they don’t have to rely on me as The Oracle to speak from the mountain. 

It can be dangerous to elevate yourself to the position of the Great and Powerful Oz in your classroom.  However, by admitting you are human, fallible, and sometimes even broken, you make it okay for your students to learn from their own stumbles and troubles and gaffes. 



Susan Graham commented on November 3, 2015 at 5:25pm:

Not Knowing is Powerful

It's powerful to tell students "This is hard for me!" How better to demonstrate that learning is every bit as much about figuring out what you don't know as it is about showing people how much you know. Thinking out loud, working at finding answers, not being afraid to make mistakes, and sticking with it matters. "I don't know," and "You're right, I'm wrong about that.," makes teachers and students partners on a learning. experience.

Susan Graham commented on November 3, 2015 at 5:25pm:

Not Knowing is Powerful

It's powerful to tell students "This is hard for me!" How better to demonstrate that learning is every bit as much about figuring out what you don't know as it is about showing people how much you know. Thinking out loud, working at finding answers, not being afraid to make mistakes, and sticking with it matters. "I don't know," and "You're right, I'm wrong about that.," makes teachers and students partners on a learning. experience.

Kristin Gader commented on November 6, 2015 at 7:01am:

Being Vulnerable

I found your blog to be very insightful. Right now I am in my first Teacher Leadership Master's class and we've been talking about what makes a successful teacher leader. One big quality that we touched upon was the idea that a teacher leader needs to show vulnerability. We discussed it in a sense where you need to show it among other colleagues to promote their feelings of trust and safety with you. I hadn't thought about showing it among your students and how powerful that can be! This blog made me realize that I am vulnerable within my classroom. I teach 3rd grade and often say "I'm human, I make mistakes". We also discuss how important it is to take a risk and in a 3rd grade world, that's as small as raising your hand when you know you're not 100% right. I think taking risks can show a lot of vulnerability with your colleagues as well as your students.

Liz Prather Liz Prather commented on November 9, 2015 at 7:54pm:

Raising your hand


Thanks for your comments!  In the third grade or at a faculty meeting, it's still sometimes scary to put yourself out there.  The power of one person in a group who takes the risk, however, makes it okay for everyone else in the room to be real with one another.   Hope you have a good rest of the year!

Julia Stern commented on November 8, 2015 at 11:57am:

Thanks for the reminder

I found your blog very insightful and a reminder that just because we are the teacher, doesn't mean we know everything.  I loved your statement "I vow again to deliver instruction with encouragement, awareness, and grace."  This statement has stuck with me and I plan to also remember this as I am teaching my own students.

I feel that in todays higher level thinking era, we must go into lessons with an open mind and to not have 1 right answer in mind.  I teach first grade and on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, my students will point out something in a book that we are reading that didn't even occur to me.  I celebrate these moments and tell them that we are a community learning from each other.  I have also told them about my struggles to learn math at their age and how I am teaching them different problem solving strategies so that they hopefully don't struggle in math like I did.  Being vulnerable to our students allows them to not see us as "perfect" and know that we are still learning right along side of them.  

Alysia Krafel commented on November 8, 2015 at 4:19pm:

It is a bigger story, I think.

Your blog made me realize that this is so true. Not only in the classroom, but in coaching beginning teachers, counseling your broken-hearted daughter, or sharing the muddle of moving through life in a marriage. I think these principles you share might just apply in just being authentically human, naturally vulnerable, naturally imperfect and learning all the time. Thanks for this awareness.

Shawn Shotts commented on November 8, 2015 at 6:09pm:

Teachers are Human

I really enjoyed reading your perspective on admitting your faults when teaching. I believe that when students see that you are human and make mistakes just like anyone else, it makes you more respectable as a teacher. In life, no one is perfect. This is verified by teachers admitting their mistakes and admitting their lack of knowledge to their students. I also think that admitting your wrongs improves the personal relationship you have with students.

Katie Helwink commented on November 8, 2015 at 7:58pm:


I completely agree with your blog, we need to be vulnerable in front of our students.  Students need to see that we are fallible and make mistakes.  I love when students try to complete challenging activity by taking risks.  It can be so discouraging as a teacher to hear a student say "I can't do this" and not even attempt the assignment just because they are fearful they will make a mistake.  It is so powerful to show students that no one knows every answer.  Students think of you as the person to answer all their questions, by showing them you make mistakes and don't know everything is a great message for students to receive.  

Gina LaBarbera commented on November 8, 2015 at 9:56pm:

I am still cool!

I wish I could remember who to give credit to, but I once attended a workshop and learned the phrase, "I am still cool, tell me I am cool." This is a phrase that I love to use in my classroom when I admittedly make mistakes or a student lovingly points it out. I have often remarked, "I should teach in mistakes, it sometimes seems to be the only time EVERY student is paying attention!"  We love to laugh at our mistakes and know that those are opportunities to learn. When we make ourselves vulnerable we begin to earn the respect of our students as being human beings. We are also displaying the fact that we all have opportunites to learn no matter what age we are. My students also love to teach me about topics in which they are self proclaimed "experts." They take pride in what they know and love to take on the teacher role every once in a while.

Sami Sutton commented on November 8, 2015 at 11:43pm:

Definitely True!

I definitely felt this same struggle when I was taking Spanish. Not being a native speaker, I felt like there were always going to words that I did not know.  A lot of students would ask, "How do you say...?" I was usually able to get around words I did not know by responding, "No soy un diccionario." (I'm not a dictionary.) The truth of the matter is, you are right. There is no way we as teachers could possibly know everything, and I think it's okay when we admit that to our students. I'd rather tell a student, "That's a great questions, but I don't know the exact answer. Let me look into it and I'll get back to you," instead of making up an answer. Thanks for your honesty. 

Jocelyn Molaro commented on November 10, 2015 at 11:42am:

The All-Knowing Teacher is not needed anymore

Hi Liz,

I think the idea that the teacher is the all-knowing, keeper-of-truths is from a traditional, essentialism philosophy; the teacher's role being the holder of the truth and knowledge to transmit to students . But I agree that is not the role of teachers anymore. We can't possibly know everything. The amount of "knowledge" out there is expanding exponentially and it is readily available at our students' fingertips. They don't need us to the the all-knowing experts. I'd even argue that they don't need us to fill them with any knowledge, really. They need us to guide them and support them in their inquiries. They need us to set the stage for lessons about values, societal issues, and things that matter to them. You mentioned that your students needed to see you as a real person, not some historical symbol; this is so powerful! They need us to teach them how to research, write, and read. But knowledge transmission? They have Google for that. We're teachers: we are human. We are not all-knowing, and we don't need to be.

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