Virtual staffroom – when teachers don’t know the answer

In episode 4 of my podcast, I talked about what learners can say when they don’t know the answer to something.

But how about when students ask teachers questions and the teacher doesn’t know the answer?

What do you do then?

After all, you can’t know the answer to everything, can you?

Still, it’s not something that we usually talk about, maybe because we don’t want to look incompetent in front of our teacher peers.

I have to say I was more worried about this situation at the beginning of my teaching career. Not because I think I know everything now, but because I’ve learned some strategies for dealing with the situation.

1. When the student asks something you’ve never thought about before

It’s happened to me a couple of times. Usually it’s because the student is looking from the perspective of a learner and things occur to them that didn’t occur to me as a native speaker who just accepted the language as a child without questioning it.

The question was interesting and I wanted to know the answer too!

Or maybe you know something is wrong, but you can’t think of a better reason than “it just sounds wrong/odd/unnatural” and you want to give your student a better answer than that.

A couple of times when I didn’t know something, I admitted it and said I’d come back to the student. That’s much better than trying to come up with an answer on the fly. After all, the student can research after class as well, and if it turns out you were lying or came up with a story to hide what you didn’t know, it looks worse than if you say that you don’t know but will find out.

2. Using it as a way to learn

I had a situation in which a student wanted to know the origin of an expression. I had know idea how it had come into being, but we turned it into a learning exercise. Where do you go when you want to learn about words and their origins? How do you find out which sites give credible information? We got our answer, and both learned something, but during the course of the exercise, we trained other skills that would come in useful at other times.

If there’s no time for this in lesson, a student might enjoy finding something out as an extra task and reporting back next lesson.

3. We’ll cover that later

As good as it is to answer questions, it’s important to stay focussed on the task at hand. Sometimes students can come up with the most interesting questions in order to avoid a task they don’t want to do. I know this because I’ve done it. I may have been that student who wanted to avoid a free speaking exercise and who came up with some fascinating grammar questions. They were valid and worth exploring, but the danger was that doing that meant there would be no time for the speaking exercise I was desperately trying to avoid. My language teacher saw through it!

As interesting as the questions may be, you don’t have to go down every rabbit hole. If you think something genuinely is interesting and worth looking at in more detail, you can always make time for it later on. It doesn’t need to take priority over whatever else you were doing at that point in the lesson.

Of course, putting something off until the next lesson means that you can take the time to refresh yourself on the topic if you’re not quite sure of the rules or the best way to explain something.

4. When the student is trying to make you look bad

To be honest, I haven’t had this in my classes … yet! The people I work with genuinely want to learn and have no interest in trying to trip me up or make me look bad. Still, I choose whom I work with and I am aware that not everyone is in this position.

I have, however, had this problem in an online forum. Someone who thought it was their task to correct every single comment made in a Facebook group, and who suggested that I’d made a mistake, and that this was a very bad example to set for learners, meaning I must be a very bad teacher indeed!

I hadn’t made a mistake, but it made me question myself. I came back, armed with links and sources to quote. It was maybe more than was necessary, but I felt the need to prove I hadn’t done anything wrong.

I probably wouldn’t bother now – trolls will be trolls. There’s a difference between people who genuinely ask a question when they’re not sure about something, or looking for clarification, and people who feel the need to bring others down so they can feel good about themselves!

I think experience definitely helps when dealing with situations like this. That doesn’t mean the next troll won’t get to me, but I think you do build up some resilience, especially if you’re working in the online space and you’re the face of your brand. At least, it helps if you can do this.

Anyway I digress – if you enter into a battle with a student, you may never win. If someone has decided they’re smarter than you, it will always be a challenge for them to prove that you do know how to do your job, and it will probably take up a lot of your energy. On the other hand, it may become a less “fun” game for them if it doesn’t get the anticipated response from you. If someone’s looking to learn – that’s great. If someone’s looking for a fight every lesson – don’t give them one!

There is of course always the possibility that the student was right on a particular point and you were not. Some may see it as a sign of weakness, but others – maybe the majority – will respect you for owning it and admitting you made a mistake. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher – just that you didn’t know this particular thing.

I’ve heard teacher colleagues say they felt a bit intimidated by students who were very confident and who had spent a lot of time in English-speaking countries. If possible, try to make these students allies, rather than competitors. In some cases it might not even be about the teacher at all, just someone feeling good about the fact that they are good at something, rather than trying to give the teacher a hard time. If someone wants to challenge you as a teacher – is there anything you can learn from it? After all, teachers never stop learning. Is there some way that you can channel the student’s energy into something more positive and constructive?

5. No excuse for bad preparation

This brings me to the last point. Nobody can know everything, but that’s not an excuse for bad preparation. If you’re teaching a particular grammar point and you’re not clear about how to teach it or what the rules are, it’s reasonable for students to feel short-changed. If you dashed off some photocopies of an exercise and can’t explain the task or why there are mistakes in it, you probably won’t want to do that again!

I have seen people who were frustrated by questions that they really should have been able to answer, and then I don’t think the students were to blame. They were there to learn after all. I think that, particularly for freelance teachers who are not following a school syllabus, it’s important to be clear about what you can and can’t offer.

Summing up

My students expect me to know what I’m talking about and answer their questions, but I don’t pretend that I have all the answers. Nobody should feel that they have to do that – even teachers!

Do you have any strategies to add? What do you do if you don’t know the answer to a question?

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Kirsty working with students

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Achieving results online with adult language learners

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my book about teaching English to adults online. You can find the book, “Achieving results online with adult language learners – by Kirsty Major” on Amazon or iBooks, or you can read more about it here.

In the 40 chapters of the book, you’ll find several articles that I have published online, along with exclusive content that can only be found in the book. I talk about my experiences of setting up an online language teaching business, what I’ve learned, and how I’ve dealt with a variety of challenges, both in terms of organisation and running the lessons.

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2 Comments on “Virtual staffroom – when teachers don’t know the answer”

  1. If it happens to me I just admit that I’m not sure. I use to think I should be able to answer everything but have realised it doesn’t always work out that way. :) I will then always go through it with my student the next week. xxx

  2. I think that’s the best way – both admitting you don’t know, and also remembering to come back to it. Thanks for your comment :)


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