Questions unanswered

THERE must have been at least a time in your teaching career when a student has come to you with a question you were not able to answer and there could have been a few reasons for this.

Perhaps you really didn’t know the answer or perhaps you did, but you wanted the students to figure it out themselves.

The third possibility is that there really was no answer for the question asked.

Whatever it is, a situation like this can be quite unnerving especially if you are a recently qualified teacher in your first posting, or if it is the first time you are teaching a particular subject.

All of a sudden you seem to be surrounded by a group of eager teenagers keen to discover your weakest spots.

If you feel at times that their innocent and keen expressions when they ask you questions — which although relevant to your subject are way beyond the syllabus — may not be totally innocent, your hunch may be right.

My friend Dilla believes there are whole groups of them (students) out there, “nerdy types who spend entire evenings thinking up questions on quantum physics or comparative history just to rattle your nerves, when they should be on Facebook or watching movies or something.”

So what do you do when you don’t have the answers?

“Just tell them it’s not in the syllabus,” said one teacher in a clipped tone that suggested the issue was a no-brainer.

“Tell them to focus on what they need to know for the exam. They can learn about the other things once they finish school.”

“I pretend I am suddenly very busy,” said another teacher.

“I look at my watch or phone then suddenly remember I have this very important meeting and tell my students I will get back to them on the topic later.

“Usually I do some research when I get back and the next time I meet them, I do give them the answers as if I had known them all along,” added the teacher

“Saving face is very important in the profession. You can’t let students go off thinking the teacher’s not so smart and that he doesn’t know the answers.”

But students often have an uncanny knack of knowing when teachers are being real and when they are putting it on.

The way they relate and respond to their teacher, will definitely be influenced by their perception of the teacher.

Said Mr Ong a senior Biology teacher: “I am absolutely honest with my students if they ask me a question about my subject that I can’t answer. I will tell them the truth — that I don’t have the answers but I can find out. And I make it a point to find out. The way I see it, the students learn something new and I learn something new too. So it’s a win-win.”


But admitting to students that you don’t have the answers requires a certain amount of courage in the teacher especially when they know that there will be some who will interpret this as a sign of incompetency.

There is also the risk that you may be putting your credibility on the line when you say, “I don’t know” to a question connected with your field of expertise.

However, it also takes a great deal of confidence to be able to admit this — the confidence that comes with knowing that you do know your stuff and yet knowing also that there is still so much out there for you to learn and discover.

But what about questions that are not related to the subjects you teach, questions that are not related to any academic discipline at all for that matter?

What if students come up to you and ask you questions about life, about what they are going through and why?

How do you answer these questions when you don’t know the answers and when the answers themselves may not in fact, exist?

When a student whose father is abusive comes to you and asks you why his father is the way he is and not like other fathers, how do you answer that?

What about those who ask you why despite their brilliant academic and co-curricular achievements, they don’t secure coveted scholarships for tertiary education?

No amount of research can help you come up with answers that satisfy or at the very least alleviate some of the frustration or disappointment that those involved experience.

Perhaps the best you can do in these kinds of situations when you are asked for answers that may not really exist, is to admit that at times, there are indeed no easy answers.

Despite this, many times we have to move on with whatever knowledge we do have, no matter how scant because otherwise we may remain petrified in the same spot forever.

And again this also takes courage.

We, who are part of the task of educating, know how vital it is for learners to ask questions and expect answers.

There are times when these answers are straightforward and acceptable.

There are times when they are not and so the one who asks, may have to keep on asking till he gets the knowledge he seeks.

American writer J.D. Stroube expresses this so well when she writes, “Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continue to give meaning to life.”

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