Have you ever lectured in a classroom filled with students and been asked a question that you could not answer? What do you do? Do you try to answer it as best as possible? Do you divert the question? Do you tell the student “we are not discussing this today” to avoid embarrassment? When I first began teaching I was worried about getting in this type of situation. My mother, who taught in higher education for many years, gave me great advice. She said that if you do not know the answer to a question just say: “I do not know the answer to your question”.
I recently heard from a frustrated graduate student who is unhappy with her new teacher. This new teacher is trying to rigidly adhere to her syllabus and will not entertain any questions or conversations that go off topic. The graduate student wants her questions answered but the new teacher is not prepared to do so. The graduate student feels that she is wasting her time since she feels that she “knows more about the subject then the new teacher since she will not answer the questions”. I asked a few undergraduate students in my classroom if they had experiences with teachers who would not answer their questions during class. One student said that she “can tell when a teacher does not know the answer to a question and would appreciate just hearing that instead of confusing the class by trying to sway her question away”. Another student said that she “felt ignored because the teacher would not respond to her question”. She said she “waited until after class and asked the TA who gave her an answer but she wished she had been acknowledged during class”. The most surprising information was a student who spoke about how frustrating it was for him that his teacher “did not know enough about a particular subject and she would discourage students from working in a specific area”. He said that this teacher “has a reputation of doing this and that if you want to do well in the class you will just do what she recommends”. He added “teachers have enough resources and that if they are not familiar with something they should at least be able to work with the students and not try to discourage you”. He was “disappointed and felt like he did not get anything out of his class because he was persuaded to do differently than he had wished”.
When I was filling out a form last year, I had to check the occupation field and kept looking for my area but could not find it until I finally saw educator listed under customer service. I was surprised as I never thought of teaching being the same as customer service. I always though of a teacher in the same way I think of a personal trainer. For example, you have a goal of being in a marathon next year so you meet with a trainer and tell them your strengths and weakness and they developed a plan to help you meet your goals. Now if I decide to hangout at the juice bar during the training sessions then I am missing out and nobody can force me to use the treadmill anyway. The question then arises “Can you blame the trainer for your disappointing end results at the marathon due to your lack of effort?”. If a teacher is part of the customer service field then it would make sense that they are held up to a standard of being able to provide you with everything that you need at that moment so that you are happy. If a teacher is like a trainer then the focus is on helping you to achieve your goals even if you are not going to like everything you hear. Although a student will not always hear what they want to hear from a teacher, which is bad customer service, the teacher has the big picture in mind and is thinking about your end goals, which is more in thinking like a trainer. If you are holding back from a topic or not answering a question because you have an end goal worked into your lesson plan, it might be worth saying this so that the student will not feel they are being ignored or assume that you do not know the subject. But if you are in a situation where you do not know the answer to a question you can think like a trainer and ask the student to research it themselves and let you know their findings and perhaps present it to the class. A student answering their own question will have not only provided them with the answer they are looking for but also reinforced research skills. This seems in line with what a trainer will do instead of a customer service representative. I would love to hear how you handle these situations. Please share your stories in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.