Published 23rd November 2021

teacher panicking because student asked an unexpected question

Teachers know everything, or so our students think! They can answer any questions, even the age-old gem “Who came first: the chicken or the egg?”.

Okay, maybe not so much! We all know that it is impossible to know everything. Teachers are certainly knowledgeable in the subject they teach, but even so, they might still encounter a question they can’t answer. It’s one thing if they can fill in their knowledge gap with a quick use of Google, but what happens when a student asks you something you don’t know? 

Well, there are a few things you can do:

[A] Pretend you didn’t hear and carry on teaching.

[B] Make something up and hope the student won’t fact check you.

[C] Don’t move. Maybe, they won’t notice you.

[D] Read our article to know how to confidently and properly answer a student’s unexpected question.

To make your life easier and less stressful, we came up with a couple of ways you can deal with curious students and their questions to strengthen your relationships with them and enhance the learning experience.

Teacher acknowledges an unexpected question

Acknowledge the question

First of all, you need to acknowledge the question. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. Don’t come up with something and move on. Don’t rely on running out of time. We want curious students in our classroom. By acknowledging the question, you show your students that you appreciate their curiosity.

Through questioning, people deepen their understanding of the world around them and build a love for learning. It should be noted that by acknowledging, we don’t mean that you have to answer the question right away, instead just let the student know they were heard and how you will get back to them.

This doesn’t mean you need to get back to them right away. There are a few different ways you can tackle the conundrum of giving an answer you don’t know!

Say you don’t know

Nobody, except for students, expects you to know EVERYTHING about your subject; nobody will think any less of you if you don’t know the answer. By acknowledging that you don’t know the answer yet, you underline your credibility and trustworthiness. Students see that you don’t attempt to cover up a lack of knowledge by lies. Acceptance also helps them to relate to you. They see that it is okay to not know something.

But don’t forget to always follow through. If you don’t have time at that moment, then let your students know that next class you are going to tell them the answer to their question. We can guarantee you that they will not forget about it, so don’t let them down.

Group of students answer the question together

Make it a group project

If you have time and you don’t know the answer, then transform the question into a classroom project. Tell them that you don’t know the answer, and work with them on finding the answer. The unexpected question can become a great source of engaged discussion where students can shine and show their expertise. Make sure that regardless of what answer your students come up with, you can fact check it: either use the internet or just let them know that while their answer seems to be very plausible, you are going to check it at home and let them know if they were right next time. 

Outsource the question

Allow somebody to shine. Maybe there is some extraordinary student who has already thought of a question like that. Make sure though, you still fact check the student’s answer and ask everybody else to do it too. While somebody can be sure of their answer, they may still be mistaken, so it is important to teach students to check what they hear.

Transform it into homework

If you don’t have time, don’t want to make it a group project, and don’t want to accept you don’t know something, you can always make it an extra homework assignment. Be aware though, that it is always better to speak up about not knowing the answer because it strengthens your student’s trust in you. Also, assigning it as homework does not free you from researching the answer yourself. To make sure students came up with the right answer, you need to know what the correct answer actually is. 

Unexpected questions are one of the sources of increased grey hair on the heads of young teachers. People are afraid of uncertainties and unexpected things, but when you are prepared for them, you won’t need to freak out. Our suggestions ensure that when the day comes for you to answer that question, it will not be scary, but an opportunity to have some fun with students. Thus, always fact check, be curious, honest and never leave the question unanswered.

Read more: What If I Don’t Like My Students? And 7 Other TEFL Questions You Probably Want to Ask

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