Admitting ignorance

I was back teaching this morning; I get first day nerves every time I get a new class. This is partly because I like to be prepared for anything and everything and when new students come in, I usually know almost nothing of use about them.

Today’s big surprise: they are Belgian, not French as I had been led to expect. They were all between 15 and 18 and very quiet and a bit shy. Well, that suits me for first morning, because I then don’t have to worry at all about discipline.

At the end of the lesson, I gave them a short quiz about England and the English and for the last 15 minutes, I said they could return the favour and ask me a question each about my background knowledge of their nation. My score? 3/10. They roared with laughter when I got the name of their king wrong, giggled when I didn’t know exactly how many languages were spoken in Belgium and were delighted I didn’t know the name of their national anthem. In short, I knew almost nothing about where they came from. The only things I knew about them was the name of a famous Belgian beer, what foodstuffs Belgium is famous for and the city where the royal family makes its home. I did actually know the family name of their royal family but only after it was said (it’s the same family OUR prince Albert came from). All the rest I simply guessed at.

It’s actually pretty good for a teacher to admit they don’t know something; it sets you on a better footing with students. But as a human being, it’s vital to realise that what I know is tiny compared with what I don’t know. It doens’t make me any less for saying “I don’t know” to a question. I have colleagues and friends who would rather make up an answer than admit they don’t know, so they don’t appear stupid. Me, I simply don’t care.

I know a lot more about Belgium now than I did yesterday but I don’t make an assumption that I know everything. That, like many subjects, would be the work of a lifetime. I know a fair bit about a lot of things but since my Bigger Fish incident, I’ve been a lot more cautious about flaunting that knowledge.

Now where’s that Stella Artois? (yes, that’s Belgian!)


12 thoughts on “Admitting ignorance

  1. Viv, I’m so glad your first day went well, I’m imagining it’ll only get better form there. 🙂
    I have always admired and respected people, especially teachers, who could say “I don’t know.” For me, they know a lot more that those people who claim to know everything, they know that it is simply impossible to know everything, that life is a long journey where learning never stops…

    • I have a pretty dim view of colleagues who try to hide their own ignorance AND then fail to go an rectify the matter later by checking whatever it was.
      The trouble with my job is I have lots and lots of first days. After this week, I have an empty week, then another mostly empty week but then working that weekend(but excursions not teaching) and then I don’t know because it’s all going to change from what was agreed because a group that is coming in later April have asked specifically for me as their guide for the week(woohoo, someone loves me!) so I don’t know what my work is going to be for the last week of April.
      I also taught my own child at home for four years and that meant I had no pretense at knowing everything; it was often a case of “I don’t know. Let’s find out together!” I wished we’d done it sooner and never sent her to school in the first place!

  2. Hi Viv. I loved your post about the first day with a new class.

    I am convinced that we are at our finest when we confess what we don’t know as you say. the mystery far outweighs the revealed and when I open to the knowing of others the teachable moment is actually fully engaged. We both get to explore the possible with total psychological safety as we are all then simultaneously vulnerable.

    • I think that mystery is more exciting than certainty but certainty is more comfortable and stable.
      I have had students be very annoyed if I didn’t know the answer….but that’s their problem, not mine!

  3. Hi Viv,

    You knew quite a lot about Belgium:) I should confess that I know nothing about the country except that in one of the Sherlock Holmes’ stories there’s a Belgian prince who wants to get his love-letters back from his erstwhile sweetheart!

    But I loved your technique – I’d probably have asked them to draw my caricature…and then returned the favor!

    Warm Regards,

    • I think it was Bohemia not Belgium….but I’d have to check. Another fictional detective was Belglian though: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
      I do get them drawing sometimes but younger groups and I’d be scared to see what they drew if they drew me!! I have worked as an artists’ model and it always makes me feel nervous to see how the artists draw me!

  4. Oh Viv…how right you are – from Bohemia he was…but my memory isn’t what it was in my previous birth:( I keep mixing up those fictional characters – and believe me I’ve read Sherlock Holmes some 5 times!

    Like Oorvi says….mumble, shumble….

    • My memory has this sort of lapses too, it’s a sign of stress and too many things on my mind. There is a reference to Holmes turning down a case or something from the King of Belgium in one of the stories though, so it’s easy to see where you got that from.
      Holmes was the first man I fell in love with(aged 10) and one of the biggest disappointments of my life at that time was realising he was fictional and therefore not REAL!

  5. I believe there are different types of ignorance. One of them is related to innocence and lack of experience. First of all, it is impossible to know everything and you can’t be expected to always be aware of what you don’t know. You only happen to learn about it when you find yourself under certain circumstances. This is forgivable and kids really like it when adults admit they are not omniscient.

    But there is another type of ignorance, or rather incompetence, related to one’s sphere of work or occupation, which I believe one is responsible for. When you take up something as a profession, you have to keep up with the latest developments and continuously improve your knowledge. Students will never forgive teachers who are incompetent in their sphere. Then the honest thing to do would be to admit you don’t know and do whatever is required to learn what you need to know. In my practice as a teacher I often experienced this. My colleagues would often pretend they knew and accuse students of being nasty to them. No need to say those teachers were never respected and indeed students acted nasty towards them.

    • Very true indeed.
      No, students really can’t take to incompetent teachers. I don’t blame them!
      I do like to be prepared and ready for anything; hence my heavy bag!!!!

  6. Don’t know much about Belgium. But your post got me thinking about asking a question that might seem, well, a little dumb.

    I know if I’d look around your Blog I might find the answer. But, I’m a slow reader. I take in things a little at a time, hoping I don’t miss much. And since you are a prolific writer, I could spend several days combing through your archives. And, while I know i’d have a good time and maybe even pick up a British accent by the time I’m done, I figured I’d go ahead and ask the question.

    What does the “66” in the name viv66 stand for? And is viv your real name?


    aka michael j

    • Viv is indeed my real name; the 66 is simply the first part of my name in Latin numerals VIVI is 66, but since only my dad and my spiritual director have ever called me Vivi, I stick to the first part. Which logically means I ought to be Viv65, but hey, ’66 was a good year! It’s not a dumb question; the only dumb questions are the ones we don’t ask and you’re the first person to ask that.
      My full name is Vivienne Tuffnell; usually known as Viv. And no, no relation to the England cricketer Phil Tufnell…. different spelling. I realised today I have done over 300 posts, some I’m quite proud of. And now over 2,000 comments!
      Its nice to have you here Michael!

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