The Power of “I Don’t Know”


“I don’t know,” I stammered, a few weeks ago in my anatomy class. I was not prepared. I had not finished the reading assignment.

Despite my discomfort, though, I felt proud that I was honest and didn’t try to make up an answer or make an excuse. It was a life lesson for me, and not just a learning moment. Despite long hours working and going to school, I need to carve out time for doing homework, reviewing notes, making flash cards, and quizzing myself. Yes, I needed the reminder of that very basic lesson.

I had a flashback to my first year teaching as an environmental educator. It was a beautiful October morning. I led a group of plucky, curious third graders on my second field trip. We rode the bus together and made three stops. We visited a salvage center, a reuse center, and then the county recycling center. On each of the stops, I made sure to match up my talking points with good spots to view the machinery and to see recycling in action. I recited a few cool facts and asked my group lots of questions. Despite all my preparation in the days prior, I wasn’t really prepared for the unknown or unscheduled. One eight-year-old boy raised his hand and asked a question that I didn’t know the answer to. In retrospect, I do not even remember the question, but very vividly I remember my answer, my shaking voice, my pounding heart. I took a breath, paused, and said, “I do not know, but let’s see if we can find the answer together.” The boy looked at me, grinned, and said, “That’s cool that you told us you didn’t know the answer.”

His response was exactly what I needed in that moment on a day when I was really nervous and trying to keep a field trip going as a new environmental educator. It’s hard to admit you don’t know something when you’re the purported expert in the group. It’s hard to admit you don’t know something when you didn’t finish your homework. It’s hard to show vulnerability, whether prepared or not. In the case of teaching on that second field trip, I had definitely prepared and practiced for that field trip multiple times. In the case of the anatomy class, I had not done my homework. In both cases, as a student and as a teacher, being honest and vulnerable was the only right answer that I could give.

As a community based educator, I am usually in a different school every day, often visiting multiple classrooms. I have only a few minutes to bond and teach and learn with each class. However, I have learned that those relationships that are forged in a few minutes can lead to lifelong lessons. Sometimes, it’s the novelty of the experience when I lead a group on a field trip or the “treat” of having a visitor to a class when the students and teacher have been together all year. As educators, we are often looking for teaching moments, those genuine times when we learn together with our students. It turns out, those teaching moments are constant. Yes, as educators, we have learning objectives and goals and content to cover, but we are often teaching our students based on how we behave and act and conduct ourselves in between the quizzes and learning circles.

My “I don’t know” moments have taught me much as a student and as a teacher. They have helped me to be brave and vulnerable and honest in the moment. The student’s surprise at my candor, oh so many years ago on that field trip, helped me to realize that our students are seeking much more than our knowledge. They are seeking a connection, a role model, a friend, a fellow learner. They are looking to us to help them learn and grow. It turns out they have much to teach us as well.

Our “I don’t know” moments help us to connect as humans, as learners. Don’t be afraid of “I don’t know,” it may become your biggest “Aha!” Moment.

Kary Schumpert is an environmental educator, a writer, and a student in Albuquerque. She finds her greatest sense of place and inspiration in New Mexico. Kary loves composting with worms, running, hiking, swimming, writing, teaching, and learning, among many things. Kary is a contributing editor to The Community Works Journal and her writing has also appeared in Green Teacher, Elephant Journal, New Leaf Meditation Project, and The Upper Room. She keeps a personal blog at

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