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Answering Your Questions About Answering Students' Questions

To watch a teacher answer students' questions, one might think the teacher was somehow born with the ability to do so. Answering questions from students is, however, an acquired skill. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions many new teachers have regarding how to properly and effectively answer students' questions.

1. How long do I wait to respond?

Do not be afraid of silence, but neither should you allow it to take over your classroom. It is often best, if you know you have the class's attention (and they are not simply daydreaming), to reword the question. It may be that they simply did not understand the question and a rewording of that question might be just what they need. Perhaps try to remind them (maybe preemptively with an anticipatory set) of when or how they learned the information about which you are asking, or replace a word with one that may be easier to understand. Most importantly, be patient. A good rule of thumb is to wait five seconds before saying anything.

2. What do I do if I get the wrong response?

Try to point out what was right about the response, even if it is only a small portion of what was said. At the very least, if the student is entirely off base, give the student credit for trying. Being short in your response, using one word sentences like "no" or "wrong" not only discourages that student from ever responding again, but also stops any other students from taking his or her shot at answering. It is important, though, to make it perfectly clear that the answer was incorrect so as to prevent confusion.

3. How do I know what questions to ask?

For new teachers, one helpful bit of advice is to plan your questions ahead of time. This is useful because classroom discussions will often veer off course and, while often times these tangents can be helpful, it is the teacher's responsibility to ensure the students will learn curriculum. To avoid unintended detours, it is often helpful for the new teacher to carry with her at all times a clipboard. On this clipboard, the teacher can place a laminated sheet of paper to be written on every day with new questions she means to ask. This will help keep the class moving in the intended direction and, should the conversation go astray, stopping the class and asking one of the questions on that list will refocus your students.

4. What is the process of answering a question?

While it may not always appear obvious to the students, the teacher will usually follow a certain procedure when answering a question. Basically, this process involves three steps:

  • Did everyone hear that?
  • If you are in any way uncertain whether the class heard the question, repeat it yourself or have the student repeat it. It does no one any good to give a great answer to a question half the class did not hear.
  • Try to answer as directly as possible. For many students, asking a question is something far outside their comfort zone. The teacher must remember that it is also something which requires trust between student and teacher, and must therefore show the student she is trustworthy. One way to disintegrate that trust is by somehow writing off the question. Having another student answer or telling a student he should already know the answer does nothing to help any of the students in the room. A good rule of thumb to remember in the teaching profession is that it is rare that a question exists only for the student who asked it. While alternative answering methods are effective and a nice way to engage the entire class, make the student who asked the question aware of the fact that you are about to employ one of those techniques. Something like, "That's a great question, and one I think we should all participate in, so what I want everyone to do is ask the person next to you for a possible answer and write it down. Then we'll share." In this way, you were able to use the most effective answering method you could think of without alienating your student.
  • Ensure understanding. This can be as simple as asking your students if they understand, though you should be aware that while it is often difficult to get students to ask questions in the first place, it may be more difficult to get them to admit in front of their peers that they did not understand the explanation. Therefore, it may be best, if you have the time in the discussion, to do a quick recap, verbal or written, to ensure understanding. Also, if you have a hunch that the entire class may not understand your answer, note when you will be available to answer any questions they may have after class.

5. How do I make sure to address the questions any students with disabilities in my classroom may have?

Students with 504 plans and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) may be difficult to address in your classroom for a variety of reasons. While running an inclusive classroom is a noble effort and one which is often encouraged or required by administrators, it can lead to classroom management issues, especially for the new teacher.  Here are a few tips for encouraging classroom participation for all students:

  • The special education teacher is your best friend
  • Having an open line of communication with the special education teacher and the paraeducators (teacher's aides, assistants, etc.) is vital to your success in the inclusive classroom. These teachers are resources, because they know (usually by heart) any accommodations specified in a student's IEP. Also, they tend to know the individual interests of their students, as well as any idiosyncratic tendencies a particular student may have.
  • Use those interests. Perhaps even more than with a non-IEP student, building trust with a special needs student is key to their education and your success. Therefore, the successful teacher can usually find a way to make the most of a student's interests by somehow incorporating it in the classroom discussion. For example, if a student is into NASCAR, it may benefit the teacher to shape one or two questions around what she knows (or has researched) about NASCAR. Liken a character in a novel to Jeff Gordon, or note the geometric properties of the racetrack at Daytona.
  • With your special education teacher, set reasonable expectations. There is a major difference between setting reasonable expectations for the special needs student and "lowering expectations". Lowering expectations does nothing for the student, the class, or the teacher. However, setting high expectations relative to a special education student's needs is important. Remember that eventually these students will be expected to live independently or at least gain as much independence as possible, so demanding nothing of them is doing them a major disservice.