Teaching Uncertainty

So here we are, fresh into the new semester at BSU, and this week my students have made me think about the role of uncertainty for teachers in the classroom.  This all started in the module Teaching Writing where I’m teaching students how to teach, a class that can become so self-referential I keep expecting to meet myself at the whiteboard.  We were discussing an academic article by Lee S. Shulman called quite pithily Signature Pedagogies in the Professions which received mixed reviews from the students, but one aspect that created an interesting discussion in one of the classes was how feelings of vulnerability and insecurity can affect not just students, but teachers too.

Uncertainty is something every teacher has to deal with, whatever their level of experience.  Students are peskily unpredictable creatures.  You never know what they are going to say or do, and sometimes you just can’t get them to follow the lesson plan you’ve spent a few coffee-fuelled hours preparing.

One thing I like about delivering a lecture is the feeling of complete control.  Yes, I have a scary sea of faces staring at me expectantly, but I have my material prepared, my Prezi all lined up (if you haven’t used/experienced Prezi before, get with the program people), and I also know that I know my stuff.  These are the security blankets that make that sea of faces a little less daunting, and these are the things that appeal to my inner control freak.

Seminars, however, are a different matter.  I want the teaching to be student-centred, drawing on their experiences and opinions to debate and discuss, and this is where the uncertainty comes in.  You just never know what direction they will take you, and as the teacher you may be responding to points you are uncertain about yourself, and sometimes the discussion goes so off-track that you may as well throw that coffee-stained lesson plan in the bin.

This is exactly what happened in one particular class.  Normally I would be thinking fast, covering my growing panic and putting diversionary tactics in place to get back on message.  But this class was different.  In Teaching Writing I’m not just covering teaching pedagogy and analysing the theory, I also need them to see what teaching is like in real life too.  So instead of covering up the fact that everything was going horribly wrong, I drew attention to it, told the students my thought process, how I should have steered that conversation better, and how I now needed to change the next exercise because the one I  planned didn’t really fit with the discussion we’d just had.  Hopefully, I managed to turn a potential car-crash of a lesson into a demonstration of one of the pitfalls of real teaching practice.

As you can imagine, teaching how to teach ramps up uncertainty to a whole new level.  Recognising your mistakes, being flexible and adapting your lesson in response to the students is good teaching practice, and in this class I have to be transparent too.  I can’t be a control freak about it.  I can’t hide the messy, unpredictable, imperfect side of teaching or the students won’t gain a well-rounded knowledge of what the role requires.  So I just have to let it happen.

I’m sure I’ve blogged the following quote before, but it’s so relevant here I’m happy images-2to repeat myself.  It’s from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, She says perfectionism is ‘based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die… people who aren’t even looking at their feet are doing a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.  Stop looking at your feet.’

I’m sure I will continue to be a control freak in my other classes, forever in pursuit of The Perfect Lesson, but in the Teaching Writing module, I’ll be trying hard to stop looking at my feet.

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