Questioning Teaching: An Attempt to Balance Paradox

The more I teach, the more I realize that a teacher’s job is to balance paradox. A teacher has to be comfortable with a degree of mystery and unanswered questions. At any given moment, one student might connect to what is happening in class, and another might be diametrically opposed. When this happens, what are we supposed to do? This is something I’m thinking a lot about these days.

Below are the paradoxical questions that are on my mind. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you feel inclined to tackle them. Although they are written separately, I also acknowledge the web they weave.

  • What happens when the teacher’s concept of what is fair clashes with a student’s concept of what is fair? When the concept of fairness does not relate to the outcome of one’s learning, does fairness have a position in the argument?
  • What is the teacher’s role when 80% of the class is on board with your methodology and 20% has a distinct aversion to it?
  • How can we address different degrees of ambiguity tolerance between students?
  • As a language skills teacher of in-service English teachers, I try to lead by example, but what is my role or approach when there seems to be incongruence between the teacher-trainees’ training experience, and the experience they are going to meet when they go back to class? How can I give them autonomy over their language learning, when they don’t feel they are in a position to do the same for their students?
  • How do we truly know what students need praise from the teacher, and who is motivated by their own effort?
  • What is my role when students have grown up in a culture of comparison and competition, and this clashes with my beliefs about learning? Where do I look for clarity when the answers evade me? What questions do I ask? When do I ask them?

If you have your own paradoxical questions, feel free to add them in the comment section. Maybe together we can help each other embrace the paradox.

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16 thoughts on “Questioning Teaching: An Attempt to Balance Paradox

  1. Dear Josette,

    Great questions you have raised. I’ve been teaching in several different cultures that are unfamiliar to my own (Japan, Qatar, Egypt). I am a Hong Kongese brought up in the UK.

    I’m not quite sure if what I’m about to say is relevant but your post certainly inspires these thoughts.

    My guiding principle to all your questions seems to boil down to one – to always remain open. I believe if I’m open-minded, my students will see it and be led by example. Language teachers so often bear the responsibility of being some kind of ‘ambassadors’ or ‘snapshots’ of certain cultures or beliefs that we might be in a position where we are in some way molding someone’s mind constructively or destructively. With that in mind, what has worked for me is to guide and promote the questioning itself. Knowing how to ask a question is a skill that needs to be practised and one which is perhaps somewhat too often neglected by the learners themselves. Questioning encourages one to take charge. Once I’ve established that air of openness in my classroom and set up that tradition of promoting questioning, I find my learners of various sorts start to open up and become more willing to embrace others’ views. This in turns helps the learners to start realising that knowing what they don’t know or what they don’t think they could not know is as important as knowing what they do know, we start to see transformation.

    What’s your thought?

    Connie

    1. Dear Connie,

      Thank you so much for this comment, not only because I am happy you read posts, but because you have given me something valuable to take with me.

      “Knowing how to ask a question is a skill that needs to be practised and one which is perhaps somewhat too often neglected by the learners themselves. Questioning encourages one to take charge. Once I’ve established that air of openness in my classroom and set up that tradition of promoting questioning, I find my learners of various sorts start to open up and become more willing to embrace others’ views. ”

      You asked for my thoughts on this, and I have to say that I wholeheartedly connect to this. It also asks me to look back on my teaching and makes me ask myself if I promoted this type of openness. I’m not sure. I think I provided emotional safety, but I’m not sure about a space of questioning. I think this has to be overtly modelled by the teacher, and this is something I really want to be more intentional in doing, so I thank you for being so eloquent with your experience.

      What I mostly connected to was the “take charge” aspect that you highlighted and it’s connection to transformation. This is so true. If they have the knowledge that there isn’t really a “right way” but that there are multiple ways created by the questions they come up with, there is a sense of empowerment that bubbles up. It may also be scary, but eventually you come to trust the questions.

      Thank you again for taking the time to share your experience here Connie. I’d love to connect with you on Twitter if you have an account. Could you find me there @josettelb? I look forward to learning more from you.

      Warmly,
      Josette

  2. Dear Josette,

    You’ve asked some great questions and I find the discussion they’ve evoked very useful. I can relate to all the paradoxical questions but there’s one that appeals most to me at the moment. It concerns the incongruence between the teacher-trainees’ training experience, and the experience they are going to meet when they go back to class. By coincidence, I’ve just come back from a teacher training. What I love about these sessions is the fact that they are oases in the sometimes ‘dry’ reality of everyday teaching. The truth is that some sort of ideal is always presented there; something we should do in order to make our classes perfect. We are all aware of the fact that it’s not what our real teaching will be like but why should we mind? Some teachers see this discrepancy as a drawback but I don’t agree. We need to recharge batteries and this is the right place and right occasion. And I believe that when time comes and the ideas and new strategies we learned from the trainer finally sink in, we will feel the consequences of our effort. But it takes time and patience. One cannot come home from a teacher training and have fantastic lessons the next day. That’s not how it works. Ideas need to be transformed into reality and this needs a lot of practice and subsequent reflection. Kristina put it eloquently: The rewards will come back to you in terms of ‘exponential growth’!

    Hana

    1. “Ideas need to be transformed into reality and this needs a lot of practice and subsequent reflection.” Yes. So well said Hana. I am so happy you chose this question to comment on because it has often caused me great confusion. At times I can roll with it and trust that in the end the teachers will create the meaning that is important to them. But at times, I forget this. I forget my own experience in teacher training and how some things only made sense after a long time. What your reflection has helped me see, along with the other teacher’s comments here, is that one way to help make this concept of process and time an optional reality is by giving the teachers the opportunity to reflect on it from this perspective. There is no wasted time when it comes to learning something. The lesson just isn’t always obvious.

      Thank you so much for your wisdom Hana!

    2. Hana, i know what you’re talking about. I used to regard the discrepancy between trainings and real teaching and I wholeheartedly believed that one day I will achieve the necessary level of teaching and from that time on I’ll teach wonderfully. I’ve recently understood how far from reality it was and I realized that this constant work on every lesson trying to approach some ideal is actually what I enjoy. What if I were a brilliant teacher with every lesson being great and spotless? I think I’d be bored stiff. This process of trial and error, getting new problems and hurdles and overcoming and solving them – that is what keeps me on my toes and makes me dedicate myself to teaching.
      Hope it doesn’t sound too pompous and I’ve managed to get the message across)))

      1. No, Kate, it doesn’t sound too pompous and you’ve certainly managed to get the message across. Once I become a brilliant teacher without any flaws, I’ll have to quit teaching and find a different job to keep myself challenged. This, however (and luckily), will never happen :-)

        1. Thank you for adding your thoughts Kate. As Hana already clarified so well, you don’t sound pompous at all. You sound like a teacher who love learning and also recognizes that perfection is far away from what teaching is all about. How can we teach without “mistakes” when we expect our students to make “mistakes”? Where is learning without mistakes? :)

  3. Hi Josette, I thought of what to say and then read Rose’s comments. She has said it much more eloquently than I would have and I completely agree with her. We do differentiate our lessons to suit different interests and abilities but we always need to be true to ourselves and what works best to suit our understandings and personalities as teachers

    1. Such empowering words, “we always need to be true to ourselves and what works best to suit our understandings and personalities as teachers.” They make me wonder how I am being true to myself when I teach and at what times I’m perhaps not true to myself. If I were to take a gander at moments I’m true to myself as a teacher, I would say that it’s when I try to listen to what my students are saying, and when I also try to open up a conversation for those hard to reach places. Instead of ignoring the struggle, I try to flow with it. It’s not easy, and it’s a bumpy road, and often it’s not even that clear to me that I’m doing this, but in the end, I know that if I’m not trying to listen, I’m not being true to myself. Perhaps that’s when it hurts the most…. when I realize I haven’t truly heard.

      Always making me think! Thank you Anna!

  4. I have only one response to all of your questions: know yourself, stay true to yourself and offer yourself! Like anything in your life, the ROI is only a percentage. My take on teaching is that it’s all about relationships. They come in many forms, depths, and durations. If you establish a real relationship with even 3% of your student population, you are lucky, and should be grateful. That’s a great ROI (if you want to look at it in “corporate” terms.

    The way I see it (and tackle these types of questions) is this: I accept the notion that I CANNOT “teach” anyone, anything! I tell all my classes on the first day, and remind them every week throughout the semester (or course period) that I am NOT smarter or better than they are, nor am I somehow an authority or expert on any subject, whether that be EFL/ESL, Humanities, Teacher Training or any other specific area. I AM simply ‘more experienced’ (read, older),and therefore, I can only offer them my understanding of my own experience in learning and living life. I call it, PASS I ON! Whatever they want to learn from it is up to them. I tell them that they are responsible for their own learning. No one can give it to them, force them into it, or otherwise make it happen for them. In other words, we reach agreement on Day 1 that our class has very little to do with my “teaching” and everything to do with their “learning”.

    In the end, they seem pleased, proud, and perfectly content with their progress, which is all any of us can ask of ourselves (or anyone else). So, to sum up what seems to be a blog post in itself here, KNOW YOURSELF, STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF, AND SHARE YOURSELF! The rewards will come back to you in terms of ‘exponential growth’!

    1. You always know how to jolt me back into the essence of what is going on. Thank you. Thank you.

      “Whatever they want to learn from it is up to them. I tell them that they are responsible for their own learning. No one can give it to them, force them into it, or otherwise make it happen for them.”

      Having reflected more on all these questions, what it all comes back to is what you mention here. There is always something to learn, and what you are learning may not be what you think you should be learning. If you can look on the flip side of that “should” you are given the opportunity to see yourself, your learning, in a clearer light. This is something that I may not have been promoting as much as I would have liked this semester, but it’s not too late. It’s never too late to help people see their power.

      With the power of my own knowing, and trusting that I only have the best intentions, only good can come out of anything that I do. It’s time to PASS I ON.

      And… Looking forward to your KNOW YOURSELF, STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF, AND SHARE YOURSELF post. ;)

  5. Josette, Be back soon. (heading to bed now) But I’d like to contribute by saying that although we try our best there are things we can’t just make right or perfect it. When comes to people, it is kind of hard. Nothing is certain to a certain extend. I hope I don’t sound to vague. I can’t find the words to express my deepest feelings here. But one thing I believe to be certain, nothing we do will attend the expectation or needs of everyone in the room. 2 people in a room (the teacher and the student) would be enough for us to reflect on the questions you raise here. Imagine 3, 4, 10, 40! I wish to think I could do it, nowadays I accept I can but I hope that the little bit I do can affect them as much as they affect me. I just don’t let them affect me for the worse. Kindness has been my major guide. Whatever happens, I decide to respond with kindness. If they don’t want to do a task (or some of them). I prefer to sit and listen nowadays. Ask what they would like to do and why. Together promote reflection if that was or not useful for them to achieve their goal of learning English. I’ve became much more flexible in the last couple of years. I do things today that couple of years was NO NO because I didn’t believe it was effective. As I open my ears to listen to them, I hope they will open theirs to listen to me. Like in a constant negotiation. Sometimes I feel totally insecure with this especially when I need to cover a coursebook in 5 months. I want to have more time with my learners, let them have more time, have a time for sharing, etc. but there is so much pressure. Thanks for writing this post. Like I said, I’ll be back soon. Trying to catch up and get back on reflexive mode in the company of my fav people of the world. ♥

    Ps. I keep this note for myself. It is one thing at the time to deal. One day at the time. :) The truth for one day, one person. Might not be for the next one in the following day. I keep my mind and heart open. With my teens so far, everthing is working well. But I’m sure I haven’t digged it deep yet.

    1. Dearest Rose,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to add these powerful thoughts and experiences. I truly mean it. You have given me and others who are reading great wisdom. The teachings I have taken from you are:

      -Kindness has been my major guide. Whatever happens, I decide to respond with kindness.
      -I prefer to sit and listen nowadays. Ask what they would like to do and why. Together promote reflection if that was or not useful for them to achieve their goal of learning English.
      -Like in a constant negotiation.

      I imagine these as a type of teacher’s manifesto. I think I will add some version of these to mine.

      You are digging deep my friend. There is no doubt there. Thank you for helping me dig deeper.

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