Teaching Dilemmas: They Never Go Away

A decade ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought. Since then, I have written about dilemmas (see here, here, and here).

Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all teachers whether they teaching kindergarten or Advanced Placement courses. Whether they are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family–they inevitably face a core dilemma built into teaching when they have to perform both an academic and emotional role in teaching five-year olds or fifteen year-olds.

Let me unpack first what I mean by dilemmas. I mean situations where a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member has to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because choosing one ends up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value. One learns to compromise in negotiating between two things they want very much.

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us faces is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily life. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out now may unravel over time and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices. A new and different compromise has to be worked out.

Teaching Dilemmas

Within U.S. age-graded schools, whether they are high schools or elementary schools, whether schools are in neighborhoods where wealthy, middle class, or poor families send their children, two imperatives face all U.S. teachers: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). And here is the dilemma.

In the academic role, teachers teach first graders to read while upper-grade teachers teach Algebra or Biology. They convey knowledge and cultivate cognitive skills of students. Then these teachers have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires evidence of performance and social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if a teacher admires a hard-working, serious student who keeps failing key tests. Emotion is not supposed to sway a teacher’s judgment of students’ academic performance.

But U.S. teachers are also expected to get close to students. Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths. Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher teaches. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles and the values they represent, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach science; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be closer to their students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is very difficult.

There are, of course, teachers who figure out how to balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is a distinct mix of both values. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the daily performance. They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time. These teachers give genuine, heartfelt performances. Students, who can easily smell a fake, come to appreciate such performances.

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