The Uncertainty Of Teaching

The uncertainty of teaching is what I enjoy most about the job. It is inherently ambiguous and that’s a good thing.

Some people enjoy a job where they know what they will be doing each and every day. I’d hate that. In fact, I’ve had jobs like that and they are tedious, mind-numbing and soul-destroying.

Teaching is different because it is never the same and being a teacher is a tentative existence. Some teachers try to exert some sort of control by planning water-tight lessons. These bullet-point teachers try to keep on a straight line and keep ‘their’ lesson in order. But when a teacher takes ownership of a lesson to this extent, learning can’t breathe and ideas suffocate.

Classrooms aren’t supposed to be in lock-down. They are environments of uncertainty and that’s worth embracing. Go in with a plan by all means but don’t expect to stick to it. We can’t predict what children might do and say, nor should we. If a lesson takes us in different directions then that’s challenging everyone. Uncertainty keeps us on our toes and can induce a bit of panic but that’s the thrill of teaching.

When I first started teaching I used to get a sort of constant nervousness in my stomach which I used to control by adopting scripted lessons. This made matters worse because if anyone derailed my lesson I’d get agitated. Lessons aren’t bullet-points. I learned to recognise that my nervousness was excitement and a constant reality of classroom life born out of glorious ambiguity.

Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher articulates this as ‘freeing’. He says, “If you understand that you are never really in full control of your classroom and that things will always take an unexpected turn, this frees you up to be more spontaneously creative. You can try new things out for the sheer joy of seeing what happens.”

Classroom should be places where the unexpected happens because ideas need that freedom to move around. Obviously children still need routines and structures but lesson content can’t be nailed down and we shouldn’t try to control learning. Call it free-range if you like but ambiguous learning needs to be risky and creative.


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