In celebration of uncertainty

Teachers’ Day is coming up, and usually I post as a teacher who respects the contributions of her fellow teachers, as well as the efforts of the learners who make it all worthwhile. That respect has not changed. I still applaud my colleagues who juggle their multiple roles as caring professionals, reluctant moral policemen, frontline guardians of social mores and the recipients of so many “teachers should…” lectures that it’s amazing no one gets up and screams in the middle of one.

I also still view with gratitude all the students who inspire their teachers on an everyday basis: you don’t know it, but when you laugh at our jokes, frown when you don’t understand something, ask questions that send us scrambling for answers when we don’t know them or light up when our explanations have hit home, you’re creating an engaging classroom situation in a powerful and fundamental way.

But this Teachers’ Day I want to pay homage to the transformative power of learning, and I am doing this both as a teacher as well as a student. I’d like to push the boundary a little and use this special day to talk about the process of learning in a way that links back to the role that teachers play, but with a special focus on the transformations that take place when you get thrust out of your comfort zone. This happens to both teachers and students. They are equally valuable sides of the same coin.

If at all success can be measured, one way might be to look at socially approved achievement milestones:

University degree? Check.

Postgraduate degree? Check.

 Professional qualifications? Check.

Married? Check.

Comfortable home? Check.

Kids? Check.

Who are doing okay in school? Check.

I could have gone back to work after my kids were grown up and didn’t need my physical presence 24/7. Or I could have stayed home and lived the life of a slightly down-at-heel but nonetheless privileged housewife. But I chose instead to study, because the brain needed to be engaged, and the hunger for that sort of engagement reached the point where it demanded some attention. I’ve done this my whole life – yanked myself out of my comfort zone against my better judgment and the pleas of my family, who know they have to put up with all the angst that the new “discomfort zone” will churn up in me.

This time is no different. I tutor a third-year module in a field that is new to me, and have to read like crazy before every tutorial. I am learning about theories I used to dismiss as esoteric without even knowing enough about them to make that dismissal in a logical and intelligent way. Comfort zone? I am so far out of it that I can’t find my way back. “Ask me questions if you don’t understand something” is the very kind offer I receive from teachers and classmates. What if I don’t even understand enough to know which questions to ask? As teacher and student, I am assailed with self doubt on an hourly basis. The panic blinds me sometimes, making words on the computer screen swim in front of my face until I step away, cry a few tears on my husband’s broad and much abused shoulders, hug my sons for extra strength and take a few deep breaths.

I thought I had it all. I thought this would just be something extra. It’s not. It is destroying the confidence I had, and shattering any sense of comfort in what I thought I knew. But this is also an essential part of the transformation process. I can’t say with any certainty that anything good is going to come out of this. But if there IS one thing I am learning, it is that uncertainty is the only constant.

If I might be allowed to link this very personal example back to the school setting, this uncertainty is out of sync with the system of high stakes assessment we have here in Singapore. High marks come from pre-packaged answers. Pre-packaged answers come from a false sense of certainty. Teaching becomes about transmitting that false certainty and learning becomes about induction into a mindset of acceptance. Acceptance leads to a belief that the outcome of learning is the skilled reproduction of pre-packaged answers. And so the cycle continues.

But here is the light that shines at the end of the tunnel: comfort zones are getting discarded, transformation is taking place, and this is happening every day. How can it not? As heavily scripted as classroom routines and curriculum demands are, teachers and students are real people with beliefs and dreams of their own. There is a quiet revolution that takes place in many classrooms on a daily basis. Schools are judged based on their examination results, but the outpouring of love and gratitude that you see students expressing for their teachers on Teachers’ Day comes from a different wellspring.

The source of the emotion cannot just be results, awards, performance indicators. I believe it is a recognition of the effort that goes into the transformative process, that leaves teachers and students raw and vulnerable, that is itself its own reward. If at all teachers are singled out in this transformation that is equally terrifying for all, it is because they are the ones who take on the responsibility for the process, hold themselves accountable for its success, and set the initial coordinates for its trajectory.

Happy Teachers’ Day – to my colleagues in the teaching profession, all the teachers I have ever had, and my students past and present. Uncertainty and transformation are not in themselves happy things, but anyone who engages in them deserves a chance to celebrate.

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2 thoughts on “In celebration of uncertainty

  1. What a (nice, lovely just aren’t strong enough words here) … strong, mature, reflective and considered piece, Shohba. 🙂

    I enjoyed reading your words just as I enjoy watching you grow and transform at a distance. True learning, I sometimes think, is when it is those interminable questions to hand instead of the pre-packaged answers that keep us stable and ‘on board’ but don’t always drive us on to new discoveries. That said, of course, you need a little bit of both… questions with answers or at the very least, the possibility of them.

    I smiled (with empathy) at your wrestling with confidence and comfort… it reminded me of a butterfly trying to wrestle free of the cocoon … and ‘uncertainty’ *chuckle* – welcome to the ‘cloud of unknowing’ – the place where most researchers live.

    Most of all, I loved your view of the classroom, as a spirited place where “teachers and students are real people with dreams and beliefs of their own” generating “a quiet revolution… on a daily basis” – a vision those of us with opinions, perspectives and goals would do well to hold in mind.

    Thanks for an early morning, inspiring, encouraging and reflective read. 🙂

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