A few years back I read a book about teaching by Joseph McDonald who is Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University.  At the time when the book, Teaching, Making Sense of an Uncertain Craft, was published (1992), Joe McDonald was senior researcher at the Coalition of Essential Schools and a professor of education at Brown University.  The book, whose title intrigued me, is about Joe’s own searching to understand the craft of teaching.  Along with students and colleagues, whose voices are also in the book, he tries to unearth what is IT that makes a teacher effective?  Which reflective processes are helpful?  What advice is useful – and from who – and when?  What is the role of observation and feedback on learning how to teach?

In reading other blogs and discussions I see many teachers’ discomfort with being observed and explorations on why that is so.  Over more than 20 years of supervising teaching practica I have had the privilege of observing in, literally, hundreds of classrooms and working with that many teachers.  Preceding and following the observations there has always been discussion and some form of feedback.  I’ve never observed a class with a checklist but rather with an eye and a mind towards what will serve the learning of that teacher.  Of course, I have not always been successful in providing feedback that will help the teacher in their own teaching practice.  Sometimes I have missed the mark.

An idea that McDonald shares in this book has remained with me.  It’s one of those ideas I think about often and remember to mention to student teachers I am observing.  It is the notion of “The Conspiracy of Certainty”.    You’ll need to read McDonald’s book to get the full flavor and eloquence of how he talks about this concept.  Meanwhile, here’s the gist:  Teachers, whether they’re teaching nursery school or Ph.D. candidates and everything in between, tend to feel inadequate to the task.  Not only do we tend to believe that we are not capable or not as capable as we should be but we also believe that OTHER teachers (perhaps the person teaching in the room next door) have a better grasp on the process and know what to do.  We become convinced that there is a right way to do it out there and that we, foolish as we are, haven’t discovered it yet.  We wait for the shoe to drop and for someone – perhaps that person coming to observe us – who will be the one who is going to discover our inadequacy.

That might sound like too broad a statement but I can say this:  Every teacher I have shared that idea with has nodded his or her head vigorously and launched in to a discussion of their own personal feelings of inadequacy.  Some teachers go so far as to say they feel like a fraud because, in fact, they really don’t know what they’re doing.

We think others – researchers, authors, conference speakers, prolific bloggers etc. are more certain than we are.  And so we try to nail down that which cannot be fixed in place:  The uncertain craft that is teaching.

So what happens if we give up our search for certainty and embrace all of the gray area that is the teaching and learning process?  More on this topic soon.