Paradox in the Classroom: What to Do?

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A student struggles to remain in his seat throughout the day and, as a result, is falling behind in his work. In order to help him catch up with the class, you consider keeping the child back from recess or another break in order to work on his missing assignments. At the same time, you know that this student would greatly benefit from the chance to release some energy.
  • In an effort to stay on track with your curriculum requirements, your class is working on several rigorous projects in the same week. Several days into the work, you begin to notice that your students are looking tired and losing their motivation. You begin to wonder how you might give your students a boost to help them finish their projects well. However, you know that time is limited, and the projects should ideally be finished by Friday afternoon.
  • You are teaching a lesson you have taught many times before in years past, and it has always gone well. Today, however, it feels to you as if your words are falling on deaf ears and the concept does not seem to be connecting. In the moment, you consider your lesson plan in light of the remaining time and wonder what you should do. You feel responsible to teach your curriculum well, but at the same time, you know finishing your plan ‘as-is’ would be a waste of time.

If you look closely, you will notice a common theme present in these examples. In each situation, a teacher is finding himself in a position where a decision needs to be made between two equally valid options: completing assignments vs. enjoying a break; rigorous learning vs. boosting classroom joy; sticking with your plan vs. embracing spontaneity. As you think about your own teaching experiences, you can likely think of other examples of paradox—statements or scenarios that are as contradictory as they are complementary.

It is true that students must be held accountable to finish their work, yet many of the students who struggle in this area are also those who would benefit the most from a break. Rigorous activities are the essence of academic excellence, but what would our classrooms be like without an equal dose of joy? It takes a high-level of control on the teacher’s part to execute a lesson plan without veering too far off-topic, but it may require an even higher level of skill to be able to go off-script in a way that would benefit the class.

One of the definitive aspects of a paradox is that the tension persists over time. In other words, the pressure we feel to choose between two seemingly contradictory needs will still be at work in our classrooms tomorrow, next week, and even next school year. In fact, if you take the time to drill down into nearly any ongoing problem you face in your classroom, you may find that it is deeply rooted in one of many common paradoxes: today vs. tomorrow; work vs. home; ends vs. means; and warmth vs. firmness.

For teachers, the question is this: How do we respond to a paradox in a way that benefits our students and enhances their learning? As we think about the paradoxes at work in our classrooms, there are a number of helpful things to keep in mind:

  1. Consider your situation in light of a balance beam – or any other narrow object that might beckon children to see how far they can walk before falling off. Successfully maneuvering such an obstacle requires frequent shifts of one’s weight to the left and right based on the needs of the moment. At times, one might have only a split second to adjust. Navigating paradoxes in the classroom can be very similar. Give yourself permission to oscillate between the opposing sides of a paradox as the situation requires (Smith & Lewis, 2022). Some of the greatest mistakes we can make in our teaching occur as a result of either knowingly or unknowingly avoiding one side of a paradox.
  2. Find a win-win through considering a compromise. For example, perhaps you have tried maintaining a strict boundary around bringing work home to complete after school, but the tension between your teacher identity and other responsibilities has left you feeling discouraged as these duties pull you in opposite directions. Instead of feeling disappointed, consider ways that you can accomplish your school tasks and still meet other obligations. Perhaps finding a quiet hour early on Saturday morning with a freshly-brewed cup of coffee to invest in school work will leave you feeling less pressure throughout the week without causing any major disruptions in your typical weekend plans. Satisfying responses to a paradox can often be found by those who are willing to consider an unconventional, outside-of-the-box solution (Smith & Lewis, 2022).
  3. We are not alone. Many people have passed this way before and have struggled with the same tensions in their teaching. Remember: paradoxes are persistent by nature! Use this to your advantage by learning how others who have gone before you have been able to find a path forward through the contradictory demands of the classroom.
  4. Consider how Jesus, the Master Teacher, dealt with paradox in His ‘classroom’. He went beyond simple acknowledgement to fully incorporating paradoxical statements into His teaching to give His audience a greater vision of the Kingdom. Consider teachings such as “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35, NKJV) or “…but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:43, NKJV). Furthermore, He did not share these statements as mere enigmatic words or philosophical sentiment; He lived them out as an example for us.

Your classroom paradoxes await you. How will you respond?


Smith, W., & Lewis, M. (2022). Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. Harvard Business Review Press.

Image by 12138562O from Pixabay.

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