Teacher Inquiry

Working Within Tension

A Chapter from Teaching for the Students

Excerpt from chapter:

“Despite its prevalence, the presence of tension in schools is upsetting to many teachers. They actively avoid the acknowledgment of any tension in their classrooms on the grounds that it will reveal unpleasantness and, in doing so, will make some students and quite possibly the teacher uncomfortable. Teachers worry that by addressing political tension in a historical context, tension stimulated by discussions of a topic such as sexism, or tension surrounding a dialogue on an unpopular school policy, they will lose control of their classes. Rather than sparking generative dialogue, they fear that calling a tension to the surface will ignite a verbal conflagration that will burn out of control. They’d prefer to let the tension smolder or even succumb to lack of oxygen. They would rather that students, very often those marginalized by the mainstream culture of the school, keep their fires within. Better they be silently uncomfortable than risk a dialogue that might cause students in the school’s dominant culture to have to question their complicity in the stoking of tensions.


I always prefer to address a tension on my terms rather than have it come out in ways that put me at a disadvantage. I would rather be proactive than reactive. A vignette from my high school teaching experience illustrates my stance. The building administration would periodically call for security checks and force all students entering the school to pass through metal detectors. The process proved extremely disruptive to the flow of the school day. Funneling between 1,500 and 2,000 students through a small number of metal detectors takes time. Students would invariably arrive late to the first classes of the day and many would be upset by the experience. Frequently feeling unjustly suspected, personally violated, and unfairly profiled, they would trundle into my classroom in no mood for a discussion of Shakespeare or whatever was my lesson for the day. . . .


In a larger sense, what the metal-detector discussion and many others like it taught me was that life’s multiple tensions would find their way into my room, whether or not I wanted them there. We can ignore those tensions or we can develop appropriate and substantive ways to address them. Teachers in dialogical classrooms seek to do the latter, entering into dialogue to understand the ways tensions are playing out among students, faculty, administration, and the community at large. A colleague of mine, Marsha Pincus (1994), called it “embracing the dissonance”: listening to, exploring, calling into question those tensions that exist in any learning setting.”

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