Uncertainty as a Student, Teacher and Doctoral Student

“You’re hired!”  I was shocked, amazed, and scared beyond belief to be quite honest.

I just graduated in May of 1994 from the University of Richmond. I was 21 years old and searching for my first teaching job.  I applied to many of the public school districts in Virginia, where I was licensed to teach.  But, I was finding the search challenging.  I had a nibble with Fairfax Public School District, but not an offer.  I student taught in Henrico County, near Richmond, VA, but positions were limited, or at least that’s what I convinced myself as a reason for not getting offered a position.  Then, to my surprise, I received a call from Arlington County Public Schools, just outside of Washington, D.C., for an interview just a few days before Labor Day.  School was set to start in a week, and I was resigned to my next step substitute teaching, working at a restaurant, or trying to do some work with my professors at Richmond.  Little did I know that this interview, seemingly out of the blue, would change the direction of my career (and life) for good.

I interveiewed with Arlington on a Friday, received the offer from the principal on Tuesday and reported to our initial planning day on Thursday.  School was to start in two work days, and I was a mess.  I was filled with uncertainty:  Do I know how to teach?  How will the students respond to me?  How will my colleagues respond to me?  Where do I live!?!  But, I found reassurance with my new  community of practice – a caring, dedicated group of eighth grade teachers who took me under their collective wings and helped me survive my first year.

As I reflect on Michelle E. Jordan’s and Reuben R. McDaniel, Jr.’s article “Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams: The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity,” I am reminded of my first years as a middle school English teacher in Arlington, Virginia, and my role in a new community of practice and as a developing instructor.  In Jordan and McDaniel’s study, they describe how the students were placed in teams and were asked to complete an engineering project.  The students worked in groups of three or four, and the teacher only created one role, that of team leader (p. 9).  Similarly, as a brand new teacher, I was placed in a team where there one was clear role as defined by the school – team leader.  We were asked to work together, teach our respective disciplines, but support our students in a collaborative manner.  Uncertainty ruled my every day that first year.  How do I connect with students?  How do I motivate them to learn about writing?  About literature?  And in some cases, about life?    To a large part, my success as a first year teacher was very similar to that of these elementary school students.  Their success was “dependent on the willingness of their peer collaborators to respond supportively” (p. 26).  My success as a new teacher was definitely dependent on my colleagues’ abilities to respond supportively to me.  I brought new ideas, new methodologies, some strong…some weak.  But, my fellow teachers were always encouraging, always supportive, and always willing to provide input as needed.  I believe this feeling of uncertainty was critical to my development as an educator.  And, reflecting on how that initial group of wonderful teachers supported me during my years of uncertainty has helped me to work with other educators in my career as well.

This uncertainty I felt as an instrutor though led to some of my best teaching (in my opinion).  Specifically, I was part of a group of English teachers that decided to teach literature to our students through literature circles.  Rather than have teachers lead discussions, students would take control of the English classroom – self-select novels around a theme, lead discussion groups, and create group projects. Honestly, it was some of the most fun I have ever had teaching.  The students, however, struggled at first with all the uncertainty surrounding this style of teaching.  Choose their own books?  Create their own discussion questions?  Complete assessments that were not multiple choice or even a standard written response?  Watching students navigate their uncertainty in these moments was powerful.  They were amazing with each other; providing support when needed, providing a jolt when needed (What….you didn’t read your chapter?), and building off each other’s ideas in ways I thought not possible.  Uncertainty in the classroom can produce special results, although as the authors indicate, the teacher and students need to establish a supportive learning environment for this to flourish.

As this article definitely brought back memories of my early days teaching in the classroom, it also caused me to reflect on the uncertainty I (and others I believe) now feel as doctoral students.  The authors concluded in their research that, “peer support is important if students are going to successfully participate in collaborative projects in which they will encounter uncertainty in their relationships and in the execution of new content and new practices” (p. 36).  This conclusion resonates for me as I think of our newly formed community of practice.  We began this course as individuals, but I anticipate we will experience uncertainty at all levels – will we understand assignments, projects, articles we have read?  Will we be able to navigate varying teaching styles and expectations?  And ultimately, will we have confidence in who we are as researchers and doctoral students?  These are all questions we will have at some point, and they are all going to be met or answered in some manner through the support of our peers.

So, my journey as a new instructor to a new doctoral student has one major theme in common – uncertainty.  But, I am certain that my success in part will hinge upon the collaborative support of my peers.


Jordan, Michelle E. and Reuben R. McDaniel , Jr.  Managing Uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: the role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity.  The Journal of the Learning Sciences (00), 1-47. 

1 comment — post a comment

Jeffrey Cook

We were practically neighbors. I started my teaching career in Fairfax County. I went to high school and college there too. We used to play football scrimmages at the Richmond Univ. Stadium. Go Spiders!

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