Knowledge and skills matter, of course, but we don’t ever become experts in either. Classroom lifeworlds are complex and unstable.

I’ve been a teacher (in one form or another) for just on 45 years, and the questions I ask myself before every new class haven’t changed much over the years.

Planning the medieval village described in my book  School Portrait (McPhee Gribble/Penguin, 1987)

Planning the medieval village described in my book School Portrait (McPhee Gribble/Penguin, 1987)

  • Who are these people, my future students?
  • What might I do – how might I structure things – so that these students feel a sense of connection?
  • What will they be bringing to the classroom: what knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes?
  • What do I bring? Will it be enough?
  • What are the questions that, together, we might explore?
  • How might I invite their preoccupations, thoughts, and selves into the room? How might I help them feel that this is a safe place?
  • Will my students sense a connection between what we’re doing in here and what is going on in the big world out there, or in the personal worlds within each of them?
  • How will I support, share and respond to their explorations?
  • If there are things I don’t know yet about the content, how can I make the getting of that knowledge into something of a communal venture?
  • How do we build together a sense of community?

This is, I think, is a useful disturbance. We are immersed in (and struggle to free ourselves from) unhelpful discourses about expertise. Teacher education makes false promises about equipping preservice teachers with all the necessary knowledge and skills to begin a career. Professional standards imply illusionary levels of expertise. Job applications demand applicants make exaggerated claims about what they know and what they can do.

The inspiration and motivation I received from you in Semester 1, and the encouragement you gave me gave me confidence in myself which has enabled me to maintain good grades and to challenge myself ... I really wanted just to let you know you are my inspiration in my studies and I would also suggest you would be for many other students as well... Steve, I am really happy to let you know that yesterday I received the Dean’s Excellence Award’ (Dean of Education). The reason I’m sharing this with you is because it is due to you.

Award-winning University of Canberra student

Knowledge and skills matter, of course, but we don’t ever become experts in either. Classroom lifeworlds are complex and unstable, and engaging openly with questions like the ones above help us (or at least they’ve helped me) create the necessary conditions for learning.

… Steve Shann, was perhaps the most inspiring teacher I ever had. He threw out regular lessons and turned the classroom into a miniature city, with a newspaper, law courts, businesses, stock exchange, political parties and a parliament that debated the issues of the day.

James Button in 'Speechless: A year in my father’s business', Melbourne University Press 2012