Innovating with Pandemic Paradoxes: Turning On Our ‘Inner Teacher’

Person meditating on rocks with sunset

Before the pandemic, the work-life of a teacher involved a seesaw of competing, conflicting, and contradictory demands. Not surprisingly, a number of us wished we had more time and resources to purposefully manage our personal and professional development.

Now, as we face the dynamic nature of different COVID-19 challenges, our work-life seesaw seems to be nearing the ‘edge of chaos,’ if not already there. Thus, just to be able to keep-on-teaching and accomplish the jobs-to-be-done—while caring for ourselves, families, colleagues, and students—are victories in themselves. Despite the uncertainty that has affected our ability to teach, we have become resilient and compassionate teachers.

Therefore, at the start of another school year impacted by COVID-19, we should entertain the idea that it is possible to not only be resilient but also to innovate as the pandemic classroom reveals unpredictable scenarios.

Evidence shows that we can unlock and leverage opposing demands and tensions, according to the paradox community researchers (Miron-Spector et al., 2018). That is, professionals in the pandemic crisis have proactively turned to paradox thinking to effectively navigate and inventively solve work-life tensions and boundaries (Pradies et al., 2021). For example, instead of seeing a trade off between a resilient teacher (i.e. to avoid failure in pandemic teaching) and a teacher-designer (i.e. to innovate learning in pandemic teaching), we could pivot towards accepting both competing values to be true. In doing so, the “both-and” outlook could become a new profound truth that can open up integrative solutions to our current paradoxical problems (Miron-Spektor and Smith, 2020).

In an increasingly complex world, management researchers have shown that leading business companies and managers are comfortable with holding two opposing views  (Finkelstein, 2017). In bringing paradox thinking into the classroom, these researchers have put forward evidence-based techniques and exercises in how a teacher can become a paradox expert over time. Through “walking the talk” and modeling this type of thinking, teachers can develop pedagogy for paradox teaching in which paradox is also the subject (Knight and Paroutis, 2017). In turn, such pedagogy can help students become more comfortable with engaging in paradoxical dilemmas in both their academic-life and work-life.

Notwithstanding, how do we actually bring our paradoxical lives and our ill-structured world into the classroom? And how can it become a part of our teaching identity that is sustainable and impactful? In the following, I will share how I’ve come to understand the ‘inner teacher’ as a place that holds paradoxes together with a profound treatise written by Parker Palmer (1998). I will also share how my ‘inner teacher’ was formed and how it has provided simplicity and clearness in my pandemic teaching.

The ‘inner teacher’ is about learning paradox and seeking the whole truth

As a teacher in business, I have come to learn that unusual partnerships can spark innovative teaching initiatives. For example, I have been involved in business schools that have sought out unusual partners—collaborating and creating new interdisciplinary programs in global studies, design thinking, and social entrepreneurship.

From these experiences, I was very open to coming to a business school that invited spirituality into business education (Le & Fusco 2019). It is from this unusual pairing of spirituality and business that I became exposed to the ‘who’ of teaching. That is, who we are when we teach and who we are to become as teachers are often influenced by our spirituality (Le, 2020). In short, our spirituality is our worldview that may be informed by religious and non-religious traditions that help us keep an open mind and tolerate as the basis of human progress (Delbecq 2004). Perhaps no other teacher-scholars have had as profound of impact on “we teach who we are” than Parker Palmer (1998).

According to Palmer, our learning and teaching have interior and outer landscapes that are complementary opposite. For Palmer, while there is an interplay between the two, it is the ‘inner teacher,’ the identity and integrity of the teacher-as-person, that good teaching flows from. That is, once we consistently listen and talk to our inner-teacher, we have more clarity and a mission to process the instructional techniques and subject materials that are available to us in terms of what to teach and how to teach.

By contrast, if we listen primarily to the expectations of others and allow our actions to be shaped by instructional techniques, our teaching persona could be formed in haphazard ways (Weimer, 2015). Therefore, “we teach who we are” is effective when we acknowledge and embrace the whole truth about ourselves and our world. Specifically, that truth cannot be found in polarities of  “either-or,” such as light or shadow, self or others, freedom or discipline, progressivism or conservatism, etc. (McDaniel, 1999).

Whereas, by embracing a “both-and” outlook, we can hold truth as “a paradoxical joining of apparent opposites” (Palmer, 1998: 63). This truth can then reveal itself as a key to connect and unify those tensions within ourselves, our classroom subjects, and our students. With paradox teaching, we explore to know, stretch the mind to learn, and open the heart to enjoy the larger truth (Palmer, 2015). Consequently, to continuously grow our ‘inner teacher,’ we need to place ourselves in the ever-changing realities of our community and our world—nourishing it with current paradoxes (Merton, 1967).

Turning on the ‘inner teacher’ to grow from pandemic paradoxes

Before the pandemic, I began to rely on my ‘inner teacher’ and have an ongoing understanding of who I was as a teacher (Le, 2019). I also utilized blogging as a reflective practice to work on my teaching philosophy and redesign my class activities relevant to students’ lives and their future careers (Le, 2017). In turning on my ‘inner teacher,’ there was simplicity in shedding away my insecurities and aggrandizements. Thus, I’m now open and transparent to what teaching is—its quality, value, and meaning.

However, it was during the pandemic that I became truly appreciative of the promise of paradox. That is, having already shed away some of my protective defenses and pretenses of teaching, my ‘inner teacher’ reassured me not only to accept but also be curious of pandemic pedagogy. In response, I have utilized the pandemic as a mirror and a catalyst, looking inward and forward to something consistent and new in my teaching (Le, 2021).

In terms of something new, the pandemic presents the opportunity for me to see students as “teachers.” That is, in framing students-as-teachers, I design assignments that encourage students to learn information by preparing and expecting them to teach that information to “novices.” Given that remote and hybrid courses often have more recorded lectures and less opportunities for hands-on-experiences, this paradoxical role as an instructor can motivate students to become more aware of their learning process, which can lead to increased feelings of competence (Muis et al., 2016). Over time, these assignments could be curated and edited through an open access website for high school students learning similar topics.

In regards to consistency, I find that I have an abundance of resources that I can draw from in attempting to thrive with pandemic paradoxes. However, a particular paradox that has been consistently present for me is the interplay between the process of quality work in teaching and the process of generating good teaching results. Here, a question that I have asked my ‘inner teacher’ is how to embrace this when the results from such processes are opposite to what I have expected and desired.

Overall, I would say that embracing paradoxes is like connecting the negative and positive terminals of a battery. Strong currency will be at hands of the teacher, but without the ‘inner teacher,’ the promise of paradox lacks purposefulness and spiritedness.

Long Le is a faculty and director at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. He has a blog at GlobalCitizenBiz and he runs a zero-interest microfinance with his students.


Delbecq, A. L. 2004a. “How the Religious Traditions of Calling and Spiritual Friendship Shaped My Life as a Teacher/scholar.” Management Communication Quarterly 17 (4): 621–627.

Finkelstein, S. (2017). “Why it’s not always good to be consistent.” BBC, July 4.

Knight, E., Paroutis, S. (2017). Becoming salient: The TMT leader’s role in shaping the interpretive context of paradoxical tensions. Organization Studies, 38(3–4), 403–432.

Le, L. (2021). “Developing a Reflective Practice in the Return to Campus: Blogging to Process Out Our Teaching Artistry.” Faculty Focus, August 25.

Le, L. (2020). “Bringing the Spiritual Mind to Business Education and Pandemic Pedagogy Design.” The Global Citizen in International Business Education, September 7.

Le, L. (2019). “Blogging as a Process of Becoming More Authentic in Our Teaching.” The Global Citizen in International Business Education, March 21.

Le, L. (2017). “Design Teaching in International Business Education.” The Global Citizen in International Business Education, March 27.

Le, L., Fusco, M. (2020). “Deepening Andre Delbecq’s legacy: Inspiring undergraduate students to serve humankind.” Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, 17:1, 88-103, DOI: 10.1080/14766086.2019.1706625

Merton, T. (1967). Mystics and Zen Masters. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

McDaniel, T. R. (1999). Discovering the “Inner Teacher:” Concepts, Questions and Caveats. American Secondary Education, 27(3), 31–35.

Miron-Spektor, E., Smith, W. (2020). “Overwhelmed? Adopt a paradox mindset.”

Miron-Spektor, E., Ingram, A., Keller, J., Smith, W. K., Lewis, M. W. (2018). Microfoundations of organizational paradox: The problem is how we think about the problem. Academy of Management Journal, 61(1), 26–45.

Muis, K. R., Psaradellis, C., Chevrier, M., Di Leo, I., & Lajoie, S. P. (2016). Learning by preparing to teach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(4), 474–492.

Palmer, P. (2015). “Friendship, a Love, a Rescue: An Essay Celebrating Thomas Merton.” Center For Courage & Renewal.

Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach : Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA :Jossey-Bass.

Pradies C, Aust I, Bednarek R, et al. The Lived Experience of Paradox: How Individuals Navigate Tensions during the Pandemic Crisis. Journal of Management Inquiry. 2021;30(2):154-167. doi:10.1177/1056492620986874