Teaching with Paradox: A Pedagogical Strategy for Thriving in the Pandemic Classroom

Three blue doors in blue setting with one different, red door

As we begin another semester in which pandemic stress activates fight or flight responses, we may ask ourselves, Will we find a way in which our anxieties about teaching and learning can go back to being manageable and purposeful (Flaherty, 2020)? And as we continue to be effective caregivers to our students, how do we plan to create more from less so our usual standards in teaching, research, administrative tasks, and community service can be met?

I have found that to thrive in the post-pandemic classroom, teaching requires a strong pedagogy of paradox (Le, 2021a). As noted by Parker Palmer (2012), teaching isn’t an easy gig. It requires courage to simultaneously see ourselves as caregivers for our students and as persons who need care from others. We must realize that our professional growth requires an inner and exterior landscape that aligns our teaching to the ever-changing realities of our community and our world (Palmer, 1998).

Overall, if we can examine our inner complexities as “both-and” instead of “either-or,” we can create a partnership between our emotions and intellect; optimism and realism; objectivity and subjectivity; light and shadow; and fear and confidence (Palmer, 2014). That is, once we accept and embrace a dance between paying attention to our ongoing pandemic stress and our need to thrive in a perpetual chaotic educational setting, we can learn how to leverage both tensions at once. For example, as in all good dances, each partner (i.e. our anxiety and our courage) can communicate when they need to take the lead, and when both are generative or in sync, a healthy and dynamic partnership emerges.   

In fact, throughout the pandemic, I instinctively felt compelled to start unpacking the paradoxical tensions that heightened during COVID-19 (Pradies et al., 2021). In particular, I seized on the liminal space created by the pandemic—an eerie and arresting place that exists between “what was” and “what’s next” (O’Driscoll, 2020). In these times, the concept of “chaordic leadership” has helped me rethink my teaching and how it may increasingly live on the border of chaos and order (Hock, 2000). 

Consequently, for me to lead and serve in the liminal space of “chaordic,” I have to sift from “the way things work” towards “working at the edge of chaos” in order to gain insight on what’s next in pandemic teaching. For instance, I’m currently teaching an experiential learning in social justice course on global microfinance. Here, I recognize the way I can take charge is to let go, as much as possible, on wanting to teach the course as I did previously. Being proactive is being comfortable that some elements are outdated. Importantly, the unknown can become my protagonist—teaching me how to learn, adjust, and grow in the pandemic teaching environment. 

Surprisingly, in the midst of the pandemic, educators have yet to look to paradox as a powerful lens to renew teaching pedagogies as well as process new teaching moves (Le, 2021b). Thus, I want to explore and share what it might mean if more educators appreciate, discern, and teach through the power of paradoxical tensions in today’s pandemic classroom. 

1. Paradox thinking is a cognitive skill that can be learned and strengthened

Channeling F. Scott Fitzgerald (1936), the capacity for us “to hold two opposed ideas in the mind” is a necessity, a fact of life, and a premium in these interesting times. However, Fitzgerald’s assertion that we have to have a “first-rate intelligence,” so as not to be paralyzed by thinking in paradoxes, illustrates the rigor of learning how to do so. 

By most accounts, thinking paradoxically requires a choice on our parts. That is, the dualistic logical premise of “either-or” is just part of the story, although it is embedded thoroughly in postmodern American educational culture (Robertson, 2005). For instance, many tend to experience wedded oppositions as irony (i.e. where one side wins and the other side loses). The other part of the story is that paradoxes (i.e. each side can win simultaneously) are usually known to us intuitively, yet we are likely ingrained to think that it is irrational and illogical. Thus, in choosing paradox, it requires that we listen, reflect, and articulate paradoxes that we know intuitively to be true. 

A key to accepting paradox thinking as logical and rational is for us to firstly detract resisting impulses and attitudes—including the need to be right, perfect, precise, and strict. It is then thought that those who are more autonomous, self-reflecting, and spiritual may have the inner work to hold and go beyond the pairs of opposites. Nevertheless, transforming fundamental contradictions into paradoxical strategies can be exhausting and daunting. Thus, it requires that we have an inner process that develops both our rigor and joy to sustain paradox thinking—a habit worth choosing and journeying into. 

For me, a resisting attitude in academia that I had to devaluate is seeing time as a scarce resource (Hernandez, 2021); otherwise, doing more with less is not realistic. Instead, I wanted to see time as more perpetual. From this perspective, my focus is on time, but on how to generate and maximize insights in doing specific academic tasks effectively and efficiently. For example, I lean on reflection in and during my teaching—learning from and responding to “missteps” while they happen rather than primarily reflecting once the teaching is done. 

Moreover, through journaling and blogging, I’m able to unpack and learn how particular wedded oppositions can leverage each other. Here, my care for students is implicitly expressed to inspire them to go the extra mile towards academic excellence; a number of students decided to take the final exam, even though it was optional and they were sitting on a good grade. Meanwhile, my focus on academic rigor is also meant to inspire students to utilize their competency to care for others; a number of students putting in more work for a group project because they can is a gift without any conditions.    

2. Sifting to paradox thinking to get more creative and purposeful

A recent study on creativity finds that there is a sharp decline in creative risk-taking during periods when environmental threats abound (Bonetto et al., 2021). In particular, our behavioral immune system in times of crisis tends to make us more conservative, even contributing to our xenophobia and ethnocentrism. From the perspective that it is beneficial for us to be creative, especially in these times that have fostered polarities and conflicts, how can paradox contribute to creative cognition?

Various lines of evidence suggest that paradoxes provide the creative individual to utilize wedded oppositions in generating new ways of doing things, which could have win/win aftereffects (Runco, 2019). That is, without paradox thinking, the creative individual could get stuck or be drawn into zero-sum games. Here, paradoxes are not to be resolved by creative cognition, but rather be accepted as a springboard for creativity and innovation.    

Thus, it seems pertinent for educators to be part of the creative efforts in figuring out how to find new rationales for why people should overcome their differences (Rubio, 2020). For example, in today’s world, there appears to be an increasing degree of uncompromising courage: we are right, while you guys are wrong, so back down and be like us. If progress can be formulated as the capacity to talk to each other, educators can introduce students to paradox thinking. Here, educators can cultivate a space in which students could creatively unlock the “false equivalences” of “good people on both sides.” 

In my international business course, I started to introduce paradox as a skillset. That is, students and I discuss how to navigate a world that is both global and local via case studies, and how to negotiate the politics of getting things done while preserving integrity and trust (PwC, 2020). Additionally, I provide an opportunity for students to interact in real time with a medical-supply company who has been navigating the trade tariffs and pandemic (Pigott, 2021). Here, students were virtually engaged with the president of the company and his top managers in responding, recovering, and thriving from the competing demands and paradoxes that were embedded in the pandemic crisis.


Because of the ongoing pandemic crisis, educators are confronted with competing tensions and contradictions that further pervade our teaching lives (Miron-Spektor et al. 2018). Perhaps unlike other teaching pedagogies, paradox explicitly offers us a process to creatively learn and teach while managing our uncertainties and anxieties. 

With paradox there’s a real possibility for us to jolt our growth as teachers, working through what was and what’s next in a more healthy and productive way. When we start to model paradox for our students, they too can creatively navigate and contribute to a world that could renew its commitment to a common ground.