We’ve been thinking lately about the opposing tensions in our lives and the ways these tensions often leave us longing for a perfect balance. 

The idea that our lives will be in perfect balance is,  of course, absurd. 

Nevertheless, balance as an imprecise descriptor of the illusory goal of getting everything “just right” in our lives still drives our day-to-day decision-making. And in the classroom, even though balance in the mathematical sense is unnecessary, even impossible, the term still informs our work as we support teachers struggling to navigate the messy spaces between opposing tensions.



Below we offer a sampling of some of the seemingly oppositional demands of daily life in the classroom:

  • The art of teaching vs. The science of teaching
  • Individual student needs vs. Whole class efficiency 
  • Decoding vs. Meaning Making
  • Scope and sequence vs. Responsive teaching
  • Teacher direction vs. Student choice 
  • Direct instruction vs. Discovery Learning
  • One right answer vs. Many possibilities 
  • Practice-in-isolation vs. Practice-in-context 
  • Mastery of skills vs. Joy of Reading 
  • Beliefs vs. Facts 
  • School or district mandates vs. Teacher autonomy
  • Research vs. Classroom practice
  • Decodable texts vs. Authentic literature 
  • Structure vs. Choice 
  • Urgency vs. Joy

This list was not difficult to come up with, and we’re guessing you could easily add to it.  Teaching is brimming with competing tensions. No wonder the work can sometimes leave us feeling confused, uncertain, or prone to pendulum swings! 

But seemingly polar opposites, like those on the list above, are examples of what Barry Johnson (2012) refers to as interdependent pairs. Johnson, founder of Polarity Partnership who has been studying polarities for more than 40 years defines them in this way:

Polarities are interdependent pairs that can support each other in pursuit of a common purpose. They can also undermine each other if seen as an either/or problem to solve. Polarities at their essence are unavoidable, unsolvable, unstoppable, and indestructible. Most importantly they can be leveraged for a greater good. (Barry Johnson, p. 4)

Perfect balance, of course, is not the goal. Maintaining constant movement towards balance, however, is where the impact lies.  Much like being on a seesaw, the tension keeps us in motion and constantly reminds us that there is an alternate pull that warrants our attention. Too much force toward one direction or the other creates instability that requires a response. Our ongoing pursuit of an elusive equilibrium is maintained by constantly shifting our weight or leveraging fresh force. 

Balance involves stillness while balancing describes the active, dynamic, and productive work that you do for children.

In her book, Holistic Leadership, Thriving Schools; Twelve Lenses to Balance Priorities and Serve the Whole Student, Jane Kise (2019), points out that these interdependent polarities are everywhere. For example,  consider inhaling and exhaling. We can debate which is more important–breathing in or breathing out–indefinitely. But, the reality is that both sides are critical and necessary. They need each other. Kise suggests that polarities require thoughtful leaders to “look both ways at once” through “both-and “ thinking and describes the dangers of looking only one way. 

In fact, if you want to guarantee that you’ll fail to reach a leadership goal, build it solidly on the positive results that one pole has to offer while excluding the values of the other. (p. 25) 

We invite you to consider the earlier list of opposing tensions, again. But this time with and between them instead of vs.

  • The art of teaching and The science of teaching
  • Individual student needs and Whole class efficiency 
  • Decoding and Meaning Making
  • Scope and sequence and Responsive teaching
  • Teacher direction and Student choice 
  • Direct instruction and Constructing Your Own Learning
  • One right answer and Many possibilities 
  • Practice-in-isolation and Practice-in-context 
  • Mastery of skills and Joy of Reading 
  • Beliefs and Facts 
  • School or district mandates and Teacher autonomy
  • Research and Classroom practice
  • Decodable texts and Authentic literature 
  • Structure and Choice 
  • Urgency and Joy

Just like the work of seesawing, your goal is not to find “perfect” balance once and for all. It is to engage in the daily act of balancing, as you strategically shift your practice in thoughtful and responsive ways. It is about avoiding the stuckness that is created when too much weight is on one side and too little on the other, leaving us frustrated and motionless on a simple machine that was built to be in motion. 

Whether in your personal life or in your professional practice, balancing the push and pull of opposing forces is taxing, invigorating, frightening, and important work that keeps you in motion. 

If you’re ready to make strategic shifts to your own early literacy practices, we invite you to join us for Shifting the Balance: The Online Class, beginning March 21, 2022. In this class, we will give you tools for “looking both ways” as you respond to the competing tensions of the classroom.  You can learn more about the class here. 


Watch the video that goes with this post HERE.