Home > Commentaries on TTC > It eight what you do, it’s the way that you do it

It eight what you do, it’s the way that you do it

This part of the TTC  sets out some guidelines for good behaviour. Primarily, don’t compete. Or perhaps it would be more in keeping with Tao to say, “Don’t bother competing”. Lao says, look at something like water. It does a lot of good things and makes a lot of people very happy (unless it’s pouring down from the sky or you were on the HMS Titanic), but it doesn’t actually try to do this. It can get places where we can’t (or don’t want to) and therefore, according to our sage, it is very similar to The Tao.

Lao seems to recommend staying close to our nature; thinking deeply as opposed to superficially accepting what we’re told is thinking; common decency when dealing with others and honesty in speech. If we’re going to be in a position of authority, justice should be the main driving force (or “order” according to Le Guin). We should be competent in our work and seek to develop our skills. When we have to act, we should do so at the most opportune moment. If we can avoid conflict, we can avoid blame.  I can’t find anything too objectionable there, although it would be a lot more insightful if Lao could tell us how to lead lives like this. But that would pretty much render his work redundant. Perhaps the point isn’t to live like this, it is to strive to live like this.

I see Lao advocating what has become known as critical thought in this section. Think deeply, he urges us. Question the givens. Remember that it was once thought that teaching equalled learning, now this idea has been widely discredited. Teaching may – or may not – influence learning but it doesn’t cause learning. A language teacher’s job is to teach language. Is it? Really? How? How do you teach someone a skill? Can’t you only hope to help them develop their skill? Is language a skill?

By continuously submitting our opinions to interrogation they may begin to crumble – something which may be the Taoist equivalent to orgasm. If you can do away with what you really believe and be left with nothing, you are onto a winner. We know that how teachers teach has a lot to do with their experience as learners. We also know that the way they see the world also has a strong influence on how they conduct themselves (and their students) in a classroom. The Bespectacled Taoist, Philip Larkin, warned that “Man [sic] hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf”.  He then went on to add, “So get out early whilst you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.” I don’t know if this was something he was commissioned to write for Marie Stopes, but it contains some positive taoist lessons beneath the bitter, sneering cynicism (which is what initially attracted me to it, I have to say). The way we do things is shaped by how those things were done to us. We are the products of a deeply flawed education system; it is only to be expected that we propagate some of those faults. And as the faults spread out (like roots in a propagator), the weed grows stronger. If we are to break free from committing these faults, we have to pretty much reject the pedagogical practices that we are most familiar with. Erase everything and start again – liberated from the weight of the chains of past practice.

Critical thought should have a goal that is deeper than just questioning the way the world is presented to us. It should also aim to expose our perceptions of the world to a strong light. How many of our interpretations are prejudiced? Quite a lot, I would hazard. Stripping them all away, we are left with the root of it all. Once we can see the root, we can move on up to the next level. But don’t hold your breath… Remember what happens on a rollercoaster, the thrill is in the journey, not necessarily in the arrival.

A competent teacher, in my humble opinion, is one who is continuously examining what they are doing and wondering if it’s really any good.  Those who know me will admit that this is what I do incessantly – although they will probably point out that this is why I have a predilection for cigarettes, alcohol and comfort food and suffer from a receding, greying hairline. I may be a competent teacher, but I don’t think I am: I keep beating myself up about my shortcomings. This is probably related to my inability so far to accept that I have to give up competition. I don’t have to be the best teacher known to the human race; nor do I have to command the love, respect and adoration of each and every one of my students. Once I’ve convinced myself of that, I should be a lot happier.

Which brings us on to the next point about being honest. One of my complaints about “How to teach…” books was that the students barely featured in them in any sort of active way. They may have been there as the object of many actions: “Ask the students…”, “Put the students…”, “Give the students…” and so on, but it rarely said things like, “The students may well be sleeping…” or “The students may scowl at your half-hearted attempt at a joke…” or “The student may argue with you repeatedly, and, let’s face it, somewhat inconsistently.” Consequently, when I started teaching, I thought I was an utter failure.

This is a dangerous thought for a Catholic to have. Our religion has told us that we are the fruit of failure and the bearers of failure. We may be very nice fruit and God may well like his fruit bowl stocked with the likes of us, but failure is failure. Don’t feel great about yourself. If people had been honest and said that most people who are learning English aren’t really interested in what you want them to do; most people just want you to give them a pill that will enable them to speak your language like you and enable them to get on with their lives, then I would have been a lot better prepared.

If teachers were more willing to open their doors and let people see how utterly dreadful some of their classes are, we’d probably be a lot less whingy that some people think we are. But we are conditioned into thinking that any failure on the part of the student to achieve is really a gigantic signpost pointing out our inadequacies. It’s not.

A taoist view (well, this taoist’s view) of the whole thing is that teachers don’t really have much to do with how successful or not learners are. Learners have much more to do with it. If a student “fails”, it might be for any one of a number of reasons. Pretty low down on the list is the fact that I couldn’t teach if my life depended upon it. My teaching skills are not really that important. My skills at being honest and treating people the way that I think they would like to be treated are much more vital. Luckily I grew up in a village store where the more I learnt how to treat people well, the more money my father earned to give me for assorted treats. Or the more money there was in the register for me to steal from…

Similarly, when my students are inordinately successful, as often happens, I…cough cough splutter. OK, in case there are people reading this who know people who know me, it doesn’t often happen…my point was that when it does, I can’t really claim any credit for their success. I am glad for them and I am reassured to see that I don’t appear to have messed them up any further (to paraphrase Larkin), but the credit for their achievement is solely down to them. No credit, harrumph! No responsibility, yippee! “No fight, no blame.”

  1. November 10, 2009 at 18:36

    I thought inspiring post, like many on your blog. I like that you point out the fact that a lot of learning is up to the student. With a shift to student-centered classes, there also seems to have been a shift in the placement of responsibility and blame. As teachers we must now entertain, adjust to each individual student’s desires and learning style, keep their attention, check up on their homework, provide them with activities outside the classroom, and basically cater to their every whim. This is not an effective nor a healthy strategy for a teacher, especially, as you mentioned, many students could care less and are looking for that nice little English pill.

    If a student is really motivated to learn, they probably will, regardless of your skill as a teacher. Hell, most of my friends couldn’t remember their multiplication tables, but they new the stats for every single football player going back to the 1960’s.

    Teachers have an important job, but let’s not forget, as everyone keeps telling us, it really is all about the students.

  2. dfogarty
    November 12, 2009 at 07:39

    A suggested modification to your comment, Nick: “let’s not forget, it really is all about the learning.” I’m wary of putting the students at the centre of the pedagogical universe for all sorts of reasons – not least because, in my experience, very few of them want to be there. The learning, on the other hand, is the reason -theoretically- why we are all in the classroom together. By foregrounding the learning, I’d contend that we are forcing the responsibility to be shared. By foregrounding the students we are forcing the teacher to pander to each individual in the room (or to feel like a failure when they cannot do this). And I’d further suggest that by foregrounding the teacher, we are forcing submission and uncritical thought in our classrooms.

    What do you think? A welcome modification?

  3. November 12, 2009 at 09:16

    Well put.

  4. November 15, 2009 at 16:58

    Well said, Mr Fogarty. Actually, I gave up trying to teach many years ago, and now focus my attention on encouraging the students to learn. Seems to be working, if I may say so…

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