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Baker’s Dozen

Accept disgrace willingly. Accept misfortune as the human condition. This is the Tao of Ratzinger. Life is suffering. Put up with it. Yet from these two lines, we are going to explore the revolutionary nature of taoism. Have you stripped and cleaned your AK-47? Well, come on then! Let’s go!

“It’s OK to WHAT-DID-YOU-SAY?!?!?!”

We should accept disgrace willingly, says L.T. because there’s nothing wrong with being disgraceful. We should accept misfortune as the human condition because if there was no misfortune, we wouldn’t be human. Put rather more earthily (more demure readers may choose to look away at this moment) Mr Tse is saying, “It’s OK to f*ck up.” Hell, if you don’t screw up, then you’re not even human [anymore]. But when I was training how to become an EFL teacher, I would read in my textbooks about how events were meant to be unfolding in my classroom. Students were supposed to be collaborating with me and working towards our shared goal of Increased Language Proficiency. Troublesome behaviour was because I had screwed up the Seating Plan and I really should have known better. For the next fifteen years, I remained convinced that I was a failing teacher. Grassroot Grunts made me feel even worse by harping on about how the teacher’s job is to motivate students and that unhappy students = crap teacher. These people were teachers! What were they doing coming out with such nonsense?

I would stay awake at night, lying in my bed, thinking about my failure to motivate the fifteen Basque teenagers that I taught from 8.30pm-9.45pm. No matter what I did, they always preferred talking to each other and having a laugh. They didn’t seem to care a jot about the delights of the English language and try as I might, there was nothing that I could do to win them over. But why should they have been won over? Just because their parents had forked out a load of cash and frogmarched them to the door? After a full day of school and the like?

And this is what the teaching textbooks never seem to do. They don’t contextualise the teacher’s role; they don’t write about the reality of the classroom; they don’t explain that an awful lot of people (perhaps even the majority) are studying English because of an imposed obligation. These same people would rather be doing anything other than learning a language that is spoken by some very badly-dressed people. Mr Harmer, if you’re reading this, I would urge you to include a chapter in your next PELT about how teaching really is rather than how it should be. A chapter on the challenges of being a teacher and of the nightmares that we have all had just before the start of the new academic year. And conclude with the taoist mantra, “It’s OK to f*ck up.” Perhaps even do away with “The Practice of English Language Teaching” and call the book, “It’s OK to…” I’d buy that book!

Jeremy recently had a blog posting that called for more praise for teachers which also ties in neatly with Chapter 13 of the TTC. Leguin continues Chapter 13, by translating: “Favor debases./We fear to lose it,/Fear to win it./So to be in favour or disgrace/Is to live in fear.” This, in turn, puts me in mind of an article by Mario Rinvolucri in which he argues that praise strips people of their agency (I have tried to find the article, but with no joy. However, I read it first in the HLT Mag website, which is always worth a read). Let’s consider that for a moment.

Most praise is given by an authority figure. In Jeremy’s blog, talk was of managers finding time and reason to praise the teachers; in Mario’s article, mention was made of the father praising the son; in countless emails that I get from Very Important People, praise is heaped upon me for all manner of things. And praise is usually –exclusively?- given for compliance. Praise marks official approval from The Powers That Be. They mark The Way That Must Be Followed by praising people who set off down the path. This way is The Right Way To Go. But, nota bene, amici, the way that can be named is not the eternal Way.

“But teachers/students/etc NEED to be praised. It does them good!” And I was recently told in an upwards evaluation by my minions that I needed to be a bit freer with the golden words. But why do teachers need my approval to continue doing their job? Isn’t it enough to know that they are trusted with the education of their students? That ON TOP OF THAT, they get paid?! AND holidays too! Paid ones!!!

Although I have tried to fit in some clumsily worded expressions of praise, it feels dirty. I don’t need to be told by my boss that I’m doing a good job. I need to hear it from my colleagues. And this is what I’d like to argue now. Leguin’s translation is that “favour debases.” And I read “favour” as implying an unequal relationship. We seek the favour of our betters and then fear to lose it. On the other hand, when we look at the opinions of the people “below” us in the hierarchy, these point the way to self-improvement. If teachers concentrate on what their students feel about them and their work, this might help them find more useful directions for professional development; if managers cared less about what school owners thought and more about what teachers thought, this would help them do a better job; if school owners cared less about what their bank account looked like and more about what my bank account looked like, then…oh…it’s got personal. Let’s move on.

Rinvolucri was almost right: praise doesn’t rob you of your agency, it hides a situation where your agency has already been removed from you. Praise is not the cause of your passivity; it is a symptom. Don’t agonise over people praising you and patting you on the head. Look to yourself and ask yourself whether or not you are happy with what you’re doing. We come back to old Horatio: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it follows as night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.” But to do this, we have to accept the prospects of disgrace and failure. Why? Because failure is part of being human. Non-failure is a mark of the gods, like Thornbury, Harmer and their ilk.

At this point, we have learnt that it’s OK to screw things up; that praise is much overrated; that we should accept disgrace and suffering as inevitable. The question that remains to be answered is WHY? What is to be gained from accepting disgrace and suffering? Well, Leguin translates, “People who set their bodily good/Before the public good/could be entrusted with the commonwealth,/and people who treated the body politic/as gently as their own body/would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.”

Whilst the first part may allow itself to be understood as a justification for those politicians who shove their snouts into the trough and pig out, unsurprisingly, this is probably not what Lao meant. This was probably more like an early version of the slogan, “Think global, act local.” Or, if you like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Lao is saying that the people who can be entrusted with the commonwealth, for which we will read “the classroom” are those who are concerned with making sure that they are ready to enter it. This is why I find the posts disturbing of some who dismiss blogs like this as “theoretical” and (over)value the blogs (like their own) which are stuffed with practical ideas. Theory cannot be divorced from practice, whereas practice can easily be divorced from theory. Good teachers, I would venture, are those who think carefully about WHY they are doing what they are doing. These are the ones who can be entrusted with the classroom.

Finally (I heard those sighs of relief), Lao reminds us that people (ie teachers) who treat the students as they would expect to be treated (that is, who allow the students to screw up and acknowledge the suffering that is always there within the language classroom), these are the teachers who are worthy of running the class. But, of course, Lao doesn’t say teachers, he says people. And…students are people too! Like Freire, Lao doesn’t differentiate between teachers and students. He sees both as being worthy of leading the class – as long as they are prepared to recognise the difficulties faced by others and to value the errors and mistakes that emerge from the chaos. And this is why I said that what might have appeared as the Tao of Ratzinger was actually a revolutionary doctrine. Boiled down to a ridiculously reductionist position (my favourite kind), we have

  1. As a teacher, you are going to give some pretty bad classes and make some awful decisions; that is not only “OK, dude,” it is absolutely inevitable.
  2. As a teacher, you are going to be responsible for shepherding your students through some very rocky moments of fear and insecurity; and not only are you the shepherd, you are also the wolf. This needs to be borne in mind at all times.
  3. As the leader of the classroom, your authority rests with you whilst you are acting as the teacher, but you also need to relinquish this authority – or parts of it- when a student is leading the class.
  4. A good teacher is one who messes up from time to time, who doesn’t praise unnecessarily, who devolves power and authority to students, who takes into account the terrifying ordeal that language learning can be.
  1. December 16, 2009 at 11:22

    Some sage advice.

    I have to confess. I have sinned. I am one of those who like practical blogs over theoretical. I agree that both have there place, but I remember starting out as a teacher and always being interested in finding lesson plans to help me out. I always wanted to see how others made lessons and what other activities people did in class. I like your blog a lot as you know, but I’m still going to give more points to the practical crowd. You haven’t won me over yet, but I have no doubt you will take up the challenge to keep trying 🙂

    Again here, a very interesting post with lots to think about. I see your point on the praise thing, but I think it’s good even when it comes down from on top. Maybe it doesn’t have to be praise, so much as interest and acknowledgment of a job well done. If I’m doing a good job I want my managers to show they care and appreciate that. If I go that extra mile I want that to be acknowledged. It creates a positive environment as opposed to some schools I’ve worked in where they could care less what you do unless there was a student complaint and then the wrath of the DoS would come down from on high. No one would do anything because they know no one really cared.

    Also, as I’ve said before here, I really agree with you on the students thing. It shouldn’t be all up to the teachers and it’s not always are fault if our students aren’t motivated. There is too much pressure on teachers to put all this effort in and work some magic to cultivate this illusive motivation that is said to exist somewhere in our students. This should be included in learning teaching books.

    But I’ve also seen the other end of it. Teachers constantly complaining that their students aren’t learning or are stupid and then you watch one of their lessons and it’s the most godawful boring thing imaginable. You think a game, a contemporary topic, or just some personal interest would do so much for the class.

    • dfogarty
      December 16, 2009 at 22:19

      Thanks Nick for some well-worded addenda! It’s not really that I want to introduce (yet another) false dichotomy. But I do think that it is wrong of some who have (recently) scoffed at theoretical blogs and those of us who think that theory and practice are/should be indivisible. It may be that new(ish) teachers in particular benefit from exposure to lots of practical ideas; of course, it may be that if we helped them develop their own theoretical perspectives, they would come up with their own more local activities and then be better equipped to critically evaluate them. Is it the chicken and the egg? No, sir. The chicken IS the egg!

      Praise is nearly always good! But it shouldn’t be something we NEED. Other people are entitled to their opinions of us and what we do, but above all, WE need to be happy with our efforts. And, as teachers, we need to see that our efforts are appreciated by our learners because we know that appreciative learners are more likely to be learning.

      But no praise doesn’t mean not caring. It means knowing that teachers are capable of doing their job without needing to hear it from me -as if I was somehow magically placed to be able to evaluate their work. “A teacher who is doing a good job is a teacher who can pass by [seemingly] unperceived by all except their students.” Discuss.

      On the last comment, perhaps I will get around to thinking of a suitable punning title for a look at The Art of War’s relevance to ELT. In that one, I will be able to explore the metaphor of the battlefield within the teaching context and how people often talk about their students as if they were the enemy. I could go on and on until I die trying to link classical Eastern literature to this profession…

  2. December 16, 2009 at 12:08

    Hi Diarmuid,

    I can’t really answer your “why do we have to” questions with a good enough intellectual reason why, which is what I suspect you are looking forward to, given the mental gymnastics you have put me through to understand your, essentially very blunt question.

    Why indeed? Why bother to state the obvious?

    But is it obvious? In my experience, questions like this are usually asked by people who are often disengaged from the human factor and more stimulated by the intellectual challengers and triumphs of mastering something.

    In practical terms, I have seen this result in teachers who are technically flawless, methodologically outstanding, and yet disliked or treated indifferently by their pupils because they do not engage them at the basic and very personal human level.

    If as a species we evolve more in the millenia to come, beyond the very basic closeness to our primate ancestors, we might end up without having this need within ourselves to learn or work without anyone’s approval, and to love without the need to feel and hear that we are being loved back…

    You could be streets ahead of all of us, for all I know but unless you lock into the emotions, you might not be missing something yourself, but your students might be missing a lot. Most of it of you.

    • December 17, 2009 at 09:40

      Well put. Well put.

      My final comment on the theoretical/practical issue: I think a teacher well steeped in theory will be able to identify the theory and approaches behind a practical lesson. On the other hand, a teacher not so familiar with the theory will probably not be as able to build a good lesson plan based on only exposure to said theory.

      Also, Americans tend to be practical people and Americans do it better. So there. 🙂

      • dfogarty
        December 17, 2009 at 11:58

        I thought Americans were just more heavily-armed?


  3. dfogarty
    December 16, 2009 at 22:35

    Ah Marisa. So good to have you here. My apologies for the wait between posting and publishing. It happens to all first time posters. JUST in case! Taoism would presumably reject the dichotomy between the emotional and the intellectual – both just feed into an illusion anyway. You will have heard the story of Chuang Tzu, the Taoist Master who pondered, “I dream I am a butterfly and then I awake. But now I don’t know if I’m a dreaming butterfly or a woken man.” They took some pretty strong herbal tea in China back in the day.

    I can see what you’re saying and am sorry to admit that I crave praise and acceptance to the extreme! Why else would I be littering the blogosphere? But this is something that I think is worth trying to overcome. And to some extent I have. I often joke about being a recovering Catholic who NEEDS to be criticised. But that’s because if I know I’ve done a good job, I don’t care what anybody else tells me. I like it when people do as Nick says and show interest or appreciation. Students who tell me that they really like my classes (few and far between) mean more to me than my boss giving me an evaluation that is glowing bright enough to light up a small mountain village in the Himalayas. And if my boss tells me that I did wonderfully when I know it was average, I just don’t want to know. I don’t know if I would feel that way if I had a different boss – but I’m writing in the here and now about the here and now.

    There are more -and better ways- of engaging with other people than by praising them. Our involvement with them, our trust in them, our respect for them, our wanting-to-be-with-them should reflect how we feel. GOD! I’ve just realised that this is almost the conversation I have with A Certain Person who complains that I “never” say, “I Love You”…

    In short, I’m saying that we DO need to hear praise from our colleagues and our students; we should give shorter shrift to the praise that comes down from on high. It usually means, “You are doing what I want you to do. Keep doing what I want you to do.”

    I’m saying that we DO need to perceive and feel that we are loved/respected/valued. I don’t see why we need to hear it. Favour debases. We fear to lose it. But, as I wrote, I see “favour” as a hierarchical thing that is bestowed on underlings by mighty rulers. In that, it is different from love and respect. Love and respect exist truly between equals.

    Thanks again.

  4. December 17, 2009 at 17:03

    Not sure about your theory+practice comment but Graddolization is already here! http://www.globish.com

    You’ll be redundant soon enough! What does Lao Tzu say about that!

    • dfogarty
      December 21, 2009 at 01:58

      “If a great country gives way to a smaller country
      It will conquer the smaller country.
      And if a small country submits to a great country,
      It can conquer the great country.
      Therefore those who would conquer must yield,
      And those who conquer do so because they yield.”

  5. December 18, 2009 at 19:21

    Ah, my dear Mr Fogarty – how true it all is! Well, some of it is – a lot of it’s eastern bollox, I reckon. Y’know – this is how to survive a brutal Burmese military dictatorship, and just be fatalistic (or even welcoming) about it, mate.

    Actually, I have often been more than willing to accept disgrace – and some times I have even courted disgrace, being a little perverse in my pleasures.

    As for “Accept misfortune as the human condition.” … Well, many of my students would concur. So would my wife, probably, but let’s not go there today, eh?

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