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!
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.