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How many legs does a woodlouse have?

Count 'em and weep.

If Chapter 14 had been written by one of my students and handed in to me for marking, my red biro would be running out of ink by now. It’s one of those chapters within the TTC that seems almost impenetrable with its deictic pronouns pointing to…well…to what exactly?

But if you are prepared to do more than scan it in the hope that the meaning will jump out and tweak your ears, the fog begins to clear and you are able to see through the mist to the fierce sandstorm that is blowing. The TTC doesn’t claim to have the answers to anything, but it does claim to be about the Way and the Power of the Way. Capitalisation probably muddies the water, so let’s say that it is about the way that nature is ordered and the power of following the way. In other words, it can be applied to everything because nature is always there. Coincidentally, I am currently reading a book where they have discussed the work of Bertram Forer (why have such names died out, I wonder?). Forer tried out that experiment that you have probably heard of where he wrote a horoscope that said something like, “You are a flawed genius who seeks recognition but who is constantly misunderstood by the dolts around you.” This too was found to apply to nearly everyone who read it. But the Tao has more to tell us than phoney horoscopes.

Despite this, according to Chapter 14, it is shapeless, silent and intangible. Difficult to package, then. And even more difficult to sell. Something that is valuable but which cannot be commodified – a TEFLer’s dream. It’s both good and free – just like the many blogs and websites that have sprung up recently and offer free ideas for people to make their own.

Chapter 14 is given the heading “Celebrating mystery” by Le Guin in her translation. And herein is a clue to how it might be relevant to the teacher of English as a foreign language. Because if there is one mystery that surrounds our astonishingly mundane field, it is how we do our job. How many times have you had a conversation with a non-TEFLer (or “a normal person” as they may also be known) that went something like this:

“So, what do you do?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“Oh. [Pause] What do you teach?”

“English to people who come from different countries.”

“Oh. [Pause] Do you have to speak their languages then?”

“Err…no. They have to speak mine.”

“Look. I’m just making small talk, OK? I need to find out where the cocktail sausages have gone.”

I readily accept that the stilted nature of this conversation may only apply within England, but the actual meaning of the exchange is probably replicated across the world. People don’t understand how we do what we do. We are a mystery that has been devoured by an enigma and that now finds itself groping around in the darkness of the intestines of bewilderment. And that’s probably as applicable to our profession as well. What makes an effective teacher? Things that cannot be defined, surely?

There are crap teachers who are great at talking to their students, but who fail to win their support. There are great teachers who plod unimaginatively from one page of the coursebook to the other and fend off proposals of marriage from their students. What defines those whose students worship them and occasionally choose to offer their very essence up to the Great Educators? Like the Tao itself, the answer is “indefinable and beyond imagination.”

But, if this is true, how can we hope to be great educators? If we try to find out where to start, we can’t find a clear starting point. If we look for a general description, we find that there isn’t one. What can we do? We can do what people have always done – teach and reflect. Look backwards and see what we’ve done and what we wanted to do. The TTC puts this in a slightly more elevated way, “Mindful of the ancient beginnings,/ we hold the thread of the Tao.” The Tao of teaching can be grasped by looking backwards and seeing what worked. If we are conscious about how things started, we can manage to start to define our teaching.

Los borbones a los tiburones

This is where snapshot inspections are obviously a waste of time. Some person comes in, plonks themselves down in your class for twenty minutes and then leaves. Based on this limited experience, they presume to hold forth about how effective you are and whether or not the teaching is up to scratch. I am conscious of the fact that it probably sounds as if I have been spit roasted by an inspectorate. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that this is not the case…at least as far as I am aware. Inspectors would probably be in a better position to pass judgement, if judgement was really necessary, if they spent those twenty minutes actually talking to students and teachers. Of course, this wouldn’t be as neat and tidy as writing down some judgements that were scientifically subjective and hermetically sealed from other people’s viewpoints. As is so often the case in education, the worthwhile is sacrificed on the altar of expediency. Tao is probably the opposite. Actually, Tao is probably the genetic splicing of expediency and usefulness to create a Frankenstein that is both ridiculously easy and worthwhile. A Taoist inspector would probably ask such probing questions as, “Do you take milk and sugar?” or “Would you prefer custard creams or bourbons?”

Before we move on to the next chapter, let us just pause to consider the closing section of Chapter 14. Le Guin translates it as, “Holding fast to the old Way,/we can live in the present.” The idea of the present is very important for Taoists because the present is the only thing that we can speak of with any surety. And even then, we can’t be that sure of what we’re talking about. But if we live in what we perceive as being the present, we will not be blinded to opportunities and threats because we will observe them as they are developing.

So what is the old Way? Once again, I think that capitalisation throws us off the scent. There is no single old Way. There are billions of old ways, each individual to all of us. But this is not an exhortation to go back to teaching in the style of a newly qualified teacher. What a bloody nightmare that would be! That said, it would undoubtedly mark the death knell of English As An International Language– an unexpected bonus for us critical pedagogues who view our job with distaste and anti-imperialist loathing.

The old ways are the best, goes the folksy saying. And the old ways of learning a language are probably less concerned with the teaching of articles and present perfects and more concerned with getting the message across without utterly alienating your interlocutor. The Tao is telling us that we need to go back to the old ways of learning language. And we did this by watching, experimenting, not caring particularly about our accuracy – well, being completely oblivious to the concept of accuracy is probably a more accurate description – and focusing entirely on how successful we were in getting our message through to the people we were talking at. The field of Second Language Acquisition, based at the No Shit Sherlock Institution of Scientific Enquiry, is quick to point out that there are differences between the way that we learnt our first and second languages and that what held for first language acquisition does not hold for second language acquisition. But nobody is expecting it to. Nobody can reasonably expect that one day they will control the second language as completely as they control the language that they have used to control their world since they were just little tadpoles swimming around the bloated womb of their maternal caregiver. Please!

Just focus on using the language for its main purpose – communication. That will anchor you to the present and enable you to see when people are grimacing at you or clearly thinking of where they would rather be as you mangle all meaning and end up sounding as if you have fallen headfirst from a thirteenth storey building and landed in a big swimming pool where the water has been replaced by a shallow puddle of lysergic acid.

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