Just call me Bernard, OK?

This begins with one of my favourite exhortations from the TTC. Lao begins section 19 by telling those who are interested to “Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom/And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.” This is what global religions should be founded on: don’t do the difficult things, go for the easy things – it’s a lot better, and the world will still be a better place.

But did Lao mean that we should just avoid trying to be good or did he mean something else? Well, let’s read on. He says that if we stop being kind and abandon morality, people will find out what love and faithfulness mean. If we give up wealth and riches, there will be no thieves. Right. Marvellous. But, as the more demure members of the yoof would say, wtf??!?!

In fact, what he appears to be saying is that we should abandon trying to categorise everything and, in so doing, laying down limits. If we insist on certain ways of behaviour, then we are also creating their opposites. If you have sainthood, you also have sinners (the non-saints); if you have wisdom, you also have stupidity (the non-wise); if you have wealth, you also have poverty (the non-wealthy); if you have morality and kindness, you also have immoral brutes (the political class).

Taoism was certainly ahead of its time by seeing that the categories that we use to describe the world are also used to limit our understanding of it. They set up dualities that appear real, but are nothing more than human constructs. Taoism deals with dichotomies by seeing them as two parts of the same thing. So, are good teachers born or made? Good teachers are born and made. In that order.

The artist may have ingested some mushrooms before drawing.

Rather than responding to the world as it is, we now compartmentalise it according to the categories that we have established. These categories can be very useful as anyone who is familiar with the category “highly poisonous fungi” will testify. However, they are also very limiting because they impose the limits of human understanding on the world. This is not to say that we should eat the mushrooms, merely understand that these categories reflect only our understanding of reality, not the reality itself. That is something we can never hope to understand.

Lao was calling out to the language teachers of the future: stop worrying about whether or not you are a good teacher and teach. Stop agonising about whether or not this is a good activity and let the students talk. Stop fretting over the syllabus and let the talk run free. The communicative approach, the Silent Way, Humanism, Behaviourism, perhaps even Dogme, are all but as taurine faecal matter because they label what cannot be labelled. They try to simplify the impossibly complex. By jacking them all in and concentrating on what is happening in the classroom, Good Teaching™ will appear.

So, we’ve abandoned the labels. Are we Taoist yet? No, sez the Big Man. That is not enough. “It is more important/To see the simplicity,/To realise one’s true nature,/To cast off selfishness/And temper desire.”

“Oh yeah, darlin. I realise my true nature. You’re saying, like, that I have to admit to myself who I really am. I’m just an emotional young man with a tendency to be self-critical, yet who is kind and generous deep down.” Lao would presumably have kicked this narcissistic young buck in the knackers because rather than abandon the labels, this young fella has literally covered himself in them.

Leguin’s translation advises us that, “what works reliably/is to know the raw silk,/hold the uncut wood./Need little,/want less./Forget the rules./Be untroubled.” Now before we go any further just reflect on what that means for the language teacher: forget the rules. Be untroubled. The rules that tell you how to teach; the rules that tell you how learners learn; the rules that tell you how language works. Forget them; be untroubled. Lao tells us that this “works reliably.” And why wouldn’t it?

The only reason that it would fail is because the students may not want to be sat in “your” classroom, studying “your” subject. When you label and compartmentalise learning and ignore the reality, you will alienate all concerned. Students will respond to you as a Teacher, not as a source of creation. You will respond to them as Learners, not as equals upon The Way. The subject under study will be your subject, not theirs. You will not forget the rules; you will not be untroubled.

I’m conscious as I type this of the many teachers who quite simply are not allowed to forget the rules. This blogpost isn’t (necessarily) a call to revolution. But it is a call to examine the reality. Just because it looks like teaching, walks like teaching and is called teaching, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is teaching. Teaching is a label that has become horribly distorted in recent years. I say “recent”…I mean “post-socratic”. I’d suggest that if you are forbidden from abandoning the syllabus, the coursebook, the One True Validated and Certified Way, then perhaps there’s a need to abandon the label “teacher”. You might call yourself an educational technician or a mind programmer or a childminder. I can imagine how many teachers might feel uncomfortable with these labels. After all, teaching is a vocation; an admirable task; the lighting of fire inside empty buckets etc. We inspire, lead, nurture etc etc etc. Please!!!

Most of us are doing no more than a job. It is not a vocation; it is a (relatively) enjoyable way of earning a crust. We get access to a (relatively) privileged stratum of society and we usually do what we are told to do by the higher ups. The gumpf about inspiring and leading needs to be offset against the fact that we are usually teaching what has officially been sanctioned by some very uninspiring people. Education is preparation for production. We are workers on the assembly line. We don’t need to breathe asbestos or destroy our vertebrae in order to get the wage packet. We are permitted the delights of a limited degree of creativity within our working day. We are sold the myth that we are saint-like and special. Lao would encourage us to look beyond these chimeras and know the raw silk. This means both “understand what you really are” but also “understand what you really can be.” Doing this, we are told, will be a hundred times better for everyone.

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Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. January 24, 2010 at 14:05

    Great post – very refreshing to read. Labels and categories ARE a process of limitations, no matter how gently we attempt to attach them. Let’s face it: in the end it’s a bunch of people getting together to learn and develop, and one of the people happens to know a bit more about the language and how to use it than the others. What happens from there is a product of relationships – something very hard to break down into clear categories (and even if we could, the labels for one day wouldn’t apply the next). Focusing just on people and relationships is a refreshing way to view our jobs and open the door to both freedom and possibilities.

    Thanks for the timely reminder to do away with labels, then!

  2. dfogarty
    January 24, 2010 at 19:31

    …I’ve often thought that the best training I ever had for teaching was spending my childhood working in my dad’s village store.

  3. January 25, 2010 at 09:44

    For me it was working a bar in Australia’s Outback, and coming face to face with real Aborigines in their own landscape.

    And for ELT management skills (in EFL contexts) – well, I got promoted to Duty Manager and then Assistant Manager in that (very large and very busy) pub. By far the best management experience I could ever hope to get when it comes to being outside your comfort zone – and dealing with a lot of people not at all like yourself in terms of upbringing and perspective.

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