Pure gold! Lucky for some…
You can’t keep standing on tiptoe
or walk in leaps and bounds.
You can’t shine by showing off
or get ahead by pushing.
Self-satisfied people do no good,
self-promoters never grow up.
With that last line, there is undoubtedly a great need for introspection! Here we are in the world’s most widely-used vanity press, about to slag off self-promoters. Incidentally, this translation by Ursula Leguin, whilst generally magisterial, is less successful in capturing the warning tone in this last line than the other translators, Feng and English. Rather than condemn loud mouth braggarts to a lifetime of Peter Pan-nery, they warn that “He [sic] who boasts will not endure.” Let’s put our thinking hats (and our flak jackets) on.
Right, well, first of all, what’s so wrong about standing on tiptoe? What’s wrong with walking in leaps and bounds? Simply put, they are not sustainable. In this chapter, we find plenty of echoes from the last one that told us that strong winds don’t blow all day and that sort of thing. Standing on tiptoe is the kind of thing that certain police forces might make you do for hours on end whilst they try to get you to admit that there is a perfectly obvious explanation for why you left the supermarket without a receipt for the packet of sausages that fell out of your trouser leg.
Once again, the Old Master is warning us against behaving out of character and against drawing too much attention to ourselves. It puts me in mind of a colleague who recently told me, “I know I am a really popular teacher.” Something made my stomach churn. Of course, it could have been the previous evening’s cauliflower cheese, but I thought at the time that it had more to do with this seemingly repugnant statement. Is this cultural? Is it acceptable in other countries to come out with something so obviously self-praising? Is it acceptable in British culture – maybe it’s just me who thinks very little of people who have to state as fact that their students adore them? Maybe it’s just jealousy, posing as distaste!
Similarly, another colleague feels vindicated by the successful exam results of his students. These results prove to him that he is a great teacher, and this is information that he shares. The first time I heard this, I was surprise to hear that a teacher would assume that good exam results reflected positively on them rather than on their students. To me, successful exam results mean, “You didn’t screw up their learning or make them learn less or become [even] less motivated to study and progress in English exam-taking. Well done!” If we were to take the same idea out of our context and put it in an office, it would be like a secretary feeling proud about the results of the photocopying that he [did ya see what I did there?] had done. He gets home and his partner says, “So, how was your day at work?” to which he replies, “I ROOOOOOOOOOCCCCCKKKKKK at my job. I didn’t spill coffee into the fax machine or try to press my trousers in the office printer. I managed to type three letters without accidentally selecting the Cyrillic font and managed to leave out all of the sweary words when I was speaking to Arthur from Payroll. Do you think they’ll put me on a plinth in Trafalgar Square?”
Here, then, is my attempt to be provocative and controversial: when your students do well, it has got nothing to do with you. It’s about them! The most you can do is say, “Oh well, at least I didn’t f*@k that up.” Students are responsible for their own success and as Chimpsky says, they very often learn in spite of their teachers. What about when they fail? Is that your fault? It could be, I guess. Did you provide them with plenty of learning opportunities? Did you devote yourself to your work in a way that you feel perfectly satisfied with? If the answer to these questions is “No,” then the chances are that you have to take the blame for their failure to perform well. Id the answer to these questions is “Yes”, then you did what you could and it’s down to them. I am sadly unsurprised by how many colleagues I have met who think it is evidence of their Calling when their students do well and evidence of their students’ fecklessness when they do poorly. Especially when I’ve seen how much time and thought goes into the lessons…
No – far better to let actions speak for themselves. I remember when I was very young reading about a sheepdog called Shadow. Shadow was always barking on about how bloody great he was and the other farm animals used to get very, very pissed off with him. I think the sheep may already have had other issues with him as well, but that’s by the by. Anyway, rather than hatching a plan with the shire horses to stampede him to death, they decide to ignore him when he came around bragging about how he was the top dog. And they did. And poor old Shadow found himself without any friends or confidantes other than his mother who had the good sense to tell him, “Just stop going on about it all of the time. If you’re any good, people will see it in what you do. You don’t need to ram it down their throats.”
Now, I remember very little from my childhood, but that story has stayed with me for years. I’ve just googled it and now know it to have been written by Enid Blyton who was writing in the days when parents still gave their children anagrams as names. Really, Shadow’s mum was echoing Lao Tse who told us back in Chapter 17, ‘When actions are performed/Without unnecessary speech,/ People say, “We did it!”‘
In the chapter under discussion now, Feng and English translate that bragging, boasting and shouting, “LOOK AT ME!!!” “are extra food and unnecessary luggage./They do not bring happiness./Therefore followers of the Tao avoid them.” Not must avoid them or should avoid them, but just avoid them. You will know a taoist when you see one. Taoists pursue happiness in life by trying to stay true to whatever comes from within them, because they are aware that this is as close to objective facts as they will ever get. And unless you have already bought into that message, it’s not even worth trying to fake.