In 50 A.D, the Romans were taught how to wash with soap by the Gauls. Plus ça change, eh?
Right. I know that I’ve had to ask you to stretch your imagination from time to time as we go about interpreting what the Tao Te Ching might mean to teachers. And I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me today too. Chapter 50 deals with the subject of death and dying, rhinoceroses and tigers. If you have yet to suffer the misfortune of a tiger getting its claws on you or the rhinoceros savagely thrusting its horn into your side, well, the news is good. It may be that you are leading a taoist life. Because those who are in touch with Tao are able to walk abroad without having to fear the tiger’s claw or the rhino’s horn. The real conundrum is how this is linked to the modern day English Language Teaching context. It’s time for some imaginative (or otherwise) re-writing…
This verse starts off with a memento mori: “To look for life/is to find death.” In other words, as we more prosaically put it, when we are born we start to die. In still other words, living and dying are one and the same thing. A lovely thought, you’ll have to admit, but of no direct relevance to the language teacher. Lao goes on to say that the thirteen organs that bring us life also bring us death. I’m not going to go too much into what those thirteen organs are, but eight of them are orifices. But here I am beginning to form ideas about what relevance this might have to the language teacher. What makes you a teacher will also break you as a teacher. What makes you a learner will also break you as a learner. How can this be?
When I learnt how to teach EFL, I learnt P-P-P. I learnt about the grammar of my language. I learnt set pieces for classroom incidents. I learnt about seating plans and board work. Since then, I have abandoned P-P-P. I have abandoned the feeling that I need to expound upon items of grammar with my students. I don’t need set pieces for classroom incidents. I pay no attention to seating plans and my board work is as erratic as my brain (of which the board work is an external representation). Would I be a better teacher if I clung on to the tools with which I had been born into the “profession”?
When I began learning how to speak Spanish, I studied my Berlitz publication that promised me Spanish in three months. I agonised over gender. I struggled to know if I needed ser or estar. I learned verb patterns. Since then, I rarely look in the Spanish dictionary. I occasionally agonise over gender. Ser or estar have (rightly or wrongly) ceased to be a concern. Verb patterns (and their wrongful application) come automatically. Would I be a better learner if I clung on to the tools with which I had been born into la comunidad hispanoparlante?
What we need at the beginning will one day stifle us and choke the life out of whatever we are doing. Think about that the next time you are pondering what grammar to study with the Upper Intermediates. Don’t let practices become routines. If your teaching becomes soulless, you are to blame. And I think that this is true in whichever context we work in. Because teaching is essentially about establishing relationships with other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re overworked or underpaid. The actual job of teaching is so ridiculously simple, you should be able to do it even with the weight of the world on your shoulders. Because “it” is nothing more than being able to go into a room and talk to others in order to get them talking. If you can do that, 50% of the job is complete. If you can get the students to ask questions, then a further 25% of the job is achieved. If you can then answer the questions or direct yourself or the students to where the answers might be found, then the job is done. Forget P-P-P; forget grammar rules; forget whimsical activities to distract the students from the fact that they are bored senseless.
When you realise that what you have been taught (and what you are teaching) should have the same kinds of warning slapped over it that Marlboro Lights have slapped all over them, then there is a chance that you will be able to walk through life and enjoy living; or walk into a classroom and enjoy every minute of it. No one will be able to trip you up or attack you because you will be doing something that comes from within you; something that has real meaning. And because it has real meaning -and therefore real worth, real value- to you, you will sell it all the more forcefully to your students who will all the more eagerly sign up to it. I don’t think it matters what you do as long as you genuinely believe that it works. In the same way that magicians may try to visualise the coin in their hand long after they have disappeared it or the way that actors will try to relive a particularly emotional event in order to once again access those emotions, the teacher whose practice is underpinned with a real, reasoned and resolute belief is a teacher who is all the more convincing for their public.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t manage to sleep at all…