Home > Tao for teachers > An interlude

An interlude

This is a reply to Hana Ticha who has recently blogged on the angst that we sometimes fall into, occasioned by a students’ comment. Students can be very perceptive at times. I wanted to post this as a comment on Hana’s post, but -as usual- my verbosity took over and it didn’t seem fair to fill up her blog with my ramblings. Here, people can choose to take or leave what I’ve written. Before you continue reading (I say, somewhat presumptuously), let me state what I hope will be obvious: this was a response that was inspired by what Hana had written. It is not meant to be critical of Hana at all. It’s an answer from my own peculiar perspective and I hope it doesn’t come across as anything other than collegial discussion. I think Hana’s blog is great and enjoy reading what she writes. She reveals herself to be a thinking, critical, committed teacher and is one of the very few voices that makes me sometimes want to write rather than just read. If you want to read the rest of this post, I’d suggest that you first go and read Hana’s.

The argument is threaded throughout this blog that teaching really is effortless. You do what you do and it works. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds, because you have to think about just how You got to be You…you’re a pretty complex kind of person in a room with equally pretty complex people.

In answer to Hana’s student, I would have agreed to a point. Pretty much anybody can walk into a classroom and tell students to talk about X. But talking about X in and of itself is not a learning experience. A teacher does something that means that by talking about X, the students come away knowing something that they didn’t know before.

We are all storytellers; we are not all Arundhati Roy.
We can all make shapes out of blu tac. We are not all Henry Moore.
We can all use poetic images. We are not all Maya Angelou.
Anyone can walk into a classroom and say ‘talk about happiness’. Not everyone is a teacher.

Hana’s student was also right and Hana, I mean this in the most respectful way, was also wrong. I don’t agree that a good teacher is the fruit of “many years of experience, years of teacher training and further professional development, a lifelong passion for teaching and maybe a bit of talent too.” A good teacher is shaped by good learners. A good teacher can have not a single qualification. A good teacher can have virtually no “experience” and teacher training often just gets in the way of good teaching. There is no such thing as “professional development”…what are we developing towards? Ultimately, death!

Instead, I propose, what we have is professional progression. We progress in our profession lives (if things are working as they should). We change. When we don’t progress and we don’t change, we have reached stasis. Stasis is also known as death. Life, on the other hand, is all about embracing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (those last two words not often used in discourse about English Language Teaching).

Hana finds fault in CLT – CLT came along and rewrote the rule book about teaching to tell us that the students were meant to be more active – although really, the teacher’s activity either took place before the class or was not immediately obvious in the class. But CLT is only part of the problem. The rest of the problem comes from the need to carve things up and label them as one thing or another: this is dogme, this is CLT, this is behaviourist, this is innatist, this is Chomsky, this is Skinner, this is a classroom, this is a learner…hell, even this is a problem. Step back, step back and look again…

Let’s look at this whole paragraph from Hana. I’ve highlighted some words that I noticed:

Still, his remark got me thinking. It occurred to me that maybe, the more effortless our teaching appears, the less professional it looks. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that the unbearable effortlessness of our teaching is a result of many years of experience, years of teacher training and further professional development, a lifelong passion for teaching and maybe a bit of talent too. It seems that our students believe that as soon as we enter the classroom, we start throwing some random stuff at them, which anybody could do for that matter.

These are all just appearances, chimeras, smoke and mirrors. There’s not really any certainty here. At one level, we know that everything we know is just illusory. We’re kidding ourselves. Our treks through conferences, our reading of impenetrable books, our gleamings from scientific research…all open to debate, nothing proven beyond any reasonable doubt, even the probability of it all is disputed. And yet…

Isn’t it enough to say that in a room, given one person with a lot of knowledge and one person with a little knowledge, teaching and learning can happen if both people are interested enough in understanding and being understood by each other? If one party is a little lacking in interest, then the other needs a set of strategies that can compensate for this deficiency: jokes, stories, personality, authority, whatever. When the knowledgeable one is in a room with 16-60 students, then strategies for holding the interest of all for as long a period as possible will also come in handy. But ultimately, what is needed is observational prowess, interest, curiosity and patience. Lao Tse would probably say that the Tao will take care of the rest.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have quoted Yannis Ritsos’s poem that I first saw in a classroom on a poster. Here it is again…it’s called Miracle. Isn’t this what teaching is?

A man, before going to bed, put his watch under his pillow.

Then he went to sleep. Outside the wind was blowing. You who know

the miraculous continuity of little motions, understand.

A man, his watch, the wind. Nothing else.

Categories: Tao for teachers
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