Author Archive

A New Dawn

September 1, 2019 Leave a comment

The koan

A certain Bowie, first name Derek, was beginning as the new Director of Studies. He had a terrible stutter. The staff went more pallid than an uncooked Steak Bake when they heard Derek wax lyrical about ch-ch-ch-changes. Why did everything have to change? Why couldn’t things just stay the same?

Why, indeed? Who’s asking?


Oh lord, please don’t let me be Miss Understood. The teachers of the Centre were way off-centre with their idea that everything needed to be parked where it all began. Why does everything have to ch-ch-ch-change? Who said it has to? And yet…and yet…it moves. The English file change under threat. But not moving makes you a much easier target. I hear the bows bending under the force of the archers’ fingers. Now I hear a swoosh. I pat my pockets forlornly. Sorry buddy, I say to future you, I don’t have any change on me right now and I thought you didn’t like change anyway? Future you says to me, well, I prefer notes. Take note of this then – Canute tried to teach people like you a long time ago. And then he burnt the cakes. Luckily a spider in the cave showed him the whey to an abandoned bowl of curds. This is the final stop. GET OFF THE BUS, HERACLITUS! The bus? Which one? Oh. We’re here at Argos. Let’s buy Jason a new boat.

This be the verse

And if you think I’m ready
You may lead me to the chasm
Where the rivers of our visions
Flow into one another

Categories: The teacherless class

Grouse’s Maxim

August 22, 2019 Leave a comment

The koan

Pity poor McDougall. Every day the same thing. Every week the same day. Every month the same week. Every year the same month. I wanna do this, I wanna do that. He stops the mouth of Fukuman and says, “What exactly do you wanna do?”

Fukuman stops suddenly, enlightened by the Scottish sensei. “Not this,” she says. Saying so, the apprentice becomes the expert.

The erstwhile expert takes his turn sucking at the teat of enlightenment. He was going to suggest a game of Pictionary, but the words dry up in his mouth like a teardrop in the Mojave.


Come on, dude. Who wants this? These days they are out there, but you have to look carefully. Don’t look in their eyes because that will tell you nothing. Think back. Would you want this? Did you ever want this? I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. At times it feels like my worst enema. If you find one out there, cling tightly to them because they are rare and are worth every penny you wish you got at the end of the month. But there is hope. The secret to remember is that whatever you do to support those who don’t want it is exactly the same thing you need to do to support those who can’t get enough of it.

The verse

Slam your body down

and wind it all around
Slam your body down

and zigazig ah

Categories: The teacherless class Tags:

And one day when we’re older we’ll look back and say there’s no-one

The koan

MacDougal’s grandmother was coming to stay. While he tried to keep family away from work, mindful of the injunction to always count your chickens before they match, there was no getting around it this time. The old dear owned the company so she could hardly be kept away.

It was on the 31st day of the month that she had shown up. She was tired, passive and far from perfect. But she was a relative, claws and all. She was the genuine article. The first condition he had made of her was that she speak to the assembled students about her time during the war. It was a brief talk, largely owing to her having been born within the borders of a neutral country twenty years after the war had ended. The second condition was to say what she would do if she won a million pounds. Bank it, was the answer. The third condition was to reflect on her past and revisit her worst mistakes.

The students loved her. The teachers adored her. MacDougal thought there was probably more to it all than she could ever offer.


The cheap jokes are never the best. The best jokes are never the best either, come to think of it. So she’s a grandmother. Aren’t they all? All of them? Grand mothers all. Would you sell your mother for a grand? What would you do if you won a million pounds. Hold the mother of all parties. Is the grandmother of all parties even wilder still? Where are the fathers? A colony of praying mantises tries to look innocent. For those who are wondering what the hell is going on – get on the boat to Cuba and overthrow the dictator. Read the paper, goddamn it and then teach Murphy how to suck eggs.

This be the verse

Mi madre no sabía cómo yo lo había pasado,

se creía que todo yo me lo había gozado
Y se atrevió a preguntar que cuándo yo volvía pa’ allá
Y yo le dije: -mira, como dentro de treinta años más!!.
Yo no sé si es que mi abuela tiene mucha resistencia
O yo no puedo soportarla porque no tengo paciencia

Categories: The teacherless class

An interlude

April 14, 2018 Leave a comment

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

MacDougal and unhappiness

November 8, 2017 Leave a comment


In his new role as Quality Commissar, MacDougal observed a lesson and found it to be pants. How to tell the teacher that his pants were soiled?

“You’ve got a nice rapport,” he began, “But there are a couple of things I noticed that you could possibly do better.”

Now the teacher is scowling.

MacDougal thinks we all want to do better. But why is the teacher crying?


MacDougal was not a boss boss. Doing his best often resulted in the worst. But the worst of times were the best of times. Or were the best times the worst? Debate rages on to the east about where to find the best wurst. The west is burst. These are all just words. Just, worst, burst, wurst. Of course, there’s nothing “just” about words. No words, no world. Wait! That’s not true.

Is it?


I might be a king and steal my people’s things
But I don’t go for that power-crazy way
All that I could rule but I don’t check for fools
All that I need is to be left to live my way
(Say listen what I say)

Categories: The teacherless class


November 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Good teachers don’t know they’re good teachers.

Lao said this; Dunning Kruger agreed.

Bad teachers think they’re good; they’re not,

but thinking so keeps them bad not good.

How to get better? Don’t – you’re fine.

Don’t think you’re fine, you’ll never be good!

So what to do now? What needs to be done;

but don’t do it all,  for there’s nothing to do.


What the hell are you saying? This doesn’t make sense.

Let’s try again; keep up if you can:


Your way of teaching is simply the best.

Lose it and you might end up trying your best.

When you try your best, you soon find your worst;

when the worst becomes known, it’s time for a must.

Must points to the ways that are sanctioned by law.

When laws are laid down, your way is obscured.

Received wisdom means you haven’t a clue.


The best teachers have no need for good

They don’t need bad or what’s in between.

They need some students and really, that’s it.

When the students are there, the way becomes clear.




Categories: Tao for teachers


June 16, 2017 Leave a comment

With no classroom, no teachers, no students

No books, no tech, no tests, no desks, no chairs

You find yourself in the best equipped school.

What a great method, this one with no name!

There’s no better way to learn a language

Than doing nothing – or doing it all.

Stop wanting to get better. You’ll do fine.


*My earlier commentary on Chapter 37 is here.


Categories: Tao for teachers Tags: ,


June 2, 2017 Leave a comment

…”and how are things?”

Never a good question

to ask a taoist

if you’re in a rush

and just trying

to engage in pleasant chat

before dashing away.


How are things? They aren’t.

Believe anything else

and sleep with the fishes.

Believe this

and put

your books



*My earlier commentary on Chapter 36 can be read here.


Categories: Tao for teachers


March 31, 2017 Leave a comment

The students no longer come to the class.

So lazy, you think, they don’t want to learn.

You’re wrong: students always want to learn things,

but teachers don’t always want to teach them.

Tell the inspectors you don’t have a plan,

and the inspectors will no longer come.

Like this, teaching cannot be seen or heard,

idiots who think otherwise don’t help.

It’s not true: if you build it, they won’t come.

Don’t build anything; you’re not a builder.

Just teach: they will all come and they will learn.


Categories: Tao for teachers Tags: ,


January 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Learning opportunities everywhere;

opportunities for teaching also.

Every thing is a complete lesson.


Nothing is useless. Yes, nothing at all!

But not everything will serve your purpose.

So, do you now propose to change the world?


Change and meddle, but things go their own way

pushed along by a much more powerful force

that is, you know, really no force at all.


Teach like this and there will be none better.

Not trying, you no longer need to try.


*My original commentary on Chapter 34 can be read here.

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