Archive for the ‘Tao for teachers’ Category

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


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.

April 8, 2016 Leave a comment

you’re sleeping

chest rises and falls

I watch

terrified that suddenly

it will rise and fall no more

Categories: Tao for teachers


March 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Know yourself without thinking

and there will be no better teacher than you.

In self-control, who controls who?

Answer this and the world will listen.


There has never been a better resourced teacher than you.

All of this time, you’ve known every last thing.

Put away your books and teach the right way.

The impact will be felt for generations.


*My original commentary on Chapter 33 can be read here.


March 18, 2016 Leave a comment

Nobody can tell you how language is learned.

Everybody does it; nobody knows how.

If the how were uncovered

the world would be yours.

You would rule, the cosmos.

all things would follow.

There’d be no need for schools.

All would be clear.


Once you start looking for answers, you need to have questions.

Don’t we know enough?

Do we need to ask more?

Not knowing you know, you don’t know how to stop!

Know when to stop; you already know.

Ignorance is knowledge. Not knowing is knowing.


*My original commentary on Chapter 32 can be found here.



March 6, 2016 Leave a comment

If school is a weapon, 

against whom is it turned?

Are some weapons needed?
To keep whose peace?

When rules are followed,

what’s left behind?

When your lesson plan works,

what is the price?

When you’re left to teach,

can you learn any more?

What makes a good class?

What makes a class good?

Look closer and see

how each checked box

is carried aloft

on six swaying shoulders.


*My original commentary on Chapter 31 can be found here.

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