“Be formless… shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend…”
Bruce Lee’s famous words, which I came across after some post-Way-of-the-Dragon research on the martial-arts master. These words have something profound to say to professionals intent on providing the best service possible. Good – better – best practice, however, conjures up a notion of the one perfect form for a teacher of a second language. On the contrary, Lee’s quote made me think that you are the form, the liquid form – not the Trevi Fountain of teaching – and you adapt to the cup, bottle, teapot, dirty old bucket full of mould (we’ve all had that class, right?). There seems to be, therefore, a mismatch somewhere between the notion of best practice and how it is achieved.
Last week I was asked the most important attribute of an ELT teacher, to which I immediately responded “flexibility”. There was no hesitation at all. Methods, approaches, language awareness, classroom management techniques – learnable. Flexibility – acquired on the way thanks to a combination of success and failure.
Failure: flunk, bomb, mess up, flunk – there’s so much negative stigma attached to this word. Just taking a look at the red pen the letter ‘F’ on the test on the right and let the memories come flowing back of that embarrassing arithmetic test in which you scored zero when you were thirteen. Calling out your mark, much lower than every other in the class, every week, was an absolute nightmare. Enough of my year-9 mathematics nightmares now.
There is negative stigma that doesn’t do justice the learning power of failure
Kathryn Schulz, in her talk ‘On Being Wrong’, differentiates between being wrong and realising that you are so, providing a really striking analogy of what it feels like: The Coyote chasing Road Runner off the mountain and the sudden realisation dawns on him mid stride that he’s about to drop hundreds of feet to the bottom of the abyss. Before, he runs off the edge in complete ignorance of what he’s just done, takes a few more strides and suddenly sees the ‘F’ staring him in the face, then falls. It’s about 1:08 in this video if 6 minutes of Looney Toons is too much for you.
Obviously, it’s not fun in any respect to realise that you’ve done something wrong. The double-edge sword is that firstly you cannot do anything about the mistake and secondly you often find out from someone else – losing face an having the risk of dwelling on it. Not necessarily a sword though, all of this. I’ll come to that a bit later.
I digress a little from the original point of flexibility. At this point I feel I should link the two strands; flexibility and failure. When you hit the bottom and brush yourself off after the Coyote-esque fall, to avoid yourself from doing the same thing over and over again, there comes a point when quiet reflection on your practice is necessary to avoid any future reoccurrence. In this way, failure feeds into flexibility as the protagonist; it is the reason why you end up resembling either the Trevi Fountain or the water it spurts out.
Let’s not get too hasty here though and assume making mistakes over and over again will result in flexibility. The Coyote, credit to him, experiments with a number of different methods to try and catch the pesky Road Runner. He doesn’t keep on making the same mistake over and over again (although that famous falling scene does have a habit of poking its nasty head up more than once, touché). To my mind, he is trying to be like water and should deserve a lot of credit for it; he’s only doomed to failure thanks to the script he has to follow. This might have some significance to teachers who have a script forced upon them by a third-party, too.
“Now water can flow, or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend…”
How to be more like water: You put the teacher in a class and the teacher adapts to the class. Seems simple, 1+1 = 2, right? Trust me, this is NOT as simple as it sounds and it’s very likely that you’ll fall off that cliff once or twice. There are, thankfully, ways that can help you realise when you do in the hope that in future you see the cliff coming and take a detour.
- Listen to your students and respond to their feedback, even if it involves doing things that don’t fit well with your teaching beliefs
- Collect feedback on a regular basis; don’t be afraid the negative stuff – you’re water, you adapt
- Is your classroom a cup, a bucket, a glass? Find out this stuff before and when your course starts
- Use a variety of methods and approaches – even the ones that your not so used to or consider to be not as conducive to learning; if you’re students learn benefit, then why not?
Warning: bending over backwards too much can lead to back pain.
Just a note to finish on: The Coyote, who finds himself messing up all the time, at least tries a variety of different methods to achieve his goal. He’s wrong, he realises this; that doesn’t stop him from trying something new. Be like the Coyote, you’ll find the right method one day. The process will make you more like water, better adapted to take the form of the vessel.
I would like to make a call to any teacher that has ever received a nasty comment from a student, some negative feedback on an observation, below-average marks from formal training: do you consider yourself more flexible as a consequence?
Secondly, how do you go about ensuring you don’t fall off the cliff when you are handed a new class? Does this always work?