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What Can I Say?

What can I say? My companions have said so much and said it so wonderfully. The essentialness of being genuine. The need for distance. The importance of being a catalyst, to be present and mindful without dominating, to generate and maintain focus without sucking and absorbing it. The art of being, the science of being and even the spirituality of being written down for anyone who cares to read and find it. So what can I say but,

Dasht-E Leili

Dash-E Leili is a desert in Afghanistan. In that desert there are the remains of corpses buried under the sand. They do not lie there because of some battle. The bodies are of men who suffocated to death sealed up in container trucks. They were driven into the desert and dumped. According to one witness, it was US personnel that urged quick burial so that the bodies would not be detectable by satellite. The number of bodies may be 3000. No one knows the exact number. And it seems that people in high places don't want to know, don't even care.

How about you? Are you going to write and tell me that this possible war crime has no place in a column dedicated to discussing issues of teaching English? Do you think that the murder of a few thousand prisoners is irrelevant to your job? Do you think I should separate the feelings of outrage and nausea I felt upon reading this from my daily job of teaching? The prisoners had fought for the Taliban. Now you know, do you think the killing justifiable in the war against terror? If you do, I hope to God (if there is one) that you never teach any of my students. If you do, I ask you to quit teaching right now. Please, go do something else.

The killing at Dasht-E Leili happened over two years ago. I read about it just recently. After reading about it I went and did English with some children. They put rats and scorpions down the back of my shirt. I could have been a corpse.

There's a Zen story about two trainee monks. They get to talking about their masters. The first trainee describes how powerful his master is. He has the power to shock and awe. Scornfully he wonders what powers the other master has... and the second trainee replies, "Well, when he is hungry, he eats, and when he is tired, he sleeps."

I wish I could to that. I'm still working on it. Lately it seems that I'm as far away as ever from now being.

Of course, I was nothing like a corpse. We were playing. This is why I didn't write that I was teaching English. I was ‘doing' English. Certainly with young children the less I teach the more they learn. The other day a five-year-old wanted to read me a book. He almost could! (he mispronounced some words, and couldn't read ‘machines'. I've never taught him phonics, never really taught him anything. I've just given him my focus, my attention, my love.

Love is a four letter word.

Teachers often talk about motivating students, about instilling a love of learning and how to help them to become independent learners. This is just so much crap. I'm as guilty as the rest. Children already are independent learners. For young children living is learning and learning is living.

What we teachers really mean when we talk about motivating students is getting them to do what we want them to do, and like it. When we talk about instilling a love of learning what we really mean is a willingness to follow our instructions. When we talk about children being independent learners what we really mean is children doing the work we give them without distraction or complaint. Our words are high and lofty but strip them down, allow the desert wind to scour them to the bone, and what we are really talking about is control.

How many teachers are dysfunctional control freaks?

What kind of language is that? And why did I mention Dasht-E Leili?

I mentioned the Dasht-E Leili atrocity because I was shocked. I still am. I find the juxtaposition of a job teaching English with what I know about the World, and what I think I know and what I hear and read overwhelming. I have a job which is about teaching communication and I'm supposed to be professional and not communicate. I'm supposed to keep my own beliefs out of sight and mind. I'm supposed to be apolitical.

And just who benefits from that?

It's a truism that being neutral actually supports the powerful. A while back President Bush told the World "You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror." So we are now in a World where Milosovich can be put on trial at The Hague for crimes committed in Bosnia but crimes committed in Afghanistan are scrupulously ignored. It just depends upon whether you are with the US or against the US.

Grim joke?

Deliberately keeping politics out of the classroom is a political act. Separating our lives into the compartments of work and home is a political act. I'm not just thinking of English teachers. I'm thinking at large. For example, I wonder how many managers working for multinational companies are individually ‘green' at home but pursue policies which are globally destructive at work. For example, take cars: the promotion costs for cars run into thousands of dollars but car companies will fight tooth and nail to block safety regulations that might add a few tens of dollars to the cost. Globally, traffic accidents kill around 3000 people per day. Cars are marketed as icons of personal freedom and convenience. In total motor vehicles account for about one third of the global oil consumption per year. Oil consumption is a major factor in climate change. This is already causing 150,000 human deaths per year. And as for animals and plants, who knows?

In the pursuit of profit corporations often take refuge in the idea that legally they are persons. Governments have been taken to court for infringing on the ‘human rights' of companies. But if we step back and really look at the behaviour of ‘corporate individuals' what do we find. We find it is psychopathic.

When we separate our lives into compartments to what extent do we become schizophrenic?

Maybe such thoughts don't bother you, but they sure bother me. I have enough doubts to fill a demon. How do I avoid abusing myself by being silent? How do I avoid abusing my students by abusing the position of power that I have as a teacher? How do I be as true as I can? If you have any ideas I'd like to hear them. So far the best answer I have found is to destroy teacher power.

For me to force students to listen to my Worldview would be an abuse of power. But I can make it available to them. With adults I can offer ‘political' topics and put politics into ‘non-political ones'. I can provide them with opportunities to question their assumptions and mine. I can ask questions that provoke thought. I can find textbooks that do the same.

Most textbooks are politically wishy-washy. But there are exceptions. A while back I came across Karma Yoga Press. I haven't actually used any of the books available from here. Perhaps I will next time one of my classes choose a book. Currently one class is using A World in Common: Global Perspectives For the Future. Another class chose not to have a textbook. Giving genuine choice is one way to destroy teacher power and probably the most important.

With children I give choice by providing alternatives. I offer co-operative games as most children seldom experience them. I also make efforts to help them understand disrespect. When children put plastic creepy-crawlies down the back of my shirt they are not being disrespectful. They are learning to recognise false authority through play. If they do so when I don't want them to that would be disrespectful. That would be breaking trust. It also works the other way round. If I force them to follow my lead because I am the teacher that would be disrespectful, too.

For example, the other day I was doing some colouring with some 3-6 year olds. This was set up so that I had all the pens in a basket and they needed to say "Pass me a...(colour) pen" to get the colour they wanted. We did this for a while but then one of them wanted to steal the pens. So I put on a policeman's helmet and chased the thief around the room. The language focus changed. I didn't force them to stick with the pattern or even with the activity. There was an unspoken process of negotiation and acceptance. I was in the now that day. With children, the more now you have the more learning you get. How about with adults? How about with life?

Right now Dasht-E Leili is with me. I wonder how long it will remain.

Everything Changes

Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.

poem by Bertolt Brecht

April 2004
(Think Tank Column for ELT News )

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