Drax the Destroyer: He is not a dude. You’re a dude. This… is a man. A handsome, muscular man.Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Yes, I’m a dude, English-teaching-wise, who liked to think he was a man, a handsome, muscular man, English-teaching-wise of course.
Drax’s line cracked us up. But this is my wake-up call story. I hit my OK plateau. According to author Joshua Foer in his bestselling Moonwalking with Einstein, we reach the OK plateau in our job when our skill is good enough—when we start to put things on autopilot and get along just fine. Want me to teach an IELTS reading lesson? Sure! Want me to teach a TOEFL writing class? Piece of cake! With my years of experience, I can just walk in there and breeze through the whole thing, impromptu. Laurence Endersen, in his book Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All the Difference, argues that in any process of skill development a person goes from ignorance to conversational level to operational level to proficiency to mastery. Many are operational. It’s like when we learn to drive a car: we’re happy as long as we can operate a 1.4-ton machine to take us from A to B. Proficient is when we can reverse parallel park it into a tiny little slot. Mastery is when we can perform physics-defying s*%t in the Fast & Furious series (Don’t try!) I thought I was proficient, well, until last February.
I was on an 8-hour ride home that day when I received an email from the Academic Director. It was my annual performance report, much like one that my students, or more precisely their parents, receive at the end of a course. And man it was horrible. Disheartening. Perhaps my scores in previous years had not been better than that; it’s just one of those moments when you’re on a coach taking stock of your life that you tend to be more open to fundamental questions of who you are and what your legacy will be. The scores were embarrassingly low, some of them below average. The Net Promotion Score was so low I felt like the world hated me. If truth be told, I took the hit with indignation. I swear I worked hard as a teacher. I took my job seriously. And honestly who doesn’t? At the risk of sounding grandiose, anyone who has answered to this calling of imparting knowledge to next generations does not take it lightly. Every teacher is dedicated. Every teacher spends the bulk of their time every day preparing lessons with a single purpose in mind: the students improve! So hurt I was. I had good intention, but turned out many of my students didn’t even like to study with me.
The second email on that fateful day also came from the Academic Director: Scores of the Top Teachers. I tapped on it. Loaded. Holy moly! 20 of them, with shining figures. Who are these? Aliens?
Later a colleague gave me a pat on the back, saying “Well, scores are not everything, you know.” It was funny because I often found myself saying exactly the same thing to my students. Scores are indeed not everything, but they do say something. If my teaching performance scores are so low, something is seriously wrong with my current practices. And if my colleagues’ scores are so high, something is seriously right with their practices.
Not long after the emails I inboxed my line Academic Manager to ask her whether she could pull off a workshop in which the top performers share their best practices. That was not possible. She instead suggested I observe one from the top list and fortunately for me he happened to be around the very top. Of course I said yes.
After some quick arrangement I finally got to observe one of the top teachers at the school. It was, to put it mildly, mind-blowing! And to quote myself from a follow-up email I sent him 2 days later, it was amazing: three hours of review but he orchestrated the whole thing with grace and flair. He sure knows how to interact with his students and how to slice up IELTS knowledge into digestible bite-size pieces. That, along with his ability to weave personal stories into the lesson, really makes it stick. You guys know that little psychological trick when communicating with a child? The “lowering yourself to be at eye level” stuff? This man sat on the floor! He made his young charges feel confident and respected. The amazing thing is that in our follow-up session when I mentioned the mnemonic devices he used and the psychological trick he deployed, he said he wasn’t even aware that he was using those techniques. That was a moment of revelation: what novices see as technicality are intuitive to masters. This man is a master.
How did I survive this long? Was it just some of my good presentations I did when I first worked here? Was it all a Halo Effect?
I will not bore you to death with details here, so suffice it to say I was putting my teaching on autopilot and thought it was good enough. I was only operational. I was not uncomfortable. Hint: ‘If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level”’ (Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.) Sapere Aude. I place this Latin proverb in the front of my little home library. It means Dare to Know. First used by Horace in 20 BC, the full phrase is “He who has begun is half done; dare to know; begin!”
I want my students to dare to know, but I’ve learned that as a teacher I must dare to know too. I must dare to know my own weaknesses and limitations. I must dare to face them. I must dare to tell my students that yes I do have tons of shortcomings and yet I dare to improve. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so shall he be,” said James Allen in my favorite book As a Man Thinketh. In my heart I want to be a better teacher, so shall I be.
I hope my personal story accentuates two important values: integrity and transparency. These are also the values I wish to see in my children. Indeed we name our son after Benjamin Franklin for good reasons. This founding father of the United States later in his life “grew convinc’d that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life”. Very often it’s good to get slapped right across the face. Very good, indeed, as our ability to ignore our ignorance is hilariously unfailing, observed Daniel Kahneman in his bestseller Thinking: Fast and Slow. In fact, I sensed something was wrong with my teaching back in 2018 when a master teacher came to visit my class and told me my lesson lacked variety. I took it to heart and have been trying to fix it ever since. Observing The Man, I knew I need to go back to the basics and work from there. As my man Marcus Aurelius wrote in his diary nearly 2000 years ago: “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.”
This is how I live and work with the school’s core values. Dare to know thyself and grow!
- As a Man Thinketh by James Allen
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (duh!)
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
- Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference by Laurence Endersen
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman