I wish I’d known it was all right to let things go
by Stewart Gray.
Watching what happens around you and within you and not intervening, letting go of the urge to fix things and people – this is “powerful meditation” for a teacher (Farrell, 2016). When I consider my early years in the profession, there’s perhaps nothing I wish I had known more than that I could let things go. As a matter of fact, I’m still striving to internalise this. I reflect on my most troubled times in teaching, past and present, and very often they were the times I was most unwilling to let go: of control, of conceit, or of conflict (all C’s – carefully chosen words for the present writing, I must confess). This writing is a reflection on those times when I failed to let go, or when letting go turned things around for me. I hope my experiences will speak to the reader.
I still remember, it was some years ago, my eyes were opened by a tweet. The tweeter was Anna Loseva. She talked about the liberating feeling of not trying to control students: “letting go helped get closer,” I believe was her wording. This was an excellent time for enlightenment to strike, as around then I happened to be agonising over a class. It was a Monday morning, 9 a.m., three-hour-long class, with undergraduate students enrolled in English class against their preferences. At the start of each week, I’d been walking into class at 9 and walking out again at 12, utterly broken, with like I’d been in a fight kind of feeling. No matter what I said or did, the class did not readily respond. They did not pair off when I told them to; they did not open their books when I told them to; worst, they did not speak or write when I told them to. Their apparent resistance filled me with a burning professional anxiety. I was becoming genuinely afraid of Monday mornings. So, one day, I gave up on telling them what to do. I wrote a few options on the board: writing, speaking, etc. I let them know they could choose the way of approaching the day’s materials for themselves. And then the most unbelievable thing happened – this class of students, whom I’d dreaded even seeing, calmly arranged themselves and set to work. I was stunned.
Exercising control over students is, of course, not necessarily bad. As teachers, invested with power, possessing symbols of authority, we are positioned to compel students to study where they otherwise might not (Makino, 2017); and if we grant that studying is basically a good thing, then teacher authority must be a somewhat good thing, too. That said, the drive to control students contains, you could argue, certain conceit: that it is within my power to create benefits for students if they will only heed my instructions. If they do well on a test, that success is mine, in a way. If they don’t seem to get better at speaking English despite months of classes, that failure is mine, also. If these notions are believed simply, it makes sense to be quite strict with students.
And indeed, I’ve been strict. I’ve chastised countless students for failing to follow my instructions; even, in the early years, outright yelled at them in front of their peers. Intellectually, I now recognise that non-compliance may be the result of unclear instructions, or activities that are too difficult, or dull. But when a participant on a teacher training course I’m leading decides to chat about her day in lieu of participation, and when my undergraduate conversation students quietly switch to their L1 when they think I’m not looking, my primal reaction has often been that they are being “disrespectful.” Frankly, with the benefit of experience, it seems doubtful to me that what I am trying to do in class will reliably yield benefits for students, that my pedagogical goals are important enough to warrant forcing students to fulfil them, or that student compliance signifies respect for me. Over the years, I’ve held on to lots of painful, tiring anxiety about respect for my authority – so far as I can say looking back, this hasn’t produced anything of value.
What respect-anxiety has produced for me in abundance is conflict, and not just with students. It is with aching regret that I consider how relationships between me and certain of my former co-workers soured as time went by. We used to disagree a lot about the best way to teach students for whom we shared responsibility. Even I am surprised when I recall the personal, venomous nature of many of those disagreements. In retrospect, I believe that both they and I were feeling the need to be respected as professionals, but instead of respectfully compromising, we each argued for our own positions. These arguments grew and deepened, until instead of respect we heaped scorn on each other. And eventually, in some cases, we stopped talking altogether. I still carry a lot of shame about those difficult days. I suppose I felt at the time I was arguing for what I believed in, pedagogically speaking. I suppose I felt I was advocating for myself as a legitimate professional in the face of my colleagues’ oppressive behaviour. I suppose I felt I was arguing for something. In fact, I walked away from those arguments with nothing except perhaps a little wisdom and a few psychic bruises that have yet to completely heal.
Gradually, fortunately, I’ve learned to eschew conflict and yield control, to understand other teachers’ perspectives, and to compromise when needed. As yet, I’m still learning. I wish, though, I could go back and have a word with my earlier self about the peace that comes from letting things go.
- Farrell, T.S.C. (2016). Contemplative practice: From letting go to letting come. The English Connection, 20(1), 8-9.
- Makino, M. (2017). My black robes. Available from: https://futurealisreal.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/my-blackrobes/