Healing as Killing: webinars will be the death of us
di John Ayers
CPD (Continuous Professional Development) seems now to be our creed.
“Countless self-management workshops, motivational retreats and seminars on personality or mental training promise boundless self-optimisation and heightened efficiency… The imperative of self-optimisation serves to promote perfect functioning within the system. Inhibitions, points of weakness and mistakes are to be therapeutically eliminated in order to enhance efficiency and performance. In turn, everything is made comparable and measurable and subjected to the logic of the market. It is not concern for the good life that drives self-optimisation. Rather, self-optimisation follows from systemic constraints – from the logic of quantifying success on the market.” Byung-Chul Han: Psychopolitics.
“Healing as Killing” is the title of a chapter in Psychopolitics. As usual Byung-Chul is questioning whether humanity is moving in the right direction: or, more to the point, as in his book “The Scent of Time” (dyschronicity and the art of lingering), whether the mere fact of wanting to move somewhere may not be at the root of the problem.
Does the philosophising of Byung-Chul have anything to do with our world of English language teaching? Well, since the arrival of covid-19 we have discovered “webinars” and webinars are usually about CPD and CPD is about moving forward, doing it better (self-optimisation). My worry (and possibly also Byung-Chul’s worry) is that “self-optimisation follows from systemic constraints – from the logic of quantifying success on the market”. The market, in our TEFL world, is increasingly that of our formal exam systems (Cambridge, Language Cert, Trinity, etc.) which are now totally intertwined with the market-place of the publishing houses (Cambridge, Pearson, Macmillan etc.) which then slip unobtrusively into our world of language school associations (AISLi, I.H. AIBSE etc.) and hence into our webinars and so to us, as simple teachers, the last cog in the process of creating a global product that can be quantified.
Is this then our fate: to be reduced to just a cog in an ever more well-oiled money making machine? Did we not choose to be teachers in order to live the good life, that is to live a life that is good? Should we do things differently? Can we approach our teaching from a different angle? Can we get away from what is comparable and measurable and subjected to the laws of the market?
After 50 years of teacher observations and attempts at teacher training, only one lesson observation, only one teacher remains firmly in my memory. Craig. It is so many years since I observed Craig teaching that I hope he won’t mind if I mention him. His lesson was everything that I didn’t want. As the new owner of the school, I was cringing. This was not what the market wanted. Craig was embarrassingly awkward in his gestures, almost autistic; condescending and over-simplistic in his explanations, often drifting into terrible Italian; his lesson plan was non-existent and followed simply the whim of the class…But listen again to Byung-Chul.
“It is impossible to subordinate human personhood to the dictates of positivity entirely. Without negativity, life degrades into “something dead”… Life that consists wholly of positive emotions and the sensation of ‘flow’ is not human at all. The human soul owes its defining tautness and depth precisely to negativity…”
The fact is that I was completely wrong about Craig and market forces. Craig wasn’t “dead”. The reason that I remember him is because he was the most popular teacher that I have known. He held my small school together in a way that no-one has done since. If you ask me what magic word I would use I would say that he “cared”; he cared about his students more than he cared about his own image. To tell the truth I think that the idea of CPD never crossed his mind (but I am talking about 50 years ago). “Life that consists wholly of positive emotions and the sensation of ‘flow’ is not human at all.” Could it be that the secret of success is to be found somewhere in the negativity? Possibly the positive healing balm of a well prepared lesson plan kills any hope of excitement, of adrenaline running. Possibly going with the positive flow, from B1 to B1 plus to B2 to C1, is only for the chosen few, leaving for the many only a frustrated sense of negativity. Possibly the tautness and depth was exactly there, in Craig’s fragility.
“Today, we do not deem ourselves subjugated subjects, but rather projects: always refashioning and reinventing ourselves…. We are living in a particular phase of history: freedom itself is bringing forth compulsion and constraint. The freedom of Can (Yes, we can!) generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should… Should has a limit. In contrast Can is unlimited…” Byung-Chul Han: The Crisis of Freedom
Yes, we can be whatever we want to be. It is up to us. We can even be the President of the United States, in spite of coming from a broken home and having a black skin. All we have to do is to work at it, get better at it, self-optimisation; CPD. No limits. Moving toward perfection.
Conclusion; no need to panic. Market forces are bonding. Exam systems, publishing houses, language school associations, teacher trainers are busy creating their “yes, you can scenario”. You can be a better teacher, you can go far and this is fine. But market forces want results and results, by definition, must be measurable.
We, on the other hand, are teachers. We are Craig and unmeasurable. What we do is, by definition, unmeasurable: caring, creating that vital moment of excitement, that space where learning can take place, that is our profession. Our job is to help people learn. But, because we are “teachers of English as a foreign language” the learning that we are involved in is different to that of most teachers. The people that we help are all ages; small children, children, teenagers, young adults, older adults, but they are people, not machines, people with all their fragilities, which they place in our hands. The learning that takes place, or sometimes doesn’t take place, is more visible than in most academic subjects. This visibility means that the intimate process of learning is exposed to public gaze. As a student, old or young, you have to perform, (to dance in public), speaking, listening, showing off what you have learned. And so the student, old or young, can be hurt, sometimes humiliated, and then real healing is necessary, and that is when we need our teaching skill. And so we need Craig and not measurement. Market forces don’t know what to do with fragility and failure. The drive from the market place is simply to create ever finer measurements of progress made, algorithms which define cut-off points and, thus, indicate where precisely students stand on that common European scale of knowledge and ability which the market considers the only possible result of our teaching.
Has the student made progress is the question that we will be asked; from A2 plus plus to B1 minus minus, from high B2 to low C1 and so on, and this is surely necessary. But, nonetheless, let’s try to remember that, as teachers, it is only when we can’t be measured that we can hope to be alive. There is no sensible way of measuring how we create a space where learning can take place; learning is an intimate, secret process, more to do with fragility and negativity than with the positive flow. Every moment is different, every moment is mysterious, every moment should be and can be not a result but a small healing of the soul, and then, as teachers, we are living the good life.