Socrates was declared the wisest man in Athens (a city famed for its wise men) because he knew that he knew nothing. If not at number one, Socrates must rank in the top three greatest teachers of all time, alongside Jesus and Buddha, and therefore all teachers ought to learn something from him. And where better to start following in the front prints of the barefoot master than by confessing that we too know nothing.
Granted, we know the stuff we have to teach. In fact if we don’t know that stuff, we don’t deserve to be called teachers. Instead, if lacking somewhat in subject knowledge, we may call ourselves ‘facilitators’ but ‘teachers’ we are not. So, as teachers we have to know what we teach. But, we must confess that we don’t really know how we transfer the stuff we know into the minds and life patterns of those we teach.
Such a confession of ignorance was easy for Socrates to make. From what we know, he never received payment for being a teacher, his classroom was the public square and his ‘students’ were more like random victims of his interrogations about the meaning of life. As paid pedagogues, it would be far more difficult for us to declare our state of ignorance. We have B.Eds, M.Eds and EdDs that supposedly prove the opposite. We have a professional status that sets us apart from the rest of world who don’t know how to do what we do. Parents and governments entrust us with the education of the nation’s children and youth. And, we get paid well above the average wage for doing what we do. But, let’s all ‘fess up’, in the deepest depths of our pedagogic souls, we really know nothing about how we do what we do.
But in order to keep our jobs, pay our mortgages and feed our own children, we pretend that we really know what we’re doing by hiding behind our qualifications and dazzling record of exam results. Well, that’s what we used to do, until the government and their agents, who also need to admit that they know nothing, began jackbooting their way into our ‘secret garden’. We were called to give an account of ourselves, to show our working out in order to justify why we did what we did and why it was ‘effective’. But, of course, we didn’t know. So, we looked to experts, gurus, charlatans and snake oil salesmen who sold us the lie that the mystery of teaching could be reduced to a method or a set of skills. The government had its own list of deceivers and, for several decades now, the living has been easy for educational consultants, growing rich and fat on public money in that gap between the professional ignorance that dared not speak its name and non-professional expectation. The roll call of charlatans is far too long to reproduce in full here but let’s remember some of the mega stars of the consultant constellation – ‘Take a very quick bow, Mr. Alistair Smith with your Accelerated Learning’, ‘Stand up, pair up, and divide up your winnings, Messers Kagan and Kagan’, ‘Spare us your blushes Mr. Daniel Goleman over your non-existent Emotional Intelligence’, ‘Keep building that spending power, Mr. Claxton’, ‘Sound out phonetically the word ‘cash’, Mrs. Mishkin’…and the credits just keep on rolling.
We have to put a stop to this pretence. If we, who are teaching, day in and day out, don’t really know what were doing, is it likely that someone who actually doesn’t teach at all, can offer us anything worthwhile? No, despite the sales pitches and ‘independent’ research findings of the Educharlatans, there is no golden ticket, no sure fire recipe to becoming a good teacher. You need to know the stuff that you are going to teach, inside out and back to front, there is no doubt about that. But figuring out how you transmit what’s in your head and your heart into the heads and hearts of those you teach is the work of a life time. Others can help you set around common pitfalls and you can stand back and admire a Master teacher at work, but don’t expect her to tell you how she does it because she doesn’t know or, rather, she cannot articulate give expression to the wisdom she has accumulated over decades into a handy ‘How To…Guide.’ And, if anyone tells you that he can and wants to charge you for such a guide or a conference or a workshop or a university course, then that person is a charlatan. Avoid!
In his day, William Goldman was considered the greatest screenwriter in Hollywood. His screenwriting credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride. In 1983, Goldman published ‘Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade,’ which many aspiring screenwriters, myself amongst them, hoped would lift the lid on the talent of the Master and enable us to write a classic Hollywood movie.. However, our aspirations were dashed in the opening line – three words that becomes a mantra throughout the book and for Goldman distills the wisdom gained in working at the highest level in Hollywood for years. That opening line, a sparse, fundamental sentence of subject-verb-object is: ‘Nobody knows anything’. Teachers, rather than pretending that we know what we’re doing, let’s confess our ignorance and even more importantly let’s expose the ignorance of all those self-deluded non-teaching Educharlatans and Senior Managers who, in quest of wealth and power, pretend that they do know.