Monday, June 16, 2008

The Accidental Dharma of Teaching

Gary at Buddha Space writes:

Being a teacher gives many opportunities for what might be called accidental Dharma to arise. Every time one stands in front of a class of students, whether they are adults, teenagers, primary children or kindergarten kids, the chances are that if something will go wrong, it will. One might think that only the more mature children and adults have the wit to catch on to one’s lesser errors, but that’s simply not the case. Little kids can be surprisingly perceptive at sniffing out a teacher’s foul up; once, I instructed some preschoolers on how to say the date in English, only to be told I was one day out!

Being an English language teacher holds its own dangers for mistakes to occur. Misspelling a word on a board as one is rushing to write out several sentences as quickly as possible will nearly always be spotted by some pupil or another, who takes the greatest pleasure in interrogating the teacher over the slip up. The way to get around this is to make light of it, even thanking or rewarding the student for their efforts. Students seem to appreciate a teacher with a sense of humor who’s able to laugh at his or her own mistakes. I recall teaching the use of ‘an’ before words beginning with a vowel, and then in the next lesson saying, “A apple”! (Something I’m prone to do – I don’t know if this is typical of the Southwest English dialect that I speak or whether it’s just me!)

Dropping things, asking questions from the wrong part of a text book, (involuntary) blowing off, tripping up, and forgetting to use some kind of mouth freshener are all mistakes that can result in ritual humiliation for the proud teacher. But here’s the thing about all this: I love it! All these accidents can be vehicles to travel the distance between teacher and student, making the teacher appear more human, and thereby more friendly and more accessible.

Accidental Dharma can be the best kind of Dharma: natural, of the cuff, unexpected, challenging and in the end transforming. It can turn a boring lesson into an entertaining one, it can reveal hidden perceptiveness in the most surprising students, and it can improve the teaching techniques of many a teacher. That a man who was once so shy he couldn’t speak in front of more than three people at a time now relishes in making a fool of himself in front of a class of giggling pupils is testament to this.