The Blasted Oak (by Torn Halves)

The blasted oak

Image: Edinblur

This is the story of a sensitive soul who decided to teach English as a foreign language. Like other such souls she was acutely aware that the world is not as it ought to be. While at university she had seen fellow students flocking to the careers fair and queuing up to become employees of the big corporations, ditching their ideals (if they had any) for the best possible pay check. She wasn’t going to ditch her ideals, and becoming a teacher seemed to be a way of joining the forces of good.

One of her hopes was to inculcate a love of the subject. Knowing what remarkable voices are to be heard in the more thoughtful corners of English-speaking culture, she wanted to bring students to the point at which they could really hear those voices and feel them in the core of their being.  What she hoped was to begin what could become a lifelong dialogue in English, with students beginning to feel at home in the language and finding that some particularly eloquent works in English have become part of their private cultural worlds.

The sensitive soul left her motherland, travelled to Greece and found work in a small school in a rather poor neighbourhood on the edge of Athens. The intense newness of everything helped stop her being deterred by the sight of the box-like classrooms, with the rows of immovable benches and desks facing the front, the stark white walls with only one decoration above the blackboard at the front: a small icon of Christ gazing up to a turquoise heaven and seeming to say: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” No she was not deterred.

Soon, though, the rocks on which hopes are dashed began to appear. One had to do with time and childhood, and the fact that her lessons were adding to a schedule for her students that was already too full. She wanted her students to enjoy what was left of their childhood before being cast into the loveless world of work, and to have enough free time to grapple with what maturity was to mean to them. So she began to feel guilty about overloading students with extra lessons, knowing that most students would only be able to cope with such a heavy schedule by taking no particular interest in any particular subject.

EFL may be just one in a long list of evening classes on which students feel forced to enrol, but the sensitive soul hoped that English could be a lesson with a difference. Other rocks appeared. Employers demand certificates and parents want tangible proof of progress, and time, being money, is limited, so there is a rush to prepare students for exams. The books she was given to teach were all about exam preparation, and they were books so thick that there was no time left for anything else.

She thought for a while about exams, and felt that English exams could have been different. Surely something could have been included to value a student’s personal response to one or two works in English. Texts could have been chosen that students might actually want to go into in depth. Students could have written on topics geared to their interests, and write at their own pace, drafting and redrafting their work with feedback from their peers. Such coursework could have been an important part of the final assessment.

As it was, the reading exercises she had to prepare her students for put all the weight on forms of speed reading for which a genuine interest in the text would have been a definite handicap, and the essays had to be written in a time so short that there was no opportunity to do anything other than re-heat pre-processed, pre-cooked ideas.

Teaching can kill. And when the language is reduced to rules, lists and endless cloze exercises, and students are put through their paces again and again until they can tick the correct boxes, and along the way are denied the chance to make the language their own, the prognosis is not good.

Reflecting upon this, the sensitive soul realised that her beloved language had been reduced to an instrument, a tool of no intrinsic value – a language so devoid of expression it began to seem dead. The voices that turn life into poetry went unheard and the hoped-for lifelong dialogue was stillborn. She realised, too, that her students were being trained in a horribly cold and thoughtless kind of efficiency. The sensitive soul had hoped for something more. Now she is racked by her complicity and she despairs at the thought that if the hope for something better cannot be nurtured in the realm of education, where else?

Torn HalvesTorn Halves is a teacher, designer, writer and smallholder, based in Greece. You can read more of his writing on his website and his blog.

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’m certain that this will resonate with teachers–both those who identify with the Sensitive Soul, and those who wonder if teaching is a good career choice for individuals of a sensitive nature.

    Is the blasted oak in your title a reference to the Tarot card representing unwelcome change, or something more along the lines of a natural event that destroys the tree?

    When I was first studying to become a high school English teacher, student teaching was the final hurdle. Several of my classmates had loved teaching and all of its potential for making the world a better place….right up to the moment they actually stepped foot in a classroom with honest-to-goodness teenagers. I remember thinking that it might be better to give future teachers a chance to work with students BEFORE they got too far into a teacher ed program :)

    Is there a place for Sensitive Souls in teaching, EFL or otherwise? It seems to me that they might serve to remind us old pragmatists of our better selves :)

  2. I must say this does resonate deeply with me.

    Many of my friends did move onto the kinds of jobs you mentioned and I became a cook, then a massage therapist and finally a teacher and interpreter. My values have always been at the core of my decisions, and for that reason I constantly wonder if I’m really on the right path, or how I could have a greater impact because it’s not enough to simply “not partcipate” in what we see as detrimental. If we really care, then we need to move our agenda forward by actively creating our paradigm. Easier said than done.

    So, yes, I think if that inner voice eggs us on, tells us to try a different methodology, to move beyond rules and “right and wrong”, well, I think we can listen to it and try something else. The challenge is often that that space is fairly undefined, both for us personally and as an industry. There are folks diving in though these days, and I think you can find them on blogs and other social media.

    Have checked out your sites, Torn, and like what I see there as well. Cheers !

    Brad

  3. @Barbara
    The blasted oak reference points to a few paintings in the Romantic tradition – paintings of an individual tree blasted by lightning in a desolate landscape. I certainly didn’t intend any reference to tarrot cards.

    I think you are right that teaching (at least as it stands now) is not a profession for sensitive souls – at least not for the sort of sensitive soul described here. Pragmatists are much better suited.

    @Brad
    You have a very healthy and positive attitude. What helps, I guess, in your case is that you can concentrate your attention and energy on the task in hand. “We have a class to teach and materials to work with. Right, let’s get on and do the best we can within these four walls.” The mindset of the young woman in the post above is that of someone who is continually distracted by the bigger picture, which you briefly mention with your reference to the industry. From a pragmatic point of view, it is important to ignore the industry, but for some people it’s impossible. Of course, if the industry were otherwise, it wouldn’t be so important to ignore it, and some of the sensitive souls might be able to carry on a little longer in the profession.

    • The image of a devastated tree certainly seems an appropriate analogy for this teacher. Has she been able to find a way to balance her ideals with the reality of the industry as she has encountered it? There are schools that seem to do a better job of nurturing teachers and students than others, also sadly they are in the minority.

      I would hate to see such a dedicated teacher leave the profession–we need teachers who want to share a love of their subject. I hope she has been able to find a situation that allows her to do what she loves.

  4. Unfortunately, Barbara, she has felt it necessary to withdraw. You put your finger on the problem: a clash between ideals and reality. The post presents this as a personal problem, but I would suggest the problem is a larger, cultural problem, and it connects with the sort of point Yitzha was making in her critical comments about globalisation. If reality was less brutal and less complacent about the way in which men remain wolves to men – if reality was a social reality shaped by more of a concern for ideals, there wouldn’t be such a clash and sensitive souls might find the strength to continue.

  5. Hello again Torn!

    So nice to see your post in a very familiar site! From what I know about you and judging by the rest of your writing on the web and of course my own experience in the crazy EFL world, I can deeply feel the sentiments you describe above. Desperation, disappointment, dead-end teaching, lack of efficiency and interest… You know what? This happens every now and then in every job! The point is not to give up!

    As you said, if we cannot make a difference in education, then what will the starting point be? We should never give up just because parents are overly demanding or schools are not the way they should be or there is a work overload on employees. That is what is life is about!

    I know that I say this being in a somehow better position, since my mother owns the (small) school I work in, so I am free to apply all my ideas about books, poetry, technology, e-pals and so on, whereas elsewhere I would have to account for all these.

    What I do at some points or even periods of a big letdown is to hang on there and take advantage of the company of the kids. This is the ultimate luck in our profession: being around children (and adult learners I dare say whose company is valuable too!) heals the soul and helps you carry on! Students, you know, see what you do for them and their appreciation shows in their eyes even if their parents may say differently.

    I still think that a teacher has a lot to offer outside the classroom, as well, through discussions like this one, posts and various kinds of writing. If the sensitive soul does that, some difference will still be made.

    I hope what I say makes sense to you- my comment is a bit sentimental, I’m afraid!

    With all my appreciation and understanding,
    Christina

    • Christina, Thanks for appending such a lengthy comment. Your message of not giving up is commendable. However, some of us have given up, partly for the reasons given here and partly because we know we just can’t come up to scratch in the classroom.

      You are right, too, that teachers and schools often have a lot to offer. At the same time, though, we have to be careful. What kids warm to is not necessarily what is good for them (if we think that autonomy, for instance, is important).

      I guess what disappoints me most is not schools but the system within which schools have to work and to which students will one day have to adapt. It is a system with a massive interest in the perpetuation of ignorance and thoughtlessness – not an inspiring environment for a teacher with a tendency to idealism.

      Teachers like yourself, though, who can encourage students to look beyond the certificate to something of greater significance will make a huge difference.

      • Yes, I do agree that the educational system is the worst one all educators could possibly imagine! The children do not even know their mother tongue before starting to learn a foreign language. Let alone the lack of critical thinking skills. However, as you say in your last sentences in your response to Vicky’s comment, the difference can be made in individuals first and perhaps later, OK, a lot later, in society!

  6. What a powerful piece! Thanks for sharing this.

    I have felt like this at times due to the disppointing clash of ideals vs reality. However, I do think we can start by changing little things in our own classrooms and then trying to multiply or cascade. I do believe in being the change we want to see in others, especially because I can see so many educators who feel this way!

    I trust we will eventually suceed although it won`t be easy or quick. It is the people who take time to read these blogs that have the power to start changing things.

    Hoping to get to see the change…
    Vicky S

    • Vicky, You also seem to be a beacon in dark times. Your optimism is almost infectious. I say almost because although your image of change coming from the grassroots is a powerful one, my impression is that the dominant forces in history at the moment are squashing the best efforts of people like yourself. I am thinking in particular of the public sector. Within the public sector there was a hope that a form of education could be developed that would help students look way beyond the barbaric, dog-eat-dog world of business. The public sector, though, is now being broken up and sold off, and the bits that remain are being shaken up so that they can attract support and sponsorship from business. Business, which should have played a supportive role in society, has become totalitarian.

      Perhaps I am wrong or just seeing things too bleakly. You, though, are right – I am sure – that instead of dwelling too much on the big picture – which may or may not be rosy – it is better to focus our attention on the myriad little things we can do to enrich the lives of those around us.

  7. This story of a sensitive soul resonates with the softest part of my soul and I really appreciate you to share it.

    Like the sensitive soul, I was very disappointed to see the reality in the education system of my country, Japan. I never like schools due to the inflexible and cold system but having met some awesome inspiring teachers, I found myself seeking carrier in the system once, however, I witnessed and experienced the dilemma between ideal and reality among educators and eventually gave up on finding a place for myself in any established institutions. Instead, I have created my own little place to share the joy of learning this new language, called English with children. The place is called Sunny Field English, named after the city it is located, in the west edge of Tokyo.
    It has been 17years since I started this journey with some children aged 3 to 5 and I still continue it with different faces but the same age group as well as different age groups, from 6 up to early 20’s. And the journey is not always rosy but rocky sometimes; however, the more challenging it gets, the more thrilled I feel. Which is such a big discovery of myself. I didn’t know how adventurous I am till I started this journey with children.
    Currently I have been accepted to TEYL program at Aston university in the UK , feeling blessed and thrilled to get this opportunity to expand my horizon.
    I may be naive to think that I can contribute a drop of water to seemingly hopeless ancient dying garden where young buds are neglected, stepped on or even taken out. Despite of fact that many of children say they have no dreams, I suspect they secretly do have dreams and hopes just because I see a seed of hope in the eyes of children when they smile.
    I do hope I still maintain the sensitivity of children within my aging soul but at the same time, I would love to see my soul grow stronger and tougher to stay and find my spot in the filed of education.

    Thank you again for sharing this story.

    Best regards
    Chiyuki Yanase

    • Thank you, Chiyuki, for sharing your experience of the clash between personal sensitivity and institutionalised insensitivity. I am glad that you have been able to make a haven for yourself and the children outside the mainstream system. I am sure you are making a big difference to the lives of the children you are teaching – a difference that will help to mitigate the effects of the prevailing social barbarism.

      Of course, as you say, it is a drop in the ocean, and we know at the outset that on a global scale the forces of barbarism will win, but as long as there are people like you with the energy and the vision to carry on, the rest of us will be able to dream the ridiculous dream that there might one day be a reason to hope.