Guest post: You can’t teach if you are not a learner

Originally a comment by Gordon Willis on Teach the children well.

I am a private teacher, teaching one-to-one. I teach both adults and children. Some of the children, invariably girls, come from Hong Kong or mainland China. They come aged 13 or 14 or 15, like English children to a boarding school, except that they come alone, because their parents can’t afford the fare for both themselves and their daughters. And they find digs and join a new school of completely foreign people, and they stay, and they learn, and they do not (apparently) suffer trauma and angst and complexes and lack-of-religion, even though their English is terrible (one young lady of 17 studying A-level music with me a couple of years ago told me that she preferred it here, though she hadn’t seen very much of her parents since she was 13, and her English is still pretty bad). Though they are very much alone they just get on with it. Culture, probably. They believe in what they are to do, and they do it. It’s amazing and admirable.

There are problems sometimes, of course. Part of being a teacher is to recognise problems and deal with them. The secret is to shut up and let the student just be. There is no reason to suppose that one has answers, but there is great benefit in simply listening and offering something immediately practical, something that can be grasped and used. Poe clearly feels that he ought to intervene and offer a life strategy to each student, as though each student were not an individual and discrete person but an object which must be changed and directed for life. He feels responsible, by which I mean that he feels that he ought to direct, not merely teach, as though he aspired to offer a life-plan for every young person. Teaching is about learning, and you can’t teach if you are not a learner.

A teacher is not someone who knows everything (and so can “teach”) but someone who understands learning, and the vital importance of learning, and who knows that learning never ends, and that whoever stops learning is not an “accomplished” adult but a carcass fit only for worms or the crematorium. A good teacher can transform a child’s life, but it might not happen, and if it does one might never know. A good teacher is just a teacher.


  1. K. says

    “he feels that he ought to direct, not merely teach”

    I’m afraid this is just what most Chinese parents would expect from a teacher, and if you teach Chinese kids, you should be aware of this. In Chinese culture, as a teacher, you are expected to solve the problems you are not even told about, because you are expected to know them without anyone telling you. Anyone who has ever dealt with kids from China knows that a pupil is not supposed even to ask a question, because that would imply face loss for the teacher. Also, it would be a face loss for the kid to tell a teacher they have problems with adapting, or fears, or that they need help with English. Many of them would literally rather kill themselves than tell you (or even their own parents) they’d prefer to go home.
    You can change this attitude, of course (and you should change them!!!). You can get the kids to be curious and express their curiosity and ask questions not because they are told they have to ask questions but because they are genuinely curious. Maybe later you can even get them to talk about any personal problems they may have. But first you have to be aware that these kids “function” differently than kids being primed with other cultures.

    So yes, it is a cultural issue that makes these kids seem to be ok – a culture of not speaking about personal problems.

    (Sorry for any mistakes, I am not a native English speaker, but I do have experience with persons from China.)

  2. rnilsson says

    K, thanks! You added something of value to this conversation. Or so it seems to me. Sorry I can’t add more.

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