A short diversion in which we advert to ancient Chinese wisdom

A guest piece by Sputnik of The TESLA Coil

” All teaching is based on deception

While everything may seem hunky-dory to outsiders, those of us in the profession know that TESL is, in fact, beset by problems.  Chief among these include the fact that there is no consensus about either what to teach, or how to teach it.  I think the reason for this unseemly confusion is that our profession is one of the last to consult the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

While The Art of War is a staple on most business, psychology and masonry courses, it has yet to secure its audience in the TESL community.   This cannot but strike me as strange given the concord between teaching and war.  As von Clausewitz observed, ‘Teaching is merely the continuation of war by other means.’  A simple exercise in conjugation can illustrate the fraternity: I teach, You disrupt the class, He launches an airborne assault.

With this in mind, The Art of War seems ripe for inclusion on all CELTA courses. The key here is to replace the word ‘war’ in the Sun Tzu text with ‘teaching’, ‘the battlefield’ with ‘the classroom’, and ‘enemy’ with ‘students’.  For example:

Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.


Whoever is first in the classroom and awaits the coming of the students, will be fresh for teaching; whoever is second in the classroom and has to hasten to teach will arrive exhausted.

Anyone who has ever had to teach immediately following a long weekend will understand the sagacity of Sun Tzu here.

Without further ado, then, I present The Art of TESL


The Art of TESL

          Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.

Reading that, it’s almost as if Sun Tzu once taught a large class of teenagers.  Who can deny the value of moving round the room in a random fashion so that no-one knows if they will be next?

          In war, practice dissimulation, and you will succeed.

This clearly refers to articles.  If you pretend to your students that there actually are rules for the use of articles, and not just a series of exceptions masquerading as rules, then they might feel inclined to learn them rather than give up in the face of article sublimity.

          Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

This is meta-advice and appears to refer to observation classes for which you submit a lesson plan so opaque and packed with arcane terminology that your DoS/instructor/peers are temporarily awed by what they see.  Then, quickly move to another school before the lustre of genius wears off.

          Now a soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.

Anyone who teaches the same group of students in the morning one day and in the evening the next, knows that Sun Tzu speaks the truth here. 

          It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.

This has two meanings.  First, never work for a school situated on a steep hill.  Second, make your plan fit the students, not your students fit the plan.

          Pass quickly over mountains, and keep in the neighbourhood of valleys.

Basically, what Sun Tzu meant here was – don’t spend too long on the 3rd conditional – life is for living.”

Wan sui (= may your blog live for ten thousand years) to Sputnik.

Any other warfare or Chinese wisdom for TEFLers (“May you be given interesting classes!”)? Any other guest piece volunteers? Anything to say at all? That’s what comments are for…

This entry was posted in Lesson observations, Teaching teenagers, TEFL blogs, TESLA Coil and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A short diversion in which we advert to ancient Chinese wisdom

  1. Nicky says:

    Brilliant stuff. The simple substitution of “teaching” for “war”, “students” for “enemy”(or “soldiers) and “classroom” for field yields endless results. How about these examples:

    “Regard your *students* as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death!” (whoa…)

    “Though we have heard of stupid haste in *teaching*, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.” (okay, i follow you there…)

    Or this one, which flies in the face of modern practice: “Bestow rewards without regard to rule, issue orders without regard to previous arrangements; and you will be able to handle a whole *class* as though you had to do with but a single man.”

    I could go on and on, but I won’t. Bravo.

  2. Andy Hockley says:

    Fantastic post. Thanks for brightening my day.

    There’s even one for my management course students:
    It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of teaching English that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on

  3. Sputnik says:

    Cheers guys – I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    I do like the idea of my students standing by me unto death, Nicky. It makes me think of those students who’ve stuck with me to proficiency level and then have to suffer the torture of Upstream’s on-the-cheap 200-accents-to-an-actor listenings.
    As for management, Andy, there’s so many it’s almost indecent to pick one, but this did catch my eye:
    On the day that you take up your command, block the frontier passes, destroy the official tallies, and stop the passage of all emissaries.

  4. Paula says:

    Bravo– brightened my day considerably. Next? Machiavelli perhaps?

  5. Sputnik says:

    Glad you liked it Paula – I like your idea too: famous thinkers do TESL. That should keep me warm during the cold winter months.

  6. Dave says:

    A fun and interesting article.

    But what about:

    “If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.”

    I always thought knowing my students and their needs was vital to success.
    (I guess that makes the students the enemy???)

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