The Art of Teaching and Flowing With the Tao, Part I


Over the next few weeks I will be using Lao Tsu’s beguiling and beautiful text: The Tao Te Ching to glean various alternative teaching methods that can be employed in practical ways directly into a classroom, or into the school of your life.  I do not claim to be a scholar of the Tao, nor do I believe everything in the Tao Te Ching applies to education.  In fact, the way I utilize the text should give some indication of my over-arching educational philosophy: there are no cookie-cutter educational systems and the more black and white rules there are the more stressed things are in the classroom and in your life. In other words, I pick and choose what I’ve found works, and leave the rest.  The days of all or nothing are gone…for the most part, that is.

The first lesson comes from Chapter 73*:


The Tao is always at ease.

It overcomes without competing,

answers without speaking a word,

arrives without being summoned,

accomplishes without a plan.


One of the keys to being an effective teacher is to strive to be at ease in the classroom even when things appear to be in chaos.  If you can use tools like deep (belly) breathing, affirmations, and even EFT tapping (“even though things are a bit disorderly right now, I love and accept myself and my students”) then these moments can be strategically utilized to help transform the chaos into order.  After all, Allan Watts once pointed out that even though clouds and surf may appear disorderly there is an indescribable order and beauty in them. 

If you try and compete with the mayhem and yell over the yelling, then more bedlam will ensue.  Lowering the voice, doing mini visualizations (to yourself or with the students) such as imagining mercury dropping in a temperature gauge, will help bring the energy level down in the room.  Really.  Try it.  Beware of contempt prior to investigation.  You do not try to compete with the chaos, you simply transform and channel the energy into productive directions. 

One key thing to do, after the dust has settled, and you’re alone in the classroom or with your own thoughts, is to ask yourself what you need to change in your lesson plans, delivery, or expectations.  Is what you are giving your students really meaningful?  Are you just filling time?  Before asking the students to change, ask yourself what you can do better or differently.  Sometimes when kids are restless it’s because they have a sense that what they’re doing is useless and pointless.  They also sense when you are unattached from your subject matter and/or are unprepared. So love what you teach, make it meaningful to them, and always be prepared.

The use of the body can help break the trance of mayhem in any classroom.  Try using body language, proximity, your eyes, eyebrows, or even physical comedy.  If you are always relying on your voice to direct, teach, discipline, and to praise, students will eventually learn to tune it out.  So become at ease in your body enough to get their attention by doing a little dance if necessary, or by simply walking into the center of the storm and staring intensely at something out the window or on the ceiling.  I guarantee the students will stop and wonder what you’re looking at.  You can also move in close to the loudest students and look them in the eye.  Over the years I have used the one-raised eyebrow trick to great effect.  If you can’t raise your eyebrows then try raising both hands, not in a gesture of surrender, but in a gesture of triumph.  When you do something out of the ordinary the students will stop talking and ask if you’re OK.  To which you answer: “Please turn to page 57 in your textbook.”  Remember the key is to not compete with the disturbance, but to transform it.  Singing works wonders too.  Just start singing a catchy tune and they will soon be singing along.

Physical proximity isn’t just for quelling disturbances either.  It’s also an effective way of sending messages of praise.  Look a student in the eye and give them a gentle nod and smile when they’ve done something well.  They will remember the gesture longer than your words.

In addition to discovering alternative, noncompetitive methods for lowering the noise level of a group of children, you can also preempt outbreaks of commotion by “arriving without being summoned.”  In other words, use your intuition to anticipate where trouble might be brewing and make your presence known in the midst of the cauldron. 

The last part of this passage might appear to be imprudent, and even contradictory to what I just said above about the importance of being prepared, but I do not believe it means to be unprepared or to not have routines and classroom management plans in place.  I think it means to be willing to do something that most curriculum developers discourage teachers from doing nowadays—improvise.  So be prepared, but be prepared to toss the lesson plan out the window if a hornet flies into the room and you end up giving a lesson on insects.  Be willing to move with the flow of the students, and while it may seem like you are succumbing to their whims, in reality you are leading them by dancing with them rather than fighting them.  Honor their sense of curiosity and their wisdom.  Trust them to tell you what they need.  And what they need might not be in your scripted teacher’s edition.  It might have to come from your heart.

*all quotes come from Stephen Mitchell’s translation

Copyright Joseph Anthony of the Wonder Child Blog

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