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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 1; January 03

Short Article

The Heart of the Matter

How Gattegno influenced me

Lou Spaventa, California, USA

In my second year writing for Humanistic Language Teaching, I should like to concentrate on people. In the East Asian new year tradition, people pay respect to those who matter in their lives. Thus, my mind turns to thoughts of individuals who have bestowed their unique gifts upon me in some way. Parker Palmer calls such people “mentors who evoked us” (1998, 21). He claims that the power of such teachers “…is not necessarily in the models of good teaching they gave us, models that may turn out to have little to do with who we are as teachers. Their power is in their capacity to awaken a truth within us, a truth we can reclaim years later by recalling their impact upon our lives” (1998, 21). I can attest to the truth of Palmer's insight when I recall my encounter with Caleb Gattegno, the creator of the Silent Way of language instruction.

My first reaction to Gattegno was a quick anger occasioned by his refusal to meet the participants in his teaching seminar on anything but his own ground. In order to enter into a dialogue with him, you had to accept his terms and his vision of the world. What was that? A short list would include the idea of the economics of language teaching (Ogdens), the primacy of rhythm and melody in language learning, the seeming indifference to affective connections among teacher and students, the illusion that the world and experience could be captured by a set of Cuisenaire rods, and a confidence that he, Gattegno, had discovered how babies think and act in learning their world.

As Palmer wisely sees, the impact that Gattegno, one of my mentors – perhaps my only one - had on my teaching life has reverberated over the years and extends indefinitely into my future. Yet, initially I didn't see him as a mentor. He didn't evoke me at all. I was a young teacher activist with jeans and shoulder length hair. He was a reserved gentleman who always wore a suit and tie and moved at a regal pace, never seeming to notice the world around him until he was ready to do so. He didn't choose me as a disciple. I chose to study him and his teaching methodology. The inconvenient facts that Max Weber wrote about in “Science as a Vocation” are what Gattegno made me aware of. I was drawn to his pedagogical construct because I saw that he had looked at the field of language teaching, had seen problems in the current methodologies, and then had the energy and creativity to put his formidable mind to the task of devising what he thought to be a better way of doing it. So, I studied what he had to offer in terms of seminars. I read his books. I even corresponded with him about Piaget's work on one occasion - he had done some translation of the great Swiss thinker. The funny thing is that though I regard Gattegno's influence on my thinking as indisputable, he never saw me teach a class of students, except for short demonstrations of his method in seminars I attended.

I guess what I really valued about Gattegno is encapsulated in Buddha's exhortation that “A man should first direct himself in the way he should go. Only then should he instruct others.” Gattegno had earned the right to teach others what he knew because he had synthesized a kind of pedagogy and theory of learning that was uniquely his own. This also was his professional Achilles Heel because he was mostly rejected out of hand by other language teaching methodologists. The reason was that he gave no credit to anyone in the profession and did not fill his manuscripts with footnotes referencing the work of others. The tendency in the profession was to dismiss Gattegno as a crackpot at worst or an out of touch idealist at best. The truth is that he was neither. He was a great teacher who inspired many teachers after him because he chose to look at the task of teaching using his own genius. He was a true mentor, yet nothing like a mentor is conceived these days.

I can best critique the current notion of mentor by describing a recent experience I had with a committee designated to observe and evaluate my teaching at Santa Barbara City College. The committee was composed of three faculty members, two within my department, one outside it, and the dean in charge of my division at the college. The committee members each observed part of one of my classes, conducted a multiple choice scanable survey, and then collected oral comments from the students on my teaching. The subsequent meeting to discuss the committee's findings featured one individual describing my lesson in glowing terms and the other finding fault in my practice. The scanned survey results were tabulated. I saw how many A's, how many B's, and how many C's, D's, and E's I had received. I read a list of student comments. The outcome of the meeting depressed and infuriated me. The thought that another person could observe one class, administer a canned survey, and note down a few comments, and then believe that the results could in any way improve my teaching or my understanding of my teaching insults my intelligence. Yet, the implicit assumption in this sort of teacher evaluation committee is that there is a right way to do things and committee members, by dint of tenure proving their success at the college, know the way. This is the same assumption that underlies the concept of a mentor teacher.

To wit: there is someone better than you who can show you how to do things well within the system. The idea is that teaching in practice is knowable in detail, and that those individuals who have done well within a certain teaching system – ie, a certain bureaucratic structure – can pass the knowledge on to the others. My position is that such individuals may indeed be good examples of teachers functioning at a successful level within a bureaucracy, but because I did not choose a one of them, they no more evoke me than does a stranger passing me on a dark street at night. Instead such mentors evoke for me the weight of a bureaucratic structure which functions best when everyone does the same things in the same way. After all, Weber's description of a bureaucracy included a fixed division of labor among participants (The committee observes and evaluates. I teach.); a hierarchy of offices (The committee members all rank ahead of me at the college.); a set of general rules that govern performance (The scanable survey forms and the rules for administering a teacher evaluation); a selection of personnel on the basis of technical qualifications (One has to have the MA to teach at the college.); and employment viewed as a career (All of us assume teaching to be our career, save for the dean, who once taught but now administrates only.) [1958].

So, as I give thanks in the new year to those who have enriched my life, both personally and professionally, I recall these words of the Buddha: “You are all Buddhas. There is nothing you need to achieve. Just open your eyes.” In other words, your true mentor awaits you if you haven't found him or her already. Just be receptive to your own gifts as a teacher.

Palmer, Parker (1998). The Courage to Teach, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Weber, Max (1958). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, C. Wright Mills, Ed., Hans H. Gerth, translator, Oxford University Press.

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