“You can't learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you're too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you're convinced you are the best.” - Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
It's far from an uncommon occurrence, where we as language teachers find ourselves on the field of battle, having to take up arms against the fiercest of enemies: our own ego. Consider the following example, a recounting of a personal experience.
A student, for the life of them, can't recall the English word for that wonderful place to which we frequent if and when we wish to dine out, so they turn to you, the wise and all-knowing teacher, for enlightenment. Before coughing up the answer, you scan the room and provide an opportunity for an innocent bystander to be the hero. Someone duly obliges and you thank them, before turning to the board to write it up, and perhaps drill pronunciation. A spark of doubt enters your mind as you do so: There's a U in there somewhere, isn't there?…The first couple of letters come thick and fast- R-E-S-T; now the self-doubt really starts to kick in. Where does this U go?! The board marker starts to quiver, and while the seconds tick on by, the hesitation permeates your surroundings; to make matters worse, you begin to hear mandarinic mutterings over your shoulder as the word remains half-spelled in front of you. Oh wise and all-knowing teacher, indeed.
If there's anything I've learned over the past number of years in the ESL classroom, it's the importance of being able to admit defeat. There will undoubtedly be times where you'll find yourself at a loss; instances where no matter how much preparation you've done, a question will get thrown at you from left field, leaving you stumbling around blindly in the darkness; being asked to spell restaurant, for instance! It's important to extend your hand on such occasions, because more often than not, they will have the resources to pull you out of the depths, sparing you undue embarrassment in the process, but even more importantly, becoming more sure-footed themselves as a result.
A win-win situation for sure, but without that capacity for humility, it's just not possible. Instead, our ego will take hold and drag us down further still, leaving us to abandon the lesson plan and stumble around foolishly in an attempt to formulate an answer out of the ether, digging an even deeper hole out of which it becomes impossible to re-emerge without looking like a complete and utter you-know-what.
It's far better to admit defeat, but why is it so difficult? Well, there's this wild notion that a teacher is the expert; an endless source of knowledge. Particularly in language teaching, where being a native speaker often equates to having an expert knowledge of the language; this is simply not the case. In fact, it's highly probable that as you enter the profession, the majority of your non-native speaking colleagues, and some of your students, will have a more in-depth knowledge of certain aspects of the language. When you enter the classroom and meet your students for the first time, it's highly likely that you are going to be in the presence of some grammar experts; at the very least, they will have a better grasp than you, a mere native speaker. So tread lightly with that ego of yours, dear reader.
As a language teacher, it's necessary to understand and accept that you don't know all there is to know about the subject. You are not an expert, on the contrary, you are still very much a student yourself. It's not an easy truth to come to terms with, far from it, as the ego is indeed the enemy in that regard. But if we can allow ourselves to be content in this knowledge, and embrace it, that's when the magic happens. If we can shift perspective and keep our ego at bay, and continue willingly down the intricate and mysterious rabbit hole that is language learning, we can ultimately transcend the boundaries of our own potential as educators, students, and people.