January 26th, 2018 — “What is your secret?” A question the Prince of Lu asks Khing the master carver in the Woodcarver, a poem written by the Taoist philosopher and poet Chuang Tzu. Just moments before the question, Khing presented the Prince with a bell stand of such beauty and well-crafted form that everyone, including the Prince, thinks the bell stand must be the work of supernatural forces. Khing, like a master teacher, senses that the Prince is asking the wrong question. Yet the Prince is still the Prince and it is better to answer the Prince than question his authority. So Khing answers in a straightforward but provocative way by stating that he has no secret and that he is just a simple woodcarver. But Khing pushes deeper into the Prince’s question beyond its surface characteristics. He offers the Prince and everyone listening a lesson on where craft-knowledge comes from. In the subtle moves of skilled educator, Khing inverts the power structure of ruler/servant and educates the Prince on how to act with integrity and fidelity to professional calling. Khing outlines in detail his preparation before carving the bell stand. His message is that a skilled craftsperson, ruler, or teacher has to do more than just “show up” in response to the command of a person in power. Instead, Khing argues that to be fully present to the task of carving requires deep and intentional preparation. The woodcarver drives home his point by stating that his preparation was so complete that he forget about the Prince and his royal court: “After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs. By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away. All that might distract me from the work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.”
The question now becomes, what might the Woodcarver and the Prince of Lu offer anyone interested in practicing the art of good teaching? Khing I suspect would answer: nothing and everything. There is no secret, no overt connection, rather just the wisdom of intentionally attending to ways that one’s calling to teach informs practice. Khing articulates a curriculum for accessing the deep secrets of teaching. The first step is humility, a recognition that accepting the vocational call to teach means recognizing that what others see as the work of the spirits is actually a birthright gift made plain in the daily practices of the classroom. Yes, good teaching involves technique and years of practice but it also has an innate quality that requires humble acceptance, not ego-driven posturing and proclamations of greatness.
The next lesson is the example Khing sets around the importance of preparing for the work of teaching. The formula seems rather straight forward in its articulation but complex in its implementation; the quality of teaching is directly proportional to the quality of the personal and spiritual preparation that went into the act of teaching. I wonder sometimes, as Khing invites me to ponder, what shape my teaching would take if in the process of preparation I forgot my lessons (my instructional body) with all its limbs of lesson plans, activities, learning outcomes, texts, and assessments? I don’t have 7 days to prepare to teach because I have too many other responsibilities. But I can make time to slow down, disconnect, set aside external distractions and reach toward an instructional state of being where I’m collected in the single thought of teaching. Even three deep breaths before leaving my office can help.
The final element of Khing’s method as he states is: “Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.” When I’m prepared to the best of my ability, emotionally and spiritually, then and only then do I go to the classroom to see my students where all I have to do is put forth my hand and begin the act of teaching. Simple enough in concept, but hard to consistently practice. More than once I’ve cut corners in my preparation, because I’m just too busy, and I find that my lessons are rough and awkward. A little forced and lacking the smooth transition more characteristic of a hand extend in welcome between two long-time acquaintances. It is clear to anyone with a sharp eye for quality that my teaching is not the work of the spirits but rather the flailings of an ill-prepared novice.
What is your secret? How would you answer the Prince of Lu? What does it feel like to willfully lose track of all the elements that go into the craft knowledge of teaching? Where do you go to find the students in their own natural state?