Teaching, sympathy and the art of Kintsugi

I discovered that a ceramic pot had been broken yesterday. The pot was less than 5 months old. A year ago, I would have been very annoyed with this broken pot. The broken pot would have been taken to the tip.

This year, I didn’t see a broken pot. I saw an opportunity for something called ‘kintsugi’. And I think ‘kintsugi’ is an excellent way of reminding us to appreciate imperfection in our teaching. As a trainee teacher and, indeed, as a PGCE lecturer last year, I wish I had used the idea of kintsugi in my teaching and mentoring. Instead of feeling upset about broken relationships with students, or faulty teaching transitions, or lessons that smashed on impact, I might have embraced each imperfection. I might have encouraged my trainees to do the same.

Let me explain.

We tend deep down to be rather hopeful that we will – eventually – manage to find perfection in teaching. We dream of one day securing an ideally harmonious relationship with every pupil, deeply fulfilling lessons, increasingly happy mornings with our form group, and the respect of parents and teacher colleagues.

But life has a habit of dealing us a range of blows, turning these fine dreams into shattered and worthless fragments. It’s when things go badly wrong in teaching, when lessons fail, that we might turn our minds to a concept drawn from Japanese philosophy, and in particular, from the Zen Buddhist approach to ceramics.

Alain de Botton tells us that:

Over the centuries, Zen masters developed an argument that pots, cups and bowls that had become damaged shouldn’t simply be neglected or thrown away. They should continue to attract our respect and attention and be repaired with enormous care. The word given to this tradition of ceramic repair is kintsugi: kin = golden; tsugi = joinery. It means, literally, ‘to join with gold’. In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot should be carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a very luxuriant gold powder. There should be no attempt to disguise the damage, the point is to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong. The precious veins of gold are there to emphasise that breaks have a philosophically-rich merit all of their own….

In an age that worships perfection and the new, the art of kintsugi retains a particular wisdom – as applicable to our own lives as it is to a broken tea cup. The care and love expended on the shattered pots should lend us the confidence to respect what is damaged and scarred, vulnerable and imperfect – starting with ourselves and those around us.

Let me show you how this has helped me. All of this happened last week. Trainee teachers, take note: I made all of these mistakes in a single week, after a decade of classroom teaching. Perfection is a myth.

1. Tuesday morning, Upper Sixth, Period 2

We discussed an image of a Marian persecution, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It was a picture of the Guernsey martyrs.

I hadn’t done my research properly. ‘This must be one of those moments of fiction’, I explained, half-reading my emails at the same time. ‘The baby being thrown back into the fire is too far-fetched. It helps explain how distorted Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is.’

I was wrong. Completely wrong. This wasn’t one of those things you could fudge, like ‘it depends on your interpretation.’ I was just wrong. And I was the teacher.

I could have let this wrongness get me down. As a trainee teacher, it would have floored me. But kintsugi helped. I was going to use this as an opportunity.

I researched the picture (hard, when the libraries are closed due to the pandemic). I listened to an In Our Time podcast and found out that historians believe that the incident of the baby being born in the fire – the story of the Guernsey martyrs  – was true. And so I began my next lesson with it.

‘I was wrong’, I said. ‘Historians can be wrong sometimes. But see what else I found out about the Guernsey Martyrs!’

My discovery of the podcast led me to create a whole new ‘enrichment’ section on podcasts, which I’m adding to all the time. The students like these because they are a break from the screen. The gold-lining here is the new opportunities that my broken lesson led to.

2. Thursday afternoon, Year 7, Period 4

I was mid-flow in discussing the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade. A hand went up on Teams. I winced: not Billy, again. ‘Yes, Billy’ I said, trying to keep the impatience out of my voice. ‘Please unmute and ask your question.’

‘Did you know, Miss, that the Crusades were fought in the desert and they found tonnes of relics at Antioch, and there was this amazing sword….’

‘What I think you mean, Billy’, I said, cutting him off, ‘is the Holy Lance, not a sword, and I was just coming onto that. Let’s not confuse everyone and get ahead of ourselves. Now, Year 7, where were we….’

Billy left the Teams call five minutes later to go to the toilet. Billy didn’t come back.

Billy has ADHD. Even if he didn’t, this is a monstrous way to deal with a student. But I was so annoyed that we’d had so many interruptions and problems with the lesson and I was mid-story and so, instead of reacting like an adult, I acted like an annoyed child.

Relationships are all about rupture and repair. I could have let this rupture in my relationship with Billy get me down. As a trainee teacher, it would have floored me. But kintsugi helped. I was going to use this as an opportunity.

I checked Billy’s work. I saw that, although he was sketchy about Nicaea and Antioch, he had a good understanding of the gathering of Crusaders in Constantinople. So, next lesson, I planned for Billy to shine.

‘Year 7, I looked at your work yesterday.’ [Pause]. ‘It was very good. But you know who particularly impressed me? Billy. Just look at Billy’s notes about the Crusaders in Constantinople. Billy, can you tell us about it?’

Billy did.

Rupture and repair. I put effort into planning my repair. Was my relationship with Billy better because the rupture and repair had reminded me to make a fuss out of him and allowed him to shine in front of his peers, which he loves? I don’t know. What I do know is that I tried to embrace the imperfection.

3. Friday morning, Period 3, Year 8

In this lesson, I rearranged the Teams call to allow me to use Breakout Groups. I had to do this due to an update on my computer that I don’t really understand. So I cancelled the lesson and re-issued the invite. I was clear to write ‘the lesson isn’t cancelled, please click on the new link.’

Chaos. Absolute chaos. The Teams chat went like this:

‘Is the lesson cancelled?’

‘I haven’t got the new link!’

‘Which call do we join?’

‘Is the lesson cancelled?’

‘Where do we go now? What do we do?’

‘Shall we just revise?’

‘I could walk the dog.’

‘Is the lesson cancelled?’

It took me half an hour to get most of the students into the new Teams call, and not all students joined in the end. I didn’t even have time to use Breakout rooms. It was an unmitigated disaster.

And kintsugi couldn’t help me here. It was just a colossal waste of time, and it was all my fault. I should have rescheduled the meeting much earlier, allowing me time to deal with the fallout before the lesson, and get everyone back on line. I couldn’t paper over the cracks with this one, or add a golden or even silver lining.

At these moments we just need to talk to someone who has been there themselves. We need to know that we aren’t alone in being an idiot, an imposter, an imbecile. We need a sympathetic mentor or an understanding Head of Department to say, ‘me too’, and to tell us about the time when they let a bumblebee into the classroom, told off the kids for making a fuss, and then got stung by the bee.

At these moments, we need a [virtual] hug. ‘Not the forced intimacy or oppressive friendliness of most modern hugs,‘ says Alain de Botton, ‘but the melancholy sympathetic way Botticelli’s angels do it, having come down to earth to offer comfort to humans for the brute facts of earthly existence.’

We need teaching handbooks and journals and inspirational schemes-of-work. But, at times, we also need sympathy, ‘me too’, and kintsugi….

(although, by the looks of this photo, I think I need to work on the repair as much as the pot….)

7 Comments Add yours

  1. emzyD says:

    I cant tell you how much I (a trainee teacher) needed to read this today. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stella says:

    Really enjoyed reading this today. Made me reflect on the way I have done things previously.

    Like

  3. Deb says:

    Lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. longsandscpd says:

    Reblogged this on Longsands LPD.

    Like

  5. geooriordan says:

    Great article! Lovely to see your name come up on our school CPD ‘Blog of the Week’ …you might have even inspired me to start my own blog 🙂

    Like

    1. Paula Lobo says:

      Carrie! So great to hear from you. Sorry for the late reply, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. What’s your new blog called? Exciting stuff! Thanks for getting in touch, it was lovely to hear from you!

      Like

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