Why I Teach

When I was a child, I never understood why my father could get up so early to go to work. I thought of him going to work as something probably rather similar to me going to school, which I, by the way, loathed because I never liked being in any environment that treated me merely as a subject of the higher authority, namely the teachers (my last post may shed light on this sense of loathing). So, I was puzzled every time when I saw my father being up too early, putting on his neat silk necktie, with his eyes enthusiastically wide open, as if he was so excited to get to work. Being me, I did managed to ask him as I was growing up what was so exciting about his work. He always replied with a little smile on his face signaling the “father knows best” kind of gesture:

When you get a job that you love, every day is a holiday…going to work is like going on a holiday.”

My Architecture and Urban Design of Shanghai class last year. Each week we traveled to different sites in the city to learn about the city in situ.

My Architecture and Urban Design of Shanghai class last year. Each week we traveled to different sites in the city to learn about the city in situ.

Partly, I must admit, that my father was an workaholic, which might help to explain why he was never in good health, and therefore passed away so prematurely five years ago when I he was just 63. He loved his work, which was the quality on which no one, even those did not like him personally, would ever cast any doubt. But he was also horrible at balancing work and life. So, excessive working eventually led to the quick deterioration of health. By the time he was retiring, he was going to the hospital on a weekly basis for al kinds of medication. Until a few years ago tat I begun to understand what he meant by if you like what you do then every working hour is a holiday, when I began to realize that I wanted to get up early in the morning like my father — to go to teach.

Passion for teaching is my deliberate combating against what Jean Paul Sarte calls “bad faith.” I do what I do not because I have no other choices or because I don’t know that I do not “have to” do it. I teach, therefore I am. I teach because the passion from within, because of my gut feeling, and because of the joy of participating in a social world in which learners help each other through intellectual inquiries. I always have other choices — I am always free as an individual I believe — but the decision to be chained to a job that I am passionate about is also another kind of freedom: I am free because I am able to follow my own passion, not others. The same way that reason may be the slave of passion, my reason to teach is a result of me allowing my passion to make me free to follow my own sensibility regarding what I believe to be proper moral standards.

With the students learning about Chinese cosmology at a temple in Shanghai.

With the students learning about Chinese cosmology at a temple in Shanghai.

For the past two years, I have been getting up at 5am to 6am in the morning. This was because of the habit that I got to develop the first time I had the opportunity to serve as a teacher. When I taught at Harvard between 2011 – 2013, I also did the same thing. In fact my technique of getting up early was conceived when I had to teach early classes on the daily basis there. My eyes may not be clear when I rise that early, but boy, my brain cuts like a knife (and there are many scientific research that also back this up!). This early rising has ever since become my habit so even though I don’t have any thing particular to do I would get up early anyway. Sometimes, when I know that I will be teaching the next day, I do not even want to go to bed because I feel so excited, passionate, and enthusiastic about preparing “as close as possible to being perfect teaching materials” for my students. I want to make sure that I would be able to get right into the classroom, knowing exactly how I would like to run my class to engage my students from the very first minute, all the way to the very end.

I never got a chance to ask my father what he thought about when he woke up in the morning. But for me, I get excited the very moment I open my eyes in the morning because I want to be ready to give my best performance, not only as a teacher, but also as an entertainer, and as role model for learning — yes, I think learning should be absolutely enlightening in a fun way — to my students. My passion for teaching lies in my deep and genuine interest in sharing what I think I know with others. What makes teaching more fun, than simply sharing what I think I know with others, is the fact that I have the responsibility as a teacher to show to my students how to teach with intention, how to work with clarity, how to accept that I make mistake and strive to correct it, and how to treat everyone with respect. All of these aspects of responsibility, to me, are the foundation of good education. I still believe that education is one of the few reliable solutions to the problems we are facing in the world today.

With students at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

With students at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

I, also, still believe that teaching is still the most effective way to pass on useful knowledge to those who otherwise would not know, and therefore save them the trouble to have to make their own mistakes to learn about something through their own trial and error. The pleasure I get from teaching is when I see the students feeling that they are learning something meaningful. I feel very happy when I see my students feel that they are learning something meaningful everyday, which makes me also want to be a better teacher every day as well. I don’t want to overestimate the power of motivation, but I can say with absolute sincerity that what “physically move me to get out of my bed” in the morning is the feeling that if i get out of that bed I would be doing something meaningful — teaching — and that what emotionally move me to want to be better at teaching is my belief that I get better at teaching I could expect more students to succeed, which I want to simply and broadly define as being able to feel that they are accomplishing something new and meaningful. In this sense, this classroom engagement is meaningful because both the students and I alike get to sense the existence of space and time “in the moment,” and because the students can take what they learn and apply it to their life afterwards. It’s because what I believe in, I have a purpose in life, and I want to live my life to the fullest to fulfill it. As long as I fulfill my goal of teaching well every day, my life is fulfilled — everyday.

When I prepare a two-hour class, in my mind is always the idea that I must make it a mission to make my class as interesting those two-hour-long movies that the students can focus on without getting overly distracted. What makes good movies interesting? Because they’re interesting. So, two questions emerge:

First, why can’t we make our class interesting in the same way those good movies are? Second, what make students feel that the classroom is a boring setting?

With students in my moral philosophy class last year at NYU Shanghai.

With students in my moral philosophy class last year at NYU Shanghai.

I’ll start with the second question because it is easier to answer here: boring classes are boring because they aren’t engaging. They aren’t engaging because they don’t point to the immediate benefit from which the participants to derive — in good movies, the viewers are guaranteed to be entertained and that’s why they are willing to pay money to go to the cinema to watch them. In addition, they aren’t engaging because they are often about what the teachers want to talk about rather than what the students want to know. I personally don’t see the point in teaching things that the students don’t find relevant. There’re many things, we all know, that the students should know although they might not seem immediately relevant. So, the question here is not whether or not the contents are relevant, but how do we teachers make our students feel that they are relevant to the students? In other words, students will engage when they see that they can learn from what you are offering. As the educational expert Sir Ken Robinson once said, “our current education system is not about awakening the student, but is all about compliance; and it has a very linear view of life, which is simply not the case with life at all.” I couldn’t agree more.

In addition, I wholeheartedly believe that good teaching must be a two-way process in the sense that the teacher has to be able to learn as much from the students as the other conventional way around. Therefore I only think of my students as my junior colleagues, not simply as people who are obligated to be studying at a school or college, because by thinking that way — that these are people who are “obligated” — we only reduce them to “people with bad faith.” Being a bad faith person is bad enough, but being a person who believes that he is living a life by teaching people with bad faith is far far worse. We all have ideas and knowledge to share with each other, I truly believe. Just because someone is younger doesn’t mean he or she has to listen and follow whoever he or she is obligated to listen to via the pervasive social principal of hierarchy. To me, hierarchy only impedes learning (which didn’t me surprised when I found that my morality test score on the unit related to hierarchy is very low — try it yourself). Hierarchy, to me, only prevents teachers to be open minded to new ideas from their students, and sometimes also from their junior colleagues. It also prevents the students from learning by giving them the impression that free inquiry is harmful to their learning mentality at large, as they might be punished for challenging the hierarchy itself.

So, to go back to my first question: why can’t we make our class interesting in the same way those good movies are? We absolutely can. I have three keywords: straightforward, engaging, and entertaining. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to give a long lecture, because when you know that you have a lot of time it’s easy to go on tangent, and to be sidetracked by various rhetorical thoughts. So, the best talks are usually the ones that are short, and, beliee it or not, it’s precisely that which time constraint is often what makes a talk very interesting. For instance, we all agree that those amazing TED Talks rock — precisely for the reasons embedded in these three keywords. They have to be precise — 18 minutes or less — and with that time frame one can only be straightforward; and by being straightforward, the passion, the engagement, and the true charisma of the speaker, I believe, also show. So, giving a one-hour or a two-hour lecture needs a little bit more preparation. Usually one has a lot to talk about but the key here is how to deliver them. Guiding the learners through yours steps is one thing, but how to connect those steps is key. In providing the fertile space for those dots to be connected, I often begin my class with rhetorical (not necessary true) examples, thought experiments, recent cases with which we all can associate ourselves with, and so on. The point is not to make an immediate link to the content of the class, but to get the students to see how the content of the class may and  might be useful for them to think about other things. As I have said a few times that the late French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne is my hero, good knowledge is what applicable to our life, otherwise what’s the point of learning it? So, when I teach, I try to replicate a popular movie’s plot, looking how the story line unfolds, how and when to deliver the punchline and twist of the plot, and eventually the ways in which I could wrap everything up at the end (before the closing credits page shows up), so that the students would leave the classroom with an important lesson, take away, or anything that are meaningful to how they, as Sir Robinson also believes to be the goal of education “would go on living their lives meaningfully.”

Finally, there is element of respect and courage. I respect my students, and therefore I want to give it my best to equip them with whatever they need to be a member of society in which they can make a different. As a teacher, therefore, in every minute of my breathing hours (and sometimes when I am sleeping), I feel the enormous urge to make it my life’s mission to make sure that my students know that I don’t teach anyone to become a remarkably average person. 

By that, I don’t mean that I don’t think there’s a value in being true to oneself. I am also fine if someone, by his or her own choice, wants to be an extraordinary average person. There’s also a real value in wanting to cultivate the inner peace and mind, rather than fighting, simply, just to be different in the external world. By becoming a remarkably average person, what I mean is to become who you yourself know to be the kind of person whom you “don’t want to be,” but don’t have the courage — and just the courage — to change yourself otherwise to not being that person. I believe that all of us can change if we recognize the problem, which is usually the fact that we are keeping the “bad faith.” Having the courage to change it is the second, yet most crucial, step. There is no value at all in knowing that you are keepin’ the bad faith and not wanting to change it thanks to the lack of courage. That said, life is not always turns out the way we want it to be, so if the change happens, we should celebrate. But if it doesn’t happen, I still think that it is okay, because, in this sense, I believe that what is most important is the motivation, and not the end result, simply, because there are so many factors of which we simply aren’t in control. So, I usually outrightly tell the student who wants to be “just a remarkably average person” because they don’t have the courage to change himself or herself otherwise, that perhaps they shouldn’t be studying with me.

Lastly, I want to show this video that one of my former student and a great colleague Pearl Paovisaid (Harvard MEd’13) did for the Thai Studies Initiative at Harvard that I was a part of. It’s been a while but I still like it very much 🙂


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