As Anita Kwiatkowski eloquently implores us to remember, professional development begins with the acknowledgement that we should harbour ignorance in our midst in much the same way a 16th century poet would keep a skull on his desk – as a memento of the futility of our endeavours thus far. This acknowledgement is both chastening and a spur. It is a spur because it enjoins us to persist in the likely endless endeavour to ameliorate our understanding of what we do and why. It is chastening because, while, as teachers, we are proverbially masters of our classroom and our subject, we yet know so little about our practice.
The psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan affords us an instructive concept with which to reconcile this contradiction, that of le sujet supposé savoir – the subject supposed to know. In psychoanalysis, the subject supposed to know is the analyst. He is supposed to know the meaning of the analysand’s words and actions, and make sense of it all. The trick of the psychoanalytic session, however, is that this knowledge is an attribution by the analysand to the analyst. The analyst’s knowledge is merely a function of his position qua analyst. As Lacan remarks, ‘even the psychoanalyst put in question is credited at some point with a certain infallibility’. The analyst knows he does not know, yet, his seeming to know is central to the efficacy of the cure. Indeed, the cure may be said to have been effected when the patient realises that there is more of the supposé than of the savoir about his analyst.
This model might be a profitable way of describing the status of the TEFL teacher. That is to say, there is a split between the teacher as an individual who may acknowledge their own ignorance, and the teacher as the subject supposed to know. A teacher has to inspire confidence in his students – they have to believe that their teacher knows the subject and understands what they are saying, mistakes included, otherwise there is no reason to have a teacher at all. Embodying the function of the subject supposed to know, the teacher is the prime mover of any lesson, albeit one subject to the determination of the students. The teacher’s presence guarantees there is learning in the students’ acts; in the same way, the psychoanalyst guarantees there is meaning in the patient’s acts. Considered from this angle, then, it may well be that belief in the teacher’s knowledge is more important than the actual knowledge the teacher knows.