Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Being A Teacher

Isn't About You...

Here's something I've learned about teaching T'ai-Chi: It isn't about me, my knowledge, what I know, what I've discovered, what I'm excited about, or what I can do. It's about my students. What do they want or need to learn? What are they able to do right now to move in that direction? It's about figuring out what that is and showing them how to take that next, usually small step.

I've seen many teachers, particularly in the martial arts and other physical disciplines, be so into their own message, philosophy, or technique, that they forget the student's goals and limitations. I think many of these teachers are only teaching because they need the money or the ego strokes or the feeling of power that they get from being a "teacher".

In my opinion, if I am or want to be a good and effective teacher, I have to place my primary attention on my students, not on my own needs or methods. I have to see into each person as best I can. I have to see where they are, and where they want or need to go, and then I have to see what I can do to help them get there. My methods and knowledge are important to be sure, but if I am shooting over the heads of my students, or ignoring them as human beings, they don't mean anything at all.

My goal is to keep everything I know about T'ai-Chi primed and ready to go, but to only use what's appropriate to the student at hand. Sometimes I have something I want to show a given student, but on seeing them and hearing how they're doing, how their week went, etc.. I drop that whole plan and move according to what I think they can take in right now.

This is one of the reasons I mainly teach private lessons. I can tailor the lessons to the student. Some students need me to "crack the whip" a little. Others need to go very slowly. Others need to talk a lot. Others need to focus more quietly. Everyone has their own resistance to T'ai-Chi. I see my role as doing what I can to help the "virus" of this practice get through whatever each student's resistance might be. I have to see where my students are open to it, not where I wish they were open to it. And true opening cannot be forced. It just is, or is not. Once the "virus" takes hold though, my job gets easier, because it tends to create more and bigger openings.

I think of teaching as a service job, not a special position that makes me better than other people. I am not above my students. I am actually below them, trying to boost them up to a higher level of play. I think teachers who think they are "special", the "divas" out there, are really just getting in the way of their students and the art itself. They may inspire some gifted masochists to strive for their approval, but the bruised and confused people left in their wake tell a different story.

It's too bad that people who are really good at something, but aren't teachers at heart, have to teach to make money. If they could just be paid to research and improve the art, but leave the actual teaching to people who, though they might not be gifted innovators, are good at integrating and teaching, the world might be a better place. But alas, that ain't the way it is.

So my message to teachers is: Get over yourself. Focus on your students and what they can actually learn right now.

And my message to students is: Trust your intuition and wait for a teacher who sees you and can help you take that next small step toward what it is you want to learn.

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