Saturday, March 31, 2012

Good and Bad Teachers And Students...

My Take...

When it comes to good and bad teachers and students, I would say a good teacher can only do so much with a bad student and a good student can learn plenty from a bad teacher.

My definition of a good teacher, whether it's Martial Arts or English Literature, is someone who knows his field well, knows what he knows and what he doesn't know, knows how to break down his material into learnable pieces, is able to adjust his teaching to the abilities his students and who can transmit more than just the techniques or surface features of what he's teaching. He should be able to transmit the spark or spirit or love or essence of what he's teaching.

My definition of a good student is someone who is determined to learn, is persistent and patient, is willing to go nowhere while waiting for an opening but not willing to wait forever, is constantly checking in with their own inner wisdom to see if what they're being taught works or is in alignment with their goals, is willing to look elsewhere for what is lacking here, is respectful and willing to give a teacher the benefit of the doubt and follow instructions but not willing to continue in the face of persistent doubts, and most importantly a good student is willing to practice what is being taught and considers himself to be the subject of a continuous life-long experiment wherein teachers are resources and guides, not gods to be worshiped.

I have had teachers who brought out more of the good student in me (Thanks Andy Dale) and I've had teachers who I learned from in spite of their incompetence, narcissism and mind games. I think the best way to be a good teacher is to be a good student, not only of what you're teaching, but of teaching itself. I think too many teachers think that teaching is all about being good at what they're teaching and having a personal "take" on the subject that's valuable. That's important clearly, but teaching is really about giving the student what he or she can actually learn right now in this lesson and creating an environment where learning can happen. It's about what the student can learn more than about what the teacher knows. Once I got this through my head, I realized that while I loved teaching and it was certainly special to me, it was not about "me" and how "special" I was. When teaching stopped being a platform for my ego, I could see teaching in a whole new light, get over myself, and start actually teaching.

My goal with a "bad" student is to first of all teach him what he is actually able to learn, then to show him what he would have to do to become a better student and learn more. If I sense he's really out to prove that I'm the problem and the obstacle to his learning, I do my best to disprove him, but it's not easy. People who run this game are pretty stubborn and can be very committed to it. I try not to take them personally and just do my best. Mostly, I trust my intuition and go with what feels right...

Here’s an example of a time when I did this. I had one student back in Seattle who was a real problem for me...She was a woman in her 30's who would show up to class in a fur coat, fancy clothes and reeking of perfume...She gave me a lift home one night and confided all kinds of personal information about how her father had killed himself and how hurt and abandoned she felt…all told to me with a “special” emotionally intimate quality...I was pretty young and pretty new to teaching at the time but even then I felt like I was being played. Soon after her revelation, she started to cast me in the "father" role...doing things like sticking her tongue out at me and making faces when I gave her correction...I felt in a bit of a quandary…I sensed that if I rejected her by being stern or disapproving that I was playing right into her hands both as being a "father figure" and also by repeating her rejection by her father which seemed like what she was "gaming" for...If I accepted the behavior, then I was letting myself be bullied and controlled and I sensed that she would just keep pushing for the rejection her game demanded I give her. Either way, I was stuck in this "father" role with her. If I accepted the role it felt false. If I rejected it, I played into her game and was back in the role again...Normally this class had been a group "follow the leader" type class. One night, I had an intuition to do things differently. I asked each student, one at a time, to get up and demonstrate as much of the form as they could remember. I told them I was going to give each one of them a public private lesson. I told them not to worry about how well they executed the form, this was not about how good anyone was or wasn't. It was about watching someone else get correction and seeing what you could learn from doing that. So one at time, each student got up and did this. This being a beginner's class some of them were really nervous but I did my best to help them relax and gave each one personalized feedback. It was actually quite inspiring to watch as they moved through their fear to the other side. Only one student refused to do it. Guess who? And I never saw or heard from her again. Rather than reject her, I felt that I had given her the opportunity to become an actual student and she had refused. This was a turning point for me as a teacher too.

I realized that I had just followed my intuition and solved the problem. I knew that I wasn't her father, but I didn't have to reject her in order to underline that fact. I had to reject her game but not her. And all I had to do was be what I was, which was her teacher. When I announced the theme of the class, the ball was in her court and since she didn’t really want to be a student, she walked away.

I am always learning more about teaching by focusing on my students and what they can learn in any given lesson. And I must say, although they are nowhere near as much fun to teach, I learn a lot more from teaching bad students than I do from teaching good ones.

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