Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A true teacher

Paddy McGrath (not my yoga teacher - yet)

I had a thought-provoking email exchange with my yoga teacher recently. It started when I complained that he hadn’t helped me with a particular problem – it emerged that he hadn’t even really taken in that I had (perhaps too subtly) been trying to draw his attention to this matter for some time. His perspective was that students were always coming to him with problems at inopportune moments, when there was no time to deal with them properly – in his eyes, my case was yet another example of this. I pointed out that if students come to him at awkward moments, this is because he doesn’t allow any time during the class to address individual issues – the way he has set things up, there is no opportune moment to ask him for individual attention. He acknowledged that this is true, and said he’d think about how to change it (resisting any temptation to throw me out of the class at this point).

In the course of this exchange, I started to reflect on my own teaching practice at university, and realised that what I do is almost exactly the same. I teach in what is generally a pretty traditional format of lectures and group tutorials. While the more confident students do ask plenty of questions and contribute their perspectives within this framework, one-on-one exchanges are generally squeezed into a few minutes before the next tutorial, so that discussion of individual issues, or exchanges with less gregarious students, are very limited. I do have a consultation hour each week when students can come to see me in my (shared) office, but few take up this opportunity. The occasional student will come to discuss an essay, but more commonly students only come at this time to ask for and justify extensions.

In some ways, this feels like a ‘safe’ arrangement – I can present material that I’ve already worked through, without too much danger that I’ll be asked to venture into areas that are unfamiliar or too personal. Similarly, if a student doesn’t feel confident to speak, they don’t have to. On the other hand, it’s also very limiting, and throws everyone back on their own resources, instead of allowing insights – or problems - to emerge within relationships built on trust. In this style of teaching, contacts with students usually remain fairly superficial – or extremely superficial in the case of the many students who don’t even turn up, now that lectures are available on line, and tutorial attendance is (more or less) optional. Teaching (and learning) in this way can feel rather lonely. As the teacher, it often seems that you’re just there to provide a product, which the students pay for and take away. Even if they write nice things in their teaching assessments, indicating that they’re well satisfied with the product you’ve supplied, the exchange often doesn’t go much deeper than that.

Toward the end of the email conversation with my yoga teacher, he wrote something that made a strong impression on me. He said, “It's humbling when you realise (as the so-called teacher) how much experience and wisdom the people attending classes have, and you realise it's as much about coming together and doing the practice together as it is about who is up the front.”

I think he’s pointing to something very important here about the process of teaching and learning, and it goes beyond the truism that the teacher has as much to learn from the students, as the students have to learn from the teacher. His words suggest that the role of teacher is one that circulates in a group of people who are learning together. There’s one person who is called the teacher – and with this title come certain responsibilities: if you have accepted the role of teacher, it’s important to carry these out well. But central to doing so is the willingness to recognise that there is a well of experience and wisdom in the group that is deeper than anything an individual can draw on alone. To do this requires resisting both ingrained habits and sometimes very strong pressures from “so-called” students for the teacher to behave as if he or she is the sole fount of knowledge and wisdom available. The flip-side of this pressure is the scathing criticism that the same students will tend to direct toward the teacher as soon as he or she disappoints their unrealistic expectations.

On the teacher’s side, it seems to me that with the role of teacher comes the temptation and danger of narcissism. If you forget that you are just playing a certain role, and start to identify too closely with the title of teacher, you can start to believe that you really are the single, superior fount of wisdom in a group – or at least to feel that you ought to be, and then to worry that you’re not up to this standard (a kind of reverse narcissism). These delusions only distract a person from cultivating the real skills of a true teacher – from becoming a true teacher of no rank, to put it in the language of zen.

Of course, the danger of narcissism is not restricted to the teaching profession – it seems fair to suppose that it might be even more widespread among blog-writers... So at this point I will restrain myself and get back to the one activity in which my teaching practice provides for one-on-one interaction (albeit of a peculiarly painful kind): marking essays.