One of the things that I’ve noticed over my years of teaching writing is the delay time involved with learning. It’s true for writing. It’s true for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
Steve’s been pondering what makes a good teacher. I’ve written about it. But one of the main qualities is a huge heaping supply of empathy for this slow burn, and, I believe, presentness. Exteme presentness, in fact. The kind of presentness that borders on mind-reading abilities.
When I was a young teacher, I had neither of these. I would treat each essay that crossed my desk in the same way, with the same set of standards of what was “correct.”
Of course, standards are..well, they’re standards and you have to have them. But what I learned as I grew more experienced is that there are many paths to “correct.” It takes a trained eye to take a good look at an essay and decide what’s needed to get the writers where they need to go.
This is where the long view comes in. And the empathy.
I had a student years ago, during my first year as a professor, who came into my office in tears. She told me my class was too demanding. That it was too hard for her. That she didn’t feel she could do it. She wanted to quit. I soothed her, I spent hours encouraging her, making sure she felt she could do it. But at some point during this meeting, I began to understand that all was not what it seemed.
Four years later, after she’d taken maybe six more literature classes with me—in crisis at the end of every one of them—and was once again in tears in my office, I looked at her, held out the box of Kleenex, and told her get out of my office and go finish her work.
It didn’t take me long to get to know her, and figure out that in order to do her best, she had to freak out.
There’s a phrase in Latin for this: modus operndi.
I’ve noticed that knowing when to spend hours supporting a student with encouragement, and when to say get the hell out my office—and knowing that both these actions will result in the same level of success—requires the ability to fully focus on that the individual student, and that it may take a while for what you’ve taught to sink in, and that until then, things might get a bit repetitive.
This is the explanation I have for the sudden understanding that comes upon me when practicing, that shock of what you might call the asanapiphany. You’re humming along, you’re doing your practice, when something that you’ve heard your teacher say what very well may be literally a thousand times, suddenly makes sense.
Or your body just slides into the place that your teacher has put you into over and over again—no teacher present. Like magic. And you go, “Oh!” in a little surprised internal voice. (Sometimes it’s an external surprise voice.)
Tim Miller, case in point, has, for years now, put his thumb on my sacrum in trikonasana, and pulled it (what feels like to me) down. Each and every time he’s seen me do that pose.
“Wha?” has been my reaction for years.
Tim patiently gives me this adjustment. No matter where in the room he is, no matter how long I’ve gone without seeing him, and no matter where the practice room itself is, he will zoom over and do this thing that I totally don’t understand—yet.
But I know, one day, I will be practicing, and through his patience, and his empathy (knowing that I will one day understand, because he understands me better than I do), I’ll get it. Until then, this bafflement is my modus operendi.
I’ll take this one step further. I know that I’ll get it, because it’s happened so many times in the past. Tim has taught me how to trust that one day I’ll get it.
Every term, I write up at the top of my syllabus a line from Bruce Lee: “One is taught in accordance with one’s fitness to learn.” A good teacher attracts good students. The experience of good teaching is what brings me to his shala. I know I will learn. But also, our patience as good students has taught Tim to empathize and be patient himself.
I used to think I wrote that quote at the top of my syllabus for my students. Now, I know it applies as much to me as to them. In order to teach, you must be ready to learn.
Posted by Bobbie