Steve’s Sunday Conversation topic got me thinking about teaching. It’s been much on my mind, because I’m in the middle of revising the writing course I teach at UCI. Part of my job is to not just run the course, but to train new teachers of writing, and every time I teach my Led First class at Jörgen’s, I ponder the meaning of teaching because, although I’ve been teaching writing for 28 years, I’ve only just started teaching Ashtanga. So I draw on my knowledge as a mentor teacher (of writing) to inform my role as a new teacher (of Ashtanga). I have a few observations that may answer Steve’s question.
There’s a difference between a guru and a teacher. In one of my teaching circles, in academia, we never use the word guru, of course. It carries some powerful colonial connotations, and none of them wanted. But we do mentor. I can say unequivocally that in every case where I’ve had a mentoring relationship with students, they’ve come to me. Some of these relationships are fifteen to twenty years old now, and I’m always a little astonished by it. I believe the student chooses the guru; the reasons have to do with the guru’s weight and light, but they have even more to do with the student. I used to put a quote from Bruce Lee at the top of my syllabus: “One is taught in accordance with one’s fitness to learn.” I’ve chosen my guru, I have no doubt.
But let’s just stick with the second word after Steve’s slash: teacher. At the start of each quarter, I pass out a long document listing the requirements of the course, my aforementioned syllabus. I always tell my students my syllabus is my contract with them. It’s not just what they’re promising to do in good faith (come to class regularly, work with focus, participate actively, etc.) but also what I’m promising to teach them. They should come to class with an expectation to learn from me. They should tell me when they don’t feel like I’m serving them well, so I can be better. A teacher recognizes that responsibility. When I show up to class, I am there to give knowledge. By showing up, I’m agreeing to do that. I want to do that for my students.
In the same vein, a teacher has to recognize the best way to impart knowledge to any given student is going to be different each day, each meeting, each student. A teacher has to demonstrate alacrity and adaptability, and a keen evaluative eye. One student may require a lot of, shall we say, firm encouragement—you might need to kick some ass. Another student doing the same task, even the same way, may require more support and compassion. You can never do the adjustment the same way twice. Knowing how to adapt requires a lot of experience.
The only way to get experience is to fail and learn. This means that all good teachers are first and foremost good students of their own art. When you set the right learning environment, students are willing to join you on this journey, accept your failures to serve them well, accept your apology, and try again with you. That process of learning the best way to learn—together—is an amazing experience, a sort of electric moment when the student no longer needs you, and you will now know more about how best to teach. The posture is now done with lightness and joyful confidence, and you can both move on.
So ultimately, the goal of all teachers should be to teach yourself into redundancy, to let go and point the way forward, beyond you as a teacher, into the art itself—to teach the student to be his/her own teacher. This is really the goal of learning to write well. It has some similarities to being an Ashtanga teacher.
Posted by Bobbie