Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Student is More Important Than the Teacher

I think that a teacher can get the best teacher training by taking classes -- especially in a subject that is unrelated to the field that we teach. I believe this because we are the experts in our disciplines and in our classrooms. We know where the lesson is going. We are capable of answering most of the questions. Research in our fields is second nature to us. But it isn't for the student.

One of the reasons I loved law school was because I got to see how other people taught. I got to compare and contrast my teaching style with theirs unencumbered by an expertise on the subject. I got to see how long it took for me to grasp a concept, and what had to happen in the classroom and in study to get me to understand it.

I love yoga for that same reason. Whenever I go to class, I learn something about teaching and learning. I started out doing yoga at a yoga school. Lately, I've been going to yoga at my health club. The teaching is so different! What's interesting to me is that the teachers are the same teachers (there are only so many yoga gigs in Denver, so a lot of my teachers at the yoga school moonlight at the club). The difference is the student.

The yoga school is strict and disciplined. You go and the expectation is that you practice and advance. No one is easy on you because you are afraid to go up into handstand. You come to the school prepared to do what the teachers tell you to do. You have to abandon ego when you get to the school. You come to the realization that shape-shifting is a life-long process.

The club is lax. People take yoga at the club because it is popular, not because they go seek enlightenment. The club people want a fast-paced, muscle-burning workout. They have no patience for the emotional and spiritual challenge of yoga. Maybe they are on the way to enlightenment, but don't see it. In class the other day, the teacher demonstrated handstand for us and then asked us to work on it. Next to me, a woman immediately went up into headstand. She didn't even try what the teacher wanted.

To me, the difference between the school and the club is that people go to the school to learn, and people go to the club for recreation. The club people complain when a class goes too slowly, or the teacher talks too much, or focuses on what seems like a minor detail about extending the skin on the side of the foot to pull back the little toe. They come with a set idea of what the yoga experience should be, and then they want it recreated for them.

The school isn't like that. It's emphasis is on precision and alignment -- on "working deep into the pose." The student who wants that precision goes to the school and submits to the practice. B.K.S. Iyengar tells a story of his yoga training. His teacher told him that he needed to learn a posture correctly, and he wouldn't get dinner until he did.

The New York Times ran a piece on April 23 called, "A Yoga Manifesto," about a group of yoga schools that de-emphasize the teacher in the learning process. Instead of being able to choose your teacher, as other schools allow you to do, the school simply sifts you into the next available class. It does not even publish the names of its teachers. The idea came to the schools' founder, Greg Gumucio, from his teacher, Bikram Choudhury. When Gumucio complained that he didn't like taking class from one of the teachers that Choudhury employed, Choudhury responded, "'You are your own teacher....You are responsible for your own experience.'" Choudhury went on to explain that it is easy to concentrate with candles and music, but it was important to "'Try being calm and peaceful in your car when some one cuts you off.'" Yoga is about embracing life, not escaping from it in a dark and hot little room with a teacher who comforts and coddles you.

Of course, I have known for a very long time that we are the major factors in our own learning. Class is really only an introduction to ideas and skills. True understanding, mastery, and application come with practice away from the classroom, often years after the final grade has been posted to your transcript. I still ponder questions from college that perplexed me. occasionally I formulate an answer. Occasionally, I formulate several -- over the course of several years. Learning is about struggling with an idea, an activity that is, by definition, not comfortable.

I am frustrated with the culture of no struggle. There seems to be an idea among students, parents, school boards, and some teachers, that learning should take place in an environment where nothing can harm self-esteem, or alter a student's view of himself or the world. Well, if you think that you are the brightest star in the sky and then you fail your vocabulary test, shouldn't that alter your perception of yourself just a little bit? The football team that has no injuries at the end of the year is the football team that forfeited every game.

So I think that we need to throw the ego out of teaching. Teachers need to stop playing the martyr. Often, I hear my colleagues say, "I can't take a personal day. I have too much to teach." Such a complaint assumes that the student can't get along without the teacher, and that no learning takes place except in the teacher's presence. It also enables the student. A student who can't form a thought without a teacher present to suggest one is a failure. The student has to come to class and study prepared to struggle, and the teacher has to be prepared to let him.

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