Last week I had a horrible teaching experience, then a wonderful one. A colleague is making a documentary film about liberal arts professors, and the film crew came to record my brilliant transformative teaching–I dressed in blue, had a smart interactive class planned as a lively debriefing about the arts-integrated field excursion my students had just completed. And as the cameras rolled various factors conspired to make the whole class period an awkward mess–and not in a good way 😉 I felt awful and embarrassed, and beat myself up afterwards but still had to walk over to the library to meet the film crew again for some additional footage, doing yoga with a former student to re-enact a funny memory from a year ago when we did spontaneous headstands in the classroom, and she reminded me why this work makes my heart sing, and that made everything nearly OK.
When I got home I opened Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, and read this:
This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life. (1)
Here’s the thing: teaching is a humbling experience no matter how good you try to be, no matter how great your students may be, no matter what Period. And I tack on greater degrees of difficulty because I’m constantly integrating new community partnerships, new projects, new methods. When Palmer wrote that introduction he was entering his third decade of teaching. He’d been teaching 20 years. I began teaching college as a graduate student in 1996. I’m at the same moment in my career as Palmer was, seeking, as he did, to clarify my identity and integrity as a teacher, and to help my colleagues do the same.
About 2 years ago I began a process of attempting to start over, with beginner’s mind, the path of learning my teaching self. I enrolled in yoga teacher training. My purpose for doing so was in some ways straightforward, in others not. My practical motivation was that I was already informally teaching yoga in some of my writing workshops–we would do moving meditations and “yoga for writers” activities, but I wasn’t formally trained and knew I ought to be. Around this time a couple of friends were diagnosed with serious illnesses and I wanted to understand how therapeutic yoga could help them prepare for and recover from surgeries and after-effects. I was also still very much interested in how digital ways of knowing intersected with embodied ones and an immersion in asana and anatomy seemed like an interesting new way to get at that. Ultimately, though, my motivation was more selfish and less intellectual. Deep down, I just wanted to get out of my head.
During weekend intensives each month I spent 20 hours in a yoga studio learning to be a teacher. But I was really learning to be a student again.
When you love your work that much–and many teachers do–the only way to get out of trouble is to go deeper in. We must enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but also to serve our students well. (2)
One of the tangles of teaching is that it even though our best practices remind us to focus on the learning, on the students, teaching is still largely about us. We enter the room hoping to share knowledge that we believe matters so much that we’ve invested most of our lives into learning and sharing it, and we have selected subjects and activities that we believe are most crucial for students to engage–quite possibly because they have sparked our our own hearts and minds so brightly. We want to give students the experience of our subject they can best or only get, uniquely, through us. (Otherwise, why not just log on to a MOOC?) If you think a lot about all this (and many of us do) you can find yourself trying so hard to be a great teacher that you lose your grip on the fundamentals of being a good one. Fortunately, there is almost always another chance to do better–another class period, another semester. But this means there is also always another chance, a likelihood even, that you will flop again. Palmer’s book became a classic, I think, because his awareness of the vulnerable, personally invested “self who is teaching” is so honest and true. He challenges us to be, as Florida Scott-Maxwell put it, “fierce with reality”–to own who we are and where we’ve been and why we are still here doing this work (29).
I sit on the mat, nearing the end of my formal training [for now], grateful for that chance to begin again, from scratch, learning to be a teacher. Being a novice is frustrating. I haven’t yet memorized all the Sanskrit terminology or anatomy lessons; I stumble over ways to tell people where to put their feet; I take too long observing the students’ physical alignments before transitioning them into the next pose. But here’s what I know: this is nothing compared to what all there is to know, and yet it is really important stuff. It is fundamental. And when I return to my academic classroom, the teaching of yoga is reminding me to notice again, as if for the first time, where my students “feet” need to be in order to feel grounded enough to move from one task to the next. It is reminding me to notice where mine are as well.