First, the subjects we teach are as large and complex as life, so our knowledge of them is always flawed and partial. No matter how we devote ourselves to reading and research, teaching requires a command of content that always eludes our grasp. Second, the students we teach are larger than life and even more complex. To see them clearly and to see them whole, and respond to them wisely in the moment requires a fusion of Freud and Solomon that few of us have….Knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life–and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject–not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning. — Parker Palmer, “The Courage to Teach”
This fall, I’ve committed to (co)teaching eight yoga workshops, along with my regular “load” of classes. I’ll also be facilitating peer coaching learning sessions for grassroots organizations East of the River. And, deciding to embark on Reiki Master training to begin with stemmed, in large part, from a desire to teach.
When I first started doing organizational development consulting, my then-mentor (who I often worked with on projects) would talk about my expertise with prospective clients. I was an expert in start-ups, in immigrant and refugee issues, in resource development, in enhancing leadership capacity.
I recognized that she did this, in part, out her generous nature; she was kvelling. I took the expert talk as what I assumed it was meant to be: a compliment, albeit much exaggerated. I was in my late 20s, and yes had already some very interesting life and work experience, and yes was fairly confident, and yes, check, intelligent. So I would make eye contact with a half smile, a small nod, and a shrug, as if to say, yeah, I know a few small things.
As the years went on, the expertise conversations made me more and more uncomfortable. I didn’t particularly like the word. It reminded me of people in dark suits with muffin crumbs and coffee stains along the lapels, deep creases between their eyes. Experts weren’t vibrant and curious, playful and witty. They were cynical and knew the way things would turn out, and that knowing meant they were unwilling to try anything new, or support others who would. They did things according to a formula, over and over and over again.
Expertise slowly began to suffocate me.
I still think of my former mentor as one of the most brilliant and generous people I know. Unfortunately, I think she believed her hype. Because I was already an expert, there became more and more things that I should have already known. Any mistakes I made, or explorations off the beaten path, were interpreted as rebelliousness (not following the rules of engagement I supposedly already knew) or intellectual/physical laziness. And, since I already knew xyz, then there was nothing left for her to teach me.
At the time, I was ruled by an unconscious belief that being an adult and in the workforce was a kind of small death, even if you were doing social justice work that you loved and thought could actually change things. I vacillated between trying to work harder and mold myself into someone that wouldn’t mind that kind of life — and resenting this model of a hard-working, selfless expert. I was aware that the insistence on this level of specialization seemed an outgrowth of a capitalistic model, a corporate way of being. But I didn’t yet have the tools that would help me go from the “being right” way to another path, one that would support individuals along it, as it simultaneously embodied a deeper, and healthier, social change.
My mentor (which we can define here as a special kind of teacher, one who takes an interest and helps guide her student intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually) transformed in my mind into someone who — regardless of her powerful levels of commitment, competence and compassion — would never feel deeply satisfied by her life’s work. It seemed tragic to me that she often chose to focus on what wasn’t working, rather than on how organizational development could provide the infrastructure to grow and deepen the very social, economic and environmental movements our future depends on.
Now, I realize I may be engaging in some of my own bullshit hype here: I do hope she’s extremely content with what she’s accomplished, which is admirable by any standard, including standing on many a Who’s Who list, and having thousands of thankful organizations and nonprofit leaders in her portfolio. This is far more than I expect to have by the end of my own life.
And, I am well aware that I will never be able to repay this woman for what she freely gave me. I learned an awful lot from my years of knowing and working with her, including how to teach adults using experiential, highly interactive and democratic models of teaching. As the commercial says: priceless.
But eventually this slow asphyxiation coupled with a strong desire to learn more about who I was becoming, rather than what I already knew, made it obvious that a good working fit, we weren’t. This wasn’t so much driven by personality as philosophical approach. Looking back, I believe I lacked the psychological and ontological tendency toward expertise. I loved training and facilitating and coaching, and yes where there was specific skills and knowledge to impart, teaching, but I didn’t want to live the life of expert. So, mimicking the mythic ways in which students have left teachers throughout the centuries, I left — without, I must admit, much grace or gratitude.
At some point, I started teaching yoga, much as a surprise to me. My then yoga teacher, who had also became a friend, asked me to sub for a lunchtime class of hers. She knew I already had attended a number of teacher trainings, and that I decided it wasn’t for me. “There’s never more than four people in there” she responded to my protests of not knowing how to teach a physical practice, mainly because I still didn’t see myself as a very physical person. (When I was a kid, I was called “bag of bones” and always picked last for kickball. I dropped things and fell a lot, but could get the neighborhood bullies to lay off by using words they didn’t understand. That, and having strong male friends, always a few years older than me and the aforementioned bullies. I liked getting high, even as an early teen, because of what it did to my mind. For a long time, I figured I was my mind. My body was merely the sense doors through which I could manipulate my mind, and therefore, myself.)
12 people showed up that first class, and it went better than expected. (I ended by thanking everyone “for popping my yoga teaching cherry.” It was portentous of my cursing and saying otherwise inappropriate things in yoga class, which loosens folks up enough for them to stop worrying about whether they’re doing it right.) I was asked to sub again and again and again, until I finally agreed to have a regular spot on the schedule.
It would take years until I could honestly say that I enjoyed it; I often worried that I didn’t know enough to be a good teacher. Yet students kept coming back, told me how much they got out of the classes. I was getting similar feedback in my nonprofit consulting and coaching work — though I sometimes felt like a fraud there too. I had been as Associate Director, and a Board President, and an organizational co-founder — but never an Executive Director, and these were often the people I was coaching.
Along the way, I was lucky to come across the teachings of Parker Palmer, who defines education as guiding “students on an inner journey toward more truthful ways of seeing and being in the world.”
His approach to teaching — which focuses on the inner landscape of a teacher — was very much in line with what I was starting to appreciate about more reflective models of organizational learning and leading.
It also mirrored some of the yogic and Buddhist philosophy I was studying. The path of yoga is about conquering Avidya, often defined as ignorance or lack of wisdom or even delusion. (“A” is a prefix which means no or not, “vidya” is a type of knowledge which involves seeing from the inner eye.) The way to see clearly is through Svadhyaya, or getting close to something, namely the self. You get close by meditating, by reflecting, by asking questions, by observing, by engaging, by studying. Yoga can be seen as this study of the self, or the Self (as opposed to, say, a way to kick your asana.)
I often joke that I’m a “gateway” teacher (like my old friend marijuana!) — that if you like what you get from me, you’ll be open to checking out other teachers and teachings, other perspectives, other experiences. A friend tells me that I sell myself short by saying this. Maybe it comes from my former life as an “expert.” I am aware of how much there is yet to learn and to live, which is sometimes overwhelming. (Actually, nauseating.) Sometimes though, it makes me feel almost immortal, with infinite possibilities ahead.
In Hebrew, the words “teach” and “learn” come from the very same root. As I prepare to step up my teaching more this next season, I fully expect to have many moments of feeling the utter novice, of learning as I go. I’d like, of course, to be at least a step ahead of my students, at least in the particular domain of our work together, but I’m committing myself (with you as my witness to remind me should I suffer temporary amnesia) to being open to what I might receive.
For me, teaching is also a gateway — into a larger sense of self, beyond the one that sometimes focuses too much energy on what I know that I don’t know. So this week, I’ll be contemplating the path of teaching — surely, as spiritual a path as any.
Would love to hear your thoughts along your own path! Until next week, Yael