Beware Teachers Who Only Have Students

Thorn Coyle - Between the Worlds - 2015
Thorn Coyle – Between the Worlds – 2015

Mat Auryn posted this quote from The Path of Paganism on his Facebook page last week. I got it from Thorn Coyle – I’ve heard her say it several times. The quote referenced in the book was from a Pagan conference where I saw a lot of “big name” teachers going to each other’s workshops. I thought it was a good thing – Thorn thought it was a necessary thing.

To be clear, neither Thorn nor I were talking about new teachers who don’t have graduates yet. That’s not a problem… though I have seen teachers whose students never seemed to graduate. While there is a place for long term mentors or spiritual directors, these “teachers” seemed more interested in maintaining a company of underlings than in actually teaching. Not surprisingly, these teachers didn’t have teachers of their own… which is what we’re talking about.

There are two issues in play here: the need for continuing education and the need for accountability.

Continuing Education

When you stop learning, you start dying.

Too much of our mainstream education system focuses on certification rather than learning. Go to school for 13 years, do the work, pass the tests, and you graduate. Here’s your diploma – you’re now a high school graduate. We assume you’ve learned all the K-12 material and you never need to revisit it. Go to college for four years, get another diploma, now you’ve got a bachelor’s degree and you never need to revisit all that material ever again.

Education is a “use it or lose it” proposition. I took Spanish in high school, dropped it in college, and now my Spanish vocabulary won’t get me through a Dos Equis commercial. I learned Ogham in the OBOD Ovate course, never used it, and now I have to look up anything written in Ogham. Forget divining with it. But since I use Tarot on a regular basis, I can read cards just fine.

Good continuing education reinforces the basics as it introduces you to new concepts. It also makes sure you stay up to date in your field.

A while back I attended a Pagan ritual led by a respected elder. The setup and opening were good, but once the main working began, I thought I was in the 1970s. I won’t give specifics – I don’t want to call them out – but it was clear that while this elder learned what they learned very well, they never learned anything else. This elder needed a teacher of their own.

Accountability

In my paying job, I’m responsible for the group I lead. Not just the work we do individually and collectively, but also for insuring my team learns and grows. I’m not just a manager, I’m also a teacher. If I don’t do that part of my job, my manager – my teacher – is going to notice and call me out on it. We need the same kind of accountability with our Pagan teachers.

Many Pagans struggle with accountability. We don’t like structure and hierarchy, and we really don’t like the idea of anyone looking over our shoulders – nobody’s gonna tell us what to do! And so rather than avoiding the abusive forms of hierarchy and keeping the necessary forms, we throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater and we’re left floating on our own.

sheep at Dowth

Nobody edits my blog here at Patheos Pagan. But if I’m writing on something that’s controversial, or likely to be misunderstood, I’ll send it to one or two people I consider knowledgeable on that subject. Most times they come back with “looks OK to me” or “you might want to change this one thing.” But the last time I did that, one of my pre-readers said “you shouldn’t post this, and here’s why.” I didn’t post it.

Teachers have an awesome responsibility: to the Gods, ancestors, and traditions we serve, and especially to the students who trust us to guide them on their spiritual journeys. This responsibility is too great to be entrusted to any one person – teachers need teachers checking up on them.

Finding teachers for teachers

If you’re part of a networked tradition, you already have a teacher, elder, regional leader, or other person available to you. Even if you exceed your original teacher in wisdom and skill, they can still offer feedback and advice, and hold you accountable for doing the things you said you’d do. If that person is no longer in this world or otherwise unavailable, there is likely still someone in your line you can consult from time to time.

If you’re not part of a networked tradition, it’s more complicated – but still quite possible.

I first met Thorn Coyle at the House of Danu Gorsedd in 2009. When I hit a spiritual plateau in early 2011, I contacted her and engaged her services (on a paying basis) as a spiritual director. Thorn and I aren’t in any of the same traditions, but we connected at a generic Pagan level and she helped me get going again. I’ve done the same for others from time to time. I’m not looking for clients at this time (either on a paid or unpaid basis), but there are others who do this work. Seek them out if you need them.

You can do like the teachers I referenced in the first paragraph: go to conferences and listen to others. At Mystic South, I went to workshops by Jason Mankey, Dodie Graham McKay, and Anomalous Thracian, plus panel discussions, plus conversation over dinners and drinks. None of these people are technically my teachers. None are Druids, none are doing exactly the kind of work I’m doing here in Texas. But I learned something from all of them – I even took notes.

Many of us got our start in Paganism by reading books. Books are another way to find teachers for teachers. I’m currently reading Reclaiming Civilization by Brendan Myers (I’ll have a review when I’m done). Brendan is a fellow Druid, but his Druidic emphasis is rather different from mine. Still, I’ve learned a lot from his books, his workshops, and the handful of one-on-one conversations we’ve had.

Cynthia Talbot and Kristoffer Hughes - two of my peers and teachers
Cynthia Talbot and Kristoffer Hughes – two of my peers and teachers

Finding a teacher with a teacher

It is entirely possible for teachers who have only students to be good teachers. Thorn said to be wary of them, not to run away from them. But the odds aren’t good.

If you’re considering studying under a teacher, ask who their teachers are. Some Wiccan traditions use this practice to verify the credentials of teachers and teaching covens. That has merit, but I’m not Wiccan – I’m less concerned with whether or not someone’s initiation is valid than I am with what they know and what they’re committed to learning.

If they don’t have a teacher, ask who are their peers. Who do they go to with questions? Who do they call when they’ve got a magical problem they can’t solve on their own? Who helps them work through ethical dilemmas? Who challenges them to think more deeply?

If the only answer you get is “I figure it out on my own” you probably want to find another teacher.

If you’ve been doing this a while and people are coming to you for training, don’t wait for someone to ask. If you don’t have a teacher, find one. If there’s nobody doing exactly what you’re doing, find someone who’s an expert in one segment of it. Find a peer who can serve as a sounding board and who will hold you accountable for keeping your commitments and maintaining proper ethical boundaries with your students.

Avoid the certification obsession. Another degree or another initiation is nice, but your goal isn’t another piece of paper to frame and hang on your wall. Your goal is to grow deeper in knowledge and wisdom, and to put that knowledge and wisdom to use in a committed Pagan practice.

Beware teachers who only have students.

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