On Being a Teacher

On Being a Teacher March 12, 2015

There are quite a few articles out there about finding a good Pagan teacher, how to avoid bad ones, or how to know if you’re ready to teach or not.  Precious few are about teaching itself, or how to be a better one.

I am a professional educator, from a family full of educators on both sides.  Teaching is my day job.  As it happens, I have thoughts on the matter.

Knowledge is not enough.

Every one of us during our educational career has encountered someone who may have been very smart, very knowledgeable, perhaps even a star in his or her field, but who absolutely stank as a teacher.  Possessing a body of knowledge or being good at a skill is necessary but not sufficient, because teaching is actually a separate skill with distinct requirements.  Fortunately, there is some overlap between the abilities needed to be a good priest/ess and those required to teach, such as perceptiveness about people and a certain flair for the theatric.

In related news, degrees and/or ordinations are also not enough; however, speaking for my own tradition (Faery), initiation is absolutely necessary.  You need the perspective of having walked the whole path up to that point in order to guide someone along it.  Some people feel that an advanced student teaching under the supervision of an initiate is fine, but in my experience students close to initiation (who are the only ones with enough knowledge and experience to teach) need to spend their time and energy managing their own progress.  Faery in particular is apt to go splodey on you at certain stages if you don’t keep your focus.  Your mileage with other traditions may vary, but one of the advantages of a lineaged tradition is that most of the time there are established guidelines for when you are considered ready to teach.  In my own line of Faery, we advise people not to teach until at least a year after initiation; it needs that much time to settle.

This is not about you.

If you want recognition, to be seen as an authority, or some other form of egoboo, then you are not going to be as good a teacher as you might be.  Charisma does help and there are some egotists who are actually excellent teachers; but it is generally in spite of that, not because of it.  The reality is that teaching does give you a position of authority, which you can’t manage well either by pretending it doesn’t exist or by diverting it to some purpose other than the task at hand…which is ultimately to empower your student.  If that sounds tricky, well, that’s why I felt the need to write about it.

The point is not to create an intellectual or spiritual copy of yourself, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and mastery of the person in front of you.  To that end, start with what they already know or are interested in; Victor Anderson was reportedly good at this, with the result that he taught each person slightly differently but with a recognizable basic core.  Give them a manageable chunk, in which you offer both the big picture including connections to what they already know and a breakdown of the new information into component parts.  Step back and let them use or demonstrate the knowledge.  Step up again and offer feedback; but be sparing with both criticism and praise.  The reason is that both are information, and tossing someone information while they are learning a complex skill is akin to throwing them a plate while they are juggling.  One is plenty; four is too much.  I generally tell a student what I think their biggest obstacle or problem is, the most important thing they are doing right, and give one concrete suggestion, until the next round.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Be very aware of your language.  Use words that emphasize the student’s competence, and avoid ones that undermine it.  This includes describing someone as a “newbie” or the like.  I know some organizations have formal designations such as “neophyte,” etc. but I assure you students are aware of where they sit in the hierarchy and don’t need their noses rubbed in it.  Even when a student needs to be gently reminded that they came to you for a reason, there are better and more subtle ways to do it.  Always be asking yourself, “what is the best way for this person to learn?”  The answer will vary, and you have to stay on your toes, even as you keep them on theirs.

At the very same time, you don’t owe anyone your time and energy and knowledge.  Being a martyr to someone else’s spiritual progress is all kinds of bad, and they are likely to resent you for it in the long run besides.

Don’t get bored.

In graduate school I had a delightful professor and mentor who only ever gave me one piece of direct advice about teaching:  “Don’t let them bore you.”

There’s no excuse for being bored as a teacher under any circumstances if you ask me; teaching is fun.  But doubly so if you are teaching a religious tradition which ought to engage you on the deepest levels.  If you are bored, you yourself have stopped progressing.  If you are bored, you are energetically disengaged (bad enough in a classroom, practically malfeasance when teaching witchcraft).  If you are bored, you probably don’t actually like your student very much…so do both of you a favor and refer them to someone else.  Most of all, if  you are bored you will be boring.

Actually I have a lot to say about this.  Future topics may include the role of money, apprentice vs. classroom models, the uses of glamorie and how to teach different types of students.

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