I Am Not Your Teacher (Unless You’re On My Roster)

I Am Not Your Teacher (Unless You’re On My Roster) August 31, 2016

classI’m a teacher.

I don’t mean I speak at Pagan events or lead people in rituals (though I also do those things).

I mean I’m an actual classroom teacher. I went to school to study human development and cognition, educational theory, and instructional practice. I took a bunch of exams, passed a practicum, and am required to have a license, the same way a psychotherapist or a counselor has to have a license.

There are lots of different kinds of classroom teachers, and laws vary by state, but that’s the kind I am.

I’m pretty new at this, and honestly a lot of it is overwhelming. Way beyond just caring about students or my content specialty, I’m subject to weird state and federal laws that a lot of people never really have to think about. I have to write detailed plans for each class, each day, justifying my methods according to a series of state standards. There’s an order to things, with an administration in place to ensure that everyone toes the line. School is a political hotspot, beyond just being a place for learning. And nevermind the fire drills that most of us remember; we now have “lockdowns” which are designed to prepare us for being shot at.

It’s scary stuff, sometimes.

Now that I’ve entered a formal classroom setting, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the way we use the title “teacher” in coven settings. I get that words take on different meanings depending on who’s using them, and there are all kinds of ways to teach in the world. But even so, I think many of us still have some gut associations and expectations that impact what we think of when we hear the word “teacher.”

I don’t “teach” in my coven. Teaching to me implies a curriculum, carefully selected assessments, pre-determined standards, and specific endpoints. Teaching means I’m relying on tested strategies, collecting data, and differentiating lessons to accommodate all comers.

If we broaden the category of “teacher” (and people do this when they say things like “the world is my teacher” or “we’re all teachers”), I think it stops being useful. Yes, we do learn by observing others. We learn just be being out in the world. That’s just how the human brain works. But teaching, I think, is a conscious, active process. Teaching is a specific skill set, which in turn implies a particular kind of power differential and structure that doesn’t necessarily translate to a coven environment very well.

I’ve found that, because we speak so generally about teachers and teaching but haven’t really done much to alter how formal teaching actually plays out in the rest of our lives, people tend to come to Paganism expecting something more akin to what happens in classrooms. Teachers enforce rules, keep students accountable, provide ordered instruction, and move their students on according to quantifiable products developed at the end of lessons. With behavioral consequences—thank you, B.F. Skinner—all along the way.

That is not what I do in my coven.

Of course, most people wouldn’t say that’s what they’re looking for when they come to me, interested in witchcraft. But sometimes they act like that’s what they want. And I confess that it irritates me a little when grown-ass adults expect me to treat them the same way I treat my ninth graders: reminding them to stay on task, doling out rewards and punishments for particular behaviors, and orchestrating a constant stream of activities to fend off the boredom that comes from just not being very self-motivated. No thank you.

I realize that there are covens in the world that maintain curriculums and perform formal, summative assessments like research papers and tests. Personally, I think this is a little strange for measuring something like spiritual development, commitment to the gods (or the tradition), and effective magical practice. Being initiated or elevated doesn’t have anything to do with content knowledge. I’m constantly telling my own initiates that I’m not impressed by how many books they read. Anyone with the time and money can acquire books, and read them with varying levels of fluency. And I sure as hell don’t want to read more research papers than I have to. If I just wanted super readers and writers, I would have initiated my university students (some of them, anyway).

But that’s just me.

A lot of the decisions I make in my coven come from my gut. They come from the gods. It’s magic. It’s visceral, not quantifiable. You can’t get an A in it, or even explain it to others a lot of the time. I initiate or elevate someone when I feel that they’re ready—when they’ve proven themselves to be ready. Not when they hand in a particular assignment. Not just because they’ve stuck around for a certain length of time. Not because they know a lot about history, or they’ve memorized a lot of correspondences, or they know which words I want to hear when I ask them a question.

Certainly there are objective things that I want my initiates to know—where they fit in a wider history, the influence of major figures within and outside our tradition, and that sort of thing—but those things don’t have any inherent bearing on whether or not they’re witches. Further, I would expect any incoming coven members to have the intrinsic motivation to discover these things independently, not just take notes while I spout on about the work that I’ve already done, as though I’ve done it for them. I might suggest sources or provide personal experience, but I’m not giving lectures or providing graphic organizers the way I do in my classroom. The way I do when I’m playing the role of teacher.

Being “teacher” makes the learning process my responsibility. I’m responsible for the growth of the kids in my classroom.

But in a coven, that responsibility is on the initiate, who is an autonomous, self-sufficient adult. I model how witchcraft impacts my life, how I work magic, how my tradition works, and why I love it. I provide opportunities for participation.  I make suggestions. I provide resources. I ask covenmates to respect the rules of my covenstead.

But I’m not in charge of their progress. They are.

When I lead workshops at events, I prefer “speaker” or “presenter.”  Even at the college level, we have “professors” or “lecturers.”  Not teachers.  Teaching is its own discipline, and most speakers and professors never study it formally.  High priestessing is something by itself, I think. I’m a facilitator. I’m a gateway. I’m a witch. I’m a devotee of my gods.

Maybe it’s just semantics (as though semantics is ever “just”), but there’s definitely a difference between what I do in a classroom and what I do as a coven leader.  And my teaching stops when I leave school.

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