Teacher development

One of the reasons that the blog has been so quiet is I’m preparing to announce a series of workshops for teachers in Cambridge.  For several years I’ve been very concerned by the disconnect between what students get in a 200-hour training and what they actually need to lead effective, powerful classes in the real world.  Some of it is information, some of it is coaching, some of it is nudges towards existing inner wisdom.  These workshops are one of many, many attempts to fill in the blanks.  Next week I’ll publish all the details, but I wanted first to explain how I think about developing my own teaching practice, and how I suggest young teachers do it.

(And, happily, this way of studying doesn’t necessarily mean you have to drop however many thousands of dollars on teacher trainings or workshops in faraway lands.  It can begin here, now, as an extension of your existing practice.)

If you’ll pardon a slightly hackneyed analogy, I think there are fundamentally three keys to a successful teaching practice, much like three legs on a stool.   While I think the particulars can vary from person to person, as with anything, I’ve found this model valuable:

(Forgive the slightly cheesy graphic.  Graphic design= not my strongest skill)

The first “leg” is to continue to grow your personal practice.  I know that a lot of insights in my own teaching have come from struggling with certain poses and sequences splits, foot-to-head, handstand and scorpion, etc.  (Honestly, many of the poses you see me in on my website I wasn’t close to three years ago.)  Many of the “tricks” I’ve picked up- from other teachers, from experimenting on my own, from videos and peers- have become important pieces of how I sequence and explain poses and ideas to my students.

Growing one’s personal practice is bigger than just asana, of course, and I think should encompass as many of the eight limbs of yoga as possible- choices informed by the yamas and niyamas, meditation, pranayam, etc.  (I say as many as possible because I don’t know too many folks who can honestly say that their practices include Dyhana and Samadhi on a regular basis.  I know I can’t.)  If these aren’t a part of your teaching, you are little more than what a friend of mine sarcastically called an “asana cheerleader”, and I don’t think we need any more of those.   The entirety of one’s yoga is always a work in progress, but the key word there is work.

The second is technical study- building a knowledge base so you really own what you teach.  Simply put, we have to know what we’re talking about, and be able to answer the question “why are we doing this?” all of the time.  (And believe me, I’ve met teacher trainers who can’t adequately answer that question during trainings they lead -!- so a young teacher can’t expect to right off the bat)  Unless you have a medical background, this should almost certainly include a deep exploration of anatomy and physiology as it relates to the various yoga practices.   Other topics could include the history of yoga, it’s stories and myths (both in the “Hanuman opens his chest” sense and in the “stories teachers told us about yoga that just aren’t true” sense), kriyas, Sanskrit and mantra… the list could be quite long.  And while I think anatomy and physiology are important to all asana teachers, beyond that these studies can be a delightfully personal journey.  If you are really turned out by the study of Tantra, or by singing kirtan, or by figuring out how yoga can benefit some particular population, there are students who will benefit greatly from your inquiries.  Practically, to have a “niche” in your teaching can help you differentiate yourself in a market that just gets more crowded with each teacher training graduation.

The third leg of successful teaching is to be able to clearly and effectively communicate what you know, to literally be a good teacher.  Obvious, right?  But as anyone who has worked with brilliant people in any field knows, great performers aren’t always great teachers.  That you can do a split doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach one.  (My own theory: the easier it comes to you, the harder it is for you to teach, because you don’t have to think about how you do it, you just do.)  Communicating clearly, speaking in a way that people want to listen, “owning” a room, motivating others- these are to some degree skills that can be learned the same way handstands can.  And while anyone who’s taken a teacher training has heard the admonition to “get out of your own way” or “shine YOUR light”, that’s not always easy, but it can get more natural if you have a toolkit.

So there’s my theory.  Later in the week I’ll present how I will translate that into workshop form.  In the meantime, ideas and commentary are most welcome- what did I miss?  Where would you put the emphasis, either in what you want to be as a teacher, or what you want as a student?

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