Be a Teacher, Not a Jerk
Today is Guru Purnima, an Indian festival that celebrates teachers. I've had many wonderful teachers, and a few toxic ones as well. You can learn a lot from both. What do I mean by toxic teachers? These are teachers who:
- Get resentful when your skills or success surpass theirs
- Are outright physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive
- Are generally authoritarian, rather than authoritative (see below)
We teach our students a lot simply by the way we treat them. When we encourage them to rest when they need to, we are communicating that they are worth taking care of. When we give them a prop and suggest it might make a pose more comfortable, we are telling them that their comfort matters. When we answer their questions respectfully, we are communicating that their thoughts and concerns are important.
The reason why our words, as yoga teachers, carry so much weight, is because in the classroom, we are in a position of authority. This can be hard to believe when you first start teaching, and you feel tentative and awkward. But consider this: from the moment we're born, we are in relationship to authority. Your parents start offering you boundaries almost immediately. This is wholly right and appropriate—think of how problematic it is when parents don't fully take on the role of authority figure for their children. As a child, you go to school and encounter a new set of authority figures, your teachers and the administration of your schools. As an adult, you may have a boss, and you are certainly subject to authority of the police, our justice system and our taxation system. Many people are also inclined to defer to authoritative experts on things like their health (I defer to my doctors when I'm really sick, for example) and their finances (I defer to my accountant).
So the role of authority figure is a deeply important one that allows our society to raise healthy children, educate each other, administer justice, maintain civic order, and care for the sick. As a yoga teacher, your role of authority figure allows you to teach people how to do yoga safely. When you do not fully step into this role, your classes lose momentum and your words do not resonate as well. Your students will not trust you deeply enough to move fully into the practice. I strongly encourage you to embrace the seat of the teacher and fully inhabit your role as authority in your yoga classroom!
However, there is a difference between being authoritative and authoritarian.
Authoritarianism is about power. In The Guru Papers, authors Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad explain it this way, " If an authority not only expects to be obeyed without question, but either punishes or refuses to deal with those who do not obey, that authority is authoritarian."
Kramer and Alstad describe how hierarchies are necessary in life to accomplish most significant tasks. For example, if you want a house built, you need an architect to design the plans, and a contractor to oversee the workers. "Likewise, a general cannot have his orders subject to evaluation by every soldier in the field." They go on to point out that authoritarian hierarchies are driven by a quest to accumulate and consolidate power, whereas hierarchies like the one you see in education, in the military, or in a healthy business are "task-driven". The separation of responsibilities and establishment of one person or people in a position of power is about getting a job done.
Kramer and Alstad describe five questions for evaluating a hierarchy to determine whether or not it is authoritarian:1. "What is its purpose?
2. "Who decides if its purpose is being fulfilled and how is this decided?
3. "How free are the members of the hierarchy to enter and leave it? That is, how much coercion is involved in getting people to belong and stay?
4. "How responsive is it to change from within or without, and how open is it to internal and external feedback? This includes who determines what is even considered relevant feedback.
5. "In what direction does the power flow? Does it only flow from top to bottom, or are there mechanisms within the structure of the hierarchy that give the lower rungs a say in who the higher rungs are and what they do?"
Therefore, for an emotionally healthy environment in your classroom, I suggest the following:1. Remember that the ultimate purpose of your class is to serve your students.
2. Regularly check in with yourself, your students, your colleagues, your mentors, and if applicable, your employers about whether what you're doing is serving that ultimate purpose.
3. Don't take it personally when people decide your class isn't for them, and don't manipulate your students into feeling they need to attend your class and only your class.
4. When your students give you feedback in the classroom, acknowledge it and treat it respectfully, even when it doesn't fit into your mental picture of how the class should go, or how you wanted your students to feel. When colleagues, mentors, and perhaps employers give you feedback outside the classroom, seriously consider it. Note: sometimes good feedback is clouded by lousy delivery. Try your best to find the usable nugget that will help you grow, even if the person delivering the nugget couches it in terms that are hurtful.
5. Seek out mentors for yourself and connect with them regularly. Give your students opportunities to see you taking the seat of the student. Cultivate your own team of friends, family and advisors who can remind you of your values if you slip. Some of these advisors may be paid coaches or counselors, but at least a few of them should be unpaid friends who you can really trust. Again, stay open to feedback in all forms—you can always choose to disregard feedback after you have carefully considered whether or not it is applicable to you.