Every teacher worth her salt knows that teaching is a learning experience. In fact it’s the ‘dirty little secret’ of all teachers. I mean, after all, you, as the student, pay us for our tutelage, but often we end up learning as much if not more from you.
We learn about our art, or subject. It’s absolutely true you do not fully understand a concept, art, system, program, style, whatever until you have taught it. That’s one of the reason’s why in most traditional martial arts programs each belt rank teaches the rank below it. In other words you spend the time you have not learning new stuff teaching the stuff you just learned. And the new stuff? You’re learning that from the guy who just learned it.
We learn about you, the student. What kind of student are you? How do you learn best? What about what I teach excites you and how can I use that to teach the elements you need but maybe aren’t so enthusiastic about?
We learn about ourselves. The longer we teach the more prevalent this last category of learning becomes. Students, especially beginners, have an innate capacity for exposing our weaknesses. They show us the places we have assumed knowledge instead of earning it. Again, no where is this more apparent, and frequently comical, than in the martial arts. Your teacher shows you an awesome, new (to you) technique and blows you away with it. Now, you can’t wait to share it with your students. Only when you do it doesn’t work. Your beginner student easily undoes your technique and instead of impressing everyone with your power and mastery you’ve just exposed yourself for the fool you are.
The best teachers are humble. They know they are but vehicles for knowledge. The awesomeness they convey is not in themselves but in the content they teach and that has nothing to do with them. I am but a temporary container of a certain amount of Tai Chi knowledge. I hold a certain amount of weightlifting, kettlebell, clubbell, powerlifting, strongman, cardio, fitness, fat loss, etc. knowledge and I carry it around with me and share it where I can.
I’m a cool guy, but I’m not somehow more awesome because I know these things or even because I’m able to share them effectively. The knowledge, that’s the really cool stuff, and I was just lucky enough to stumble across it, to have experiences that allowed me to pick it up and carry it for awhile.
Trust me, I’ve been that fool. I’ve let the adoration of my students and clients elevate my ego to assume knowledge I didn’t have. I may not have actively perpetuated the idea that I was more than I am, but I didn’t do anything to correct it when I saw it happening. Your art will make that correction for you if you’re not proactive. Again, trust me, it’s not pretty.
Why all this talk about ego and teaching?
Well, I had an experience today. One that got me thinking of these things. Thinking of my own practice, my experiences with teachers, both good and bad, and my own experiences teaching, both good and bad.
I was teaching my tai chi class this morning. One of my long time students was relating to a new student how much she enjoyed practicing with her eyes closed. The comment came as I was explaining to my new students that the movement patterns we were practicing they already “knew.” They were experiencing the frustration that comes from trying to perform a sequence without having me perform in front of them simultaneously. With me doing the movements in front of them they follow quite well, but on their own they stutter, question themselves and lose the flow of the form.
I was trying to explain to them that having done the movements they had already practiced them enough to “know” them. Their problem was in getting out of their own way. Mentally there’s a whole host of conversations going on all of which say that they can’t do what I do unless I’m in front of them doing it. The whole point of practice is to build enough experience and confidence that those conversations are rendered moot.
Kathy, my senior student, was relating how she often practiced in class with her eyes closed so that she couldn’t watch me.
And it was here that I was humbled and learned something about my art from one of my students.
Performing any task is made more difficult when it is done blind, especially tasks involving balance. Our eyes are the dominant aspect of our proprioceptive feedback. Proprioception is our ability to tell where we are in space. Bruce Lee called it ‘body feel’. For most of us our eyes are the primary source of information about where we are relative to our surroundings and where one part of us is relative to all the other parts. We have other sensory organs, like the golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles, that provide similar feedback but as sighted animals we often rely more on our eyes.
To illustrate try this experiment. Stand on one foot. Hold this pose for ten or fifteen seconds. Now hold the same pose but close your eyes. If you’re like most of us, your balance will be much harder to maintain with your eyes closed. The brain is so used to taking feedback from the eyes that it’s lost some of it’s ability to process information from our other sensory apparatus.
That Kathy can practise her tai chi with eyes closed is a testimony to her balance and practice. I don’t do this very well, mainly because I don’t practice it. And I don’t practice it because I’m not very good at it. A poor excuse at best.
In that moment my student became my teacher and a short coming in my own practice was exposed. So I will start practicing blind, the increased proprioception will be beneficial in all other areas of life and training.
I honor my student and thank her, for being my student and my teacher.