This is a re-post of a piece that Emma originally wrote for her own blog, thinkerpoet.com. We hope you enjoy reading some of her reflections on the process of teaching and learning.
This past New Year’s I was given an opportunity to choose the “key” to my coming year. Two dear friends (artists and community convenors) had salvaged wooden piano keys from a scrap yard, and painted and anointed each one with different colours, designs and words. They were jumbled together in a cloth bag, and throughout the night they brought out the bag and invited friends to reach into the bag and pull a key. “Make sure you get the right one.” they teased as we reached, eyes closed, into the bag. As our fingers sifted through the jumble of keys, feeling raised black keys and narrower white keys, they invited us to let our intuition guide our choice. “You’ll know your key when you feel it.” they said. “It will be clear.”
Keys bearing the words “Equanimity”, “Wisdom” and “Contentment” emerged in different peoples’ hands. “Acceptance”, “Integrity”, and “Simplicity” followed. I watched my friends interact with their keys, unwrap their strings and hang them around their necks, bulky but meaningful necklaces.
When it was my time to reach into the bag, I was hoping for something immediately resonant. Some kind of clear direction or quality. I was looking forward with anticipation to 2016, to a four month “sabbatical” – my first long chunk of time off since I started working at the studio. I was hoping for something that might enhance my intention for my travels, give me juice and energy for my time of recharging and adventure.
I reached into the bag and after some sifting, my fingers closed around my key. I pulled it out and held it between my two palms for a moment, not yet looking at it. I took a breath and turned it over in my hands.
Teaching!? My heart started, and then whizzed around the room, sputtering like a balloon inflated and then suddenly let go. It flew into a corner and settled there. My job? I didn’t want my key to be about work. I wanted to take a break from work, to not be a teacher for a while. I wanted to be a student in fact, to learn new things. I held my key in my hand, my friends watching me. Teaching. My key to 2016.
“Well, that’s a surprise” I said slowly, with uncertainty. “I know I’ve made my livelihood as a yoga teacher but I’ve been wanting to re-consider that part of my identity. I don’t know that I want to think of myself as a teacher. Or, I’m not sure what kind of teacher I want to be.” My friends nodded slowly as I turned the key over in my hand.
I’m not sure what kind of teacher I want to be.
I know that I’ve come closer to figuring out what kind of teacher I want to be in the last few years. I want my classes to feel like an exploration rather than a lecture. I want my teaching to feel like it creates space for consideration rather than offering some kind of prescription. I want people to see me as a person in process rather than a fixed authority, a person perpetually learning and churning and processing, and offering perspective and ideas from where I currently am.
Even though I call myself a yoga teacher, the word “teacher” holds many strange thorns in it for me. One is the use of that word in yoga contexts where I’ve heard people throw around the term “my teacher” in a way that feels like it’s about status and legitimacy. I’ve heard people reference “their” teacher in a tone and manner that makes me nervous about their own sense of self-trust and self-authorship. I’ve heard the possessive use of “my teacher” sound hollowly humble and uncomfortably authoritarian. A younger me took to mimicking this for a few years, (saying “my teacher John”) while I was studying Anusara Yoga. I hadn’t gotten to a point where I trusted my own experience enough not to feel like I had to reference someone with more authority or legitimacy when I was teaching.
The “my” part of the phrase “my teacher” sometimes has this preciously possessive sound, seeming to refer to a special mentorship or connection that may or may not be there. (For example, I would say “my teacher John” when I was studying Anusara, even though when I studied with John it was with a group of 200, and he didn’t know my name, let alone know me personally.) These days I have taken to saying “a teacher that I’ve been studying with”. I hope that students that practice with me think about me in this way as well. I am a teacher. But I don’t want to be anyone’s singular, possessed or authoritarian teacher.
It is coming up to a quarter of the way through 2016, and my Teaching key has been sitting on my windowsill since January, prompting me to keep considering its meaning. After I drew the key at New Year’s, I had many wonderful conversations with different friends about models of teaching, re-considering ideas of teaching, and re-working and re-framing teaching to be a collaborative co-learning process between teacher and learner, rather than the teacher “doing” or “giving” learning to the student.
This is closer to the kind of teaching that I want to participate in.
And in these conversations I realized that the key said Teaching not Teacher. The key points to a process, not a fixed role or identity. As I sifted that realization, it occurred to me how valuable the process of teaching is for me as a learner. I learn so much when I am teaching. I love to explain things to others. And in explaining things in a multitude of different ways I integrate and learn them in a new way myself.
I learn by teaching. I am so fortunate to get to participate in my own learning every day by sharing my understandings with others. I am so glad to have others participate in my learning by coming to my classes and letting their attention and interest mix and mingle with mine.
Teaching. That I can do.
Emma Dines is the creative director of Queen Street Yoga. She loves writing, visiting thrift stores and going for walks in the woods. She also loves cartwheeling, sewing and making her own kimchi.