The art of teaching


I once had a voice teacher named Frank Baker. Teaching voice is a tricky thing. Unlike other instruments, the sound of the voice is formed inside the body- hidden from view. With a cello, a teacher can say, “Hold the bow like this” and demonstrate. But with voice the directions are demonstrated with images like, “Open your throat as if you are holding a small ball in the back of your palate”. Over many years of taking voice lessons from different teachers I’ve heard all sorts of metaphors. The vocalist is the only musician who employs words as well as music in her art, which comes in handy when teaching someone how to sing. Frank was brilliant at this, as were my other significant voice teachers. They knew how to intuitively look inside the singer’s body and apply a few choice words to adjust the sound. Frank once said, “The audience becomes the singer and the singer becomes the sound”. The voice teacher is a poet, always looking for the very best words to evoke a feeling.

When I asked Frank how he was so good at finding just the right words to urge my sound to release its nectar, he told me something I’ll never forget. He said, the reason he could teach as well as he did was because he had made every mistake in the book. In my twenties that sounded like a surprising answer, now, in my 60’s, it makes perfect sense. Just like the CEO who works her way up from the bottom, learning all the aspects of the business along the way, any teacher can only really know her students struggles if she’s felt them in her own body. Prodigies don’t always make the best teachers. If they jumped deftly from point A to point B they most likely don’t remember the journey between those two points. It’s that journey which a teacher shares with her students. Sometimes the slowest students make the best teachers.

The teacher student relationship is a precious one. It is personal and intimate, whether between a parent and a child or a guru and his acolyte. To truly love personally and uniquely is, perhaps, the most important thing a great teacher brings to the table. The best teachers really care about who we are and what makes us tick. They love the essence that inhabits the body and mind of each of their students.

Great teachers also have a wonderful sense of humor. They make learning fun. A good example is this Zen koan:

One day Layman Pang and his daughter, Lingzhao, were out selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, the Layman stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this, she ran to her father’s side and threw herself to the ground.

“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.

“I saw you fall so I’m helping, “replied Lingzhao.

“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.

 What a funny picture! A father falls down, then the daughter throws herself to the ground next to him. A delightful way to talk about how empathy requires putting ourselves in the others position-literally!

The artful teacher will tell us to, “go left” or “go right” at times, but she will also walk with us, hand in hand, as we figure out for ourselves whether to go left or right. It requires the subtle art of discrimination to decide when to offer information and when to facilitate discovery.  These are the sorts of choices a teacher is faced with daily. The challenge becomes navigating the friction between wanting the student to learn from our mistakes so they don’t have to waste time going down endless dark alleys, and realizing that the student needs to experience their own repertoire of mistakes. Wanting to ease your pain, a teacher might say, “don’t go there. It’s wasted effort”, knowing that you will use up precious time meandering down a dark path and might even meet an unsavory character or two along the way. It’s the same thing with our kids. We see them going down a dark alleyway and want to protect them. But we won’t always be around to protect them. Maybe it’s best they go down a few dark alleyways while we’re still around to help them integrate what they found there. Then, they can develop their own instincts. Still, we want to protect them, and sometimes it’s important that we do so. What to do? This sort of art takes many years to cultivate.

Having an intimate relationship with a teacher is an important part of the Buddhist path. This sort of close student teacher relationship has led to a great depth of understanding within Buddhist practitioners throughout the ages. It has also led to abuses. Teachers, being human, sometimes take advantage of their position due to their own greed for fame, money and/or sex. It’s surprising how often this is the case, not just in our culture, but throughout the world. It’s a slippery slope for the charismatic teacher. The problem is made worse by any sense of entitlement they may be harboring due to the adulation of others or any feelings of superiority or inferiority they may bring with them to the job. Teachers, all of us, are prone to believing our own press-especially if the news is good! When people are telling us we are wonderful it’s easy to forget that we are just another bozo on the bus, no better or worse than the people we are sharing the path with.

The teaching path is fraught with personal dangers, doesn’t pay well, is hard work and requires living in a state of constant humility regarding what little anyone can actually do to alter another person’s pattern. In the Zen group, where I was a student, when someone becomes a sensai they are greeted with, “Congratulations and condolences.” In it’s truest form, being a teacher is a selfless act. This does not mean the teacher has no ego. All of us remain attached to that red thread. Our teachers are not above us, they’re just taking the role of teacher in this round. It’s good for the student to remember that even the best teacher is just as capable of ignorance as we are. We’re awakening one another.

Teaching is a life of service with no guarantee of financial security or recognition. I am grateful for the generosity of Frank and all my other teachers, past, present and future. They have all been flawed human beings- as am I, and I accept this. But their hearts were filled with genuine concern for my development and they plied their trade with beauty and grace. They allowed me to learn from their mistakes, but also knew I had to take my own first steps alone and wisely stood back, remaining fully present as I walked my own, unique path.



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