Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Teaching As An Egoless Practice

“creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering.” 
~Tao te Ching (from the Stephen Mitchell translation)
Creating, acting, guiding, and (I might add) teaching without possessing, expecting, and interfering. This has been a guiding principle of mine as a teacher. Why? Because I feel it is my role as a dance teacher to create independent (rather than co-dependent) and creative (rather than mechanistic) dance-artists.

Just like with my son Jakobi (now 16) who is preparing for his adult life, I have to make way for the second-severing of the metaphorical umbilical cord toward greater independence, which means suppressing the urge to hold on tighter as Jakobi, and my students, pull away. Teachers and parents share this similar experience.

In the 1990’s I directed the dance program at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio. For their first concert, I prepared the students and gave them many responsibilities for producing the concert--props, sets, stage managing, program order. Following the concert, art teacher Alan Doe caught me in the hall and told me, “The students said they did everything themselves.” I paused wondering if he was questioning my approach--after all I had choreographed the entire concert and worked tirelessly to prepare them. Then he continued, “Isn’t that our goal as teachers to get them to that point. Congratulations.”

Twelve years later, Alan’s comment still stays with me. There are many alternative approaches taken by teachers. I see two predominate approaches--neither are healthy, but both are common.

1. Teacher As Best Friend
This is the teacher as the student’s greatest ally and the bond they share is intimate while the boundaries are slim.

2. Teacher As Indispensable Master
This is the teacher as guru who created the dancer from their infinite talents and wisdom.

  • These approaches create a co-dependent scenario where the student does not want to (or simply believes they cannot) thrive beyond the specific teacher’s tutelage.
  • These approaches subconsciously serve to enlarge the egos of the teachers.
  • These approaches ultimately serve to limit the potential growth of the student.
  • These approaches are all too common.

Example: I have personal experience of a teacher who ostracized students who left her tutelage by holding a “record breaking ceremony” (perhaps today it would be replaced with a CD Cracking or Ipod Song Deleting ceremony). The “defectors” past solo music was busted in half--complete with a champagne toast with the under 18 crowd. No joke. No exaggeration.

Photo by Sherryl Hauck
Teaching--good teaching--I believe, is an egoless practice. When that boundary between teacher and student is strong, the bond weakens in time for the student to make a healthy departure. This is how it should be, yet, I am still human. It can be lonely. Sometimes, as students move on, I feel a little under-appreciated.

This past weekend we had the annual Spring Concert for my students in Ridgefield. One of my students who is going on to study for her senior year of high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts openly acknowledged her appreciation in the most touching and simple way. It was most meaningful to me because it was sincere and honest and did not come about from any manipulation on my part. She is a strong, independent young dance-artist. It all led me to thinking back to the Tao te Ching quote above so I thought I’d share it here.

I am going to miss my graduating students, but I am even more excited about the growth and experiences that lie ahead of them.