Learn to Teach or Teach to Learn?

Updated: Feb 25

Right now at Namaspa, our 200 Hour TRUE U Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) is in full swing. So far, eighteen new YTTers have completed three training weekends, and in the last month, their big challenge was to get into our public Community Classes to practice teach. Many folks, when they hear our YTTers teach public yoga classes after their first weekend of training, can’t fathom how they can be ready so soon. Don’t you have to know more and have some degree of mastery before you teach?

So, how does one learn to teach (yoga or anything)?

By studying the content and methodology? Yes, certainly! There is definitely a lot of that. And if that’s all we ever did, our mind — that part of us that wants to perfect, please, prove, and perform — would never allow us to step on the floor until we were confident we would not screw it up. And guess what, we gotta be ready to show up and suck before we can show up and shine.

As a lifelong educator, I’ve often been asked why I decided to be a teacher. Short answer: I teach so I can continue to learn. I’m voraciously curious, and teaching puts me on the hook to have to understand something well enough to turn around and explain it to other people so they can understand it. I remember my first year teaching — in a private high school — when they handed me three Advanced Placement preps. I spent my weekends preparing what I needed to deliver the following week. Then Monday through Friday, I threw down. I gave them what I had, as I understood it, and by the end, my students — who earlier in the year went to my supervisor with their concerns about having a ‘new teacher’ — came to me and apologized after a slew of them marked fours and fives out of five on their AP exams.

Teaching is a sacred trust. Students give us two of their most precious resources: their time and their attention. As a teacher, what am I going to do with that gift? Am I going to piss it away? I could. Or I could see teaching for what it is and dedicate myself to not wasting an opportunity to give back to them.

So, then shouldn’t I be a master of the discipline before I teach them? Wait, I’m confused.

This much I know is true. No one wants a perfect teacher. No one wants a know-it-all. Initially, our minds might think we do, but that’s not what we need. At first, we want our teachers to have the answers. We want to feel confident and safe in the certainty of the ‘truth’ they offer. We want them to stand on the pedestal and shine wisdom down upon us to absorb. We vet them to make sure they are worthy of our attention. And that’s all normal, right, and good.

And at the end of the day, what we actually need is for our teachers to be real, brave, and true. We need them to humbly offer us what they know — in the way they know it to be true for them. We learn best when our teachers say “I don’t know” when asked about something they both don’t (and do) know.

“This is how I understand it.”

“This is how I see it.”

“This is how it could be.”

These phrases are way more informative than “This is how it is.”

Speaking with humility creates curiosity for students. And yes, teachers like this do run the risk of having students lose faith because they expect them to have all the answers. Yet, if we do not take this risk, we create generations of people hooked on other people’s views of reality in place of their own. We do not challenge them to look at situations through their own eyes. We do not teach them to cultivate trust in themselves through individual inquiry, trial, and error.

The best teachers I know are perfectly imperfect human beings who are present and strive to do the best damn job they can for their students every time they step on the floor. My best teachers were both learned and aware of their vast ignorance. They were approachable, fallible, and funny because they got that life is a bright, shining, heckling paradox.

Consider that all of us are teachers, and we are teaching all the time. We are either an inspiration or a cautionary tale. Because teachers are not just teaching a subject like math, history, or yoga; teachers are teaching us ways to see the world and how to live in it at any given moment.

So, that’s how our YTTers are ‘ready to teach’ after their first weekend. They teach what they know. They know a little about yoga asana, so they teach a little yoga asana — beginning with 3-10 minute sections of a class. They say the name of the pose and give a universal alignment cue. They work to apply a new understanding of the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space to their speaking. It’s a manageable new task, and they have to practice it. Yoga teachers-in-training must practice the skill of teaching. No amount of planning, preparing, and thinking will take the place of standing up there in front of students and doing the teaching. They take baby steps that when taken one at a time lead to giant leaps.

In the month since our second training weekend, some YTTers have taught a boatload of public Community Classes while others have not. These YTTers have picked up extra sections of a class they didn’t initially sign up for, and some have even taught almost a whole class. They show up either in-studio or via livestream, often more than once a week, to practice teaching yoga. They get live coaching and make adjustments in the moment. Each time they do the thing, they reinforce effective techniques and drop ones that don’t work as well. After class, they get the feedback they need to inform their next best shot at it. They keep pluggin’ away. Sometimes it feels like donkey work, and it is. Repetition is the mother of mastery, and ya gotta drill the basics, or you'll end up pulling stuff outta your ass that you think makes you sound good rather than delivering something truly impactful.

In other words, if you don't put in the time, you'll just end up wasting theirs — your students’, that is. Teachers must teach, not just think about teaching, but actually teach from the beginning. And the teachers of teachers must create winnable gaps for their student-teachers.

And while it’s outstanding that some of our YTTers have thrown down in the Community Classes and increased their skills and confidence, this can have a negative impact on some of their littermates (the Namaspa name for fellow YTTers). Littermates that for whatever reason have not taught in Community Classes see the progress their friends have made, tell themselves they are way behind, believe it, and quietly begin to give up. The initial thrill of the first two training weekends may have faded, and the month between weekends 2 and 3 seems like a vast wasteland where they only see the backs of their friends up ahead of them.

Well, welcome to Weekend #3. The power of 3. The sacred triangle. A spiritual rhythm. Jokes are often told in 3 parts. Have ya heard the one about the yoga teacher, the nun, and the chipmunk…?

The theme of Weekend #3 is Empowerment. We define empowerment as choosing what is and then putting into place what is needed to bridge the gap between what’s happening right now and what else is possible. It’s seeing what resources we have available — what tools, options, cues, and skills can I use right now to get from where I am to the next fuller expression of a pose or life. It’s laying down the lily pads close enough together, so the route across the pond invites us to jump — one lilypad or one Community Class at a time. And if we fall in, we get empowered when the teacher hands us water wings and says to keep kickin’.

And that is exactly what we will do for those YTTers who say, “I’m so far behind.” In Weekend #3, we remind them of the tools and techniques they already have and give them a chance to practice using them again.

One lily pad at a time, we re-invite them back into their practice of teaching to learn. We drill the basics. We build a solid foundation for them to push off in the direction of the next right thing for them and their students. Then, we slowly add more content and complexity. We challenge them to confront what stops them from attending the weekly Community Classes. Is it really your kid and work schedule? Or is it the fear of public speaking, which by the way, most humans fear more than death! In Weekend #3, we facilitate YTTers to develop a new relationship with fear and risk so they can show up for their students, families, and workplaces in new and more empowering ways.

Cuz we empower ourselves by empowering others.

What does this all look like in our studios? Come see for yourself in our YTT Community Classes Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4p and Sundays at 5:30p in our Bend Studio and Wednesdays at 5:45p in Redmond.

Each new YTT year, Namaspa students look forward to taking these $5 classes because they want to support the learning and growth of our new teachers. These classes are perfect for new students to yoga because they get to see their teachers learning just like they are. They see themselves in the new teacher up there flopping around just like they are. They see YTTers being coached out loud (holy crap!) and then watch them as they take the redirection as a gift rather than as criticism. Their compassion and curiosity get aroused.

Students in the Community Classes get to watch teachers create themselves through their teaching!

Learning is unlearning and relearning to remember what we have forgotten. And our TRUE U YTTers do just that — unlearn who they think they are, should, or need to be in order to remember who they TRUE-ly are! And that is freagin’ inspiring — because only the brave teach. That kinda grit inspires and empowers those who never thought they could stand up in front of others and say the thing — to say the thing — perfectly imperfectly — cuz they saw it done. It was modeled well in the spirit of a TRUE teacher.

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