Sunday, May 11, 2008


One of the most difficult parts of teaching for a relatively shy person like myself is daily dealing with the fact that thirty sets of eyes are staring at you from the moment you step into the room, and it's your job to direct their attention, focus their energies, deal with distractions and set the tone for ninety straight minutes.

I was talking with a fellow teacher the other day, a Brit who's into Aikido, the Japanese martial art that is purely defensive -- disarming an opponent who attacks you, rather than initiating any conflict. (Steven Seagal is the most famous western practictioner; he resided in Japan for fifteen years, was the first westerner to operate an Aikido dojo, and, aside from his terrible movies, is actually very respected for his aikido skills.) Aikido is also about controlling the energy of a situation, harnessing what your opponent is offering and what you are accepting, or rejecting, on his behalf.

Teaching's the same. It's all energy. You have thirty different, unique, complex, individuals, each of them nervous, or confident, or bored, or tired out of their fucking minds. As a teacher, they're looking to you -- or not looking to you, as the case so often is -- to tell them what to do.

It took me a long, long time to get comfortable doing this. Probably five years, I'd say, which is no exaggeration. I'm perfectly content to sit by myself and read in a room for days on end, so having to deal with four groups of thirty students per day takes some getting used to. You have to figure out what works and what doesn't, what's funny and what's not, when discipline is required and when levity is allowed.

Only recently have I truly thought about the fact that everything I say is heard by students through a filter. English is not their first language; inevitably, they're not picking up everything I say. An auditory gauze separates us, so there can never be the natural fluidity of thought and diction that occurs when native speakers of the same language stop and chill and shoot the shit. I've learned to pace myself as I speak; I speak clearly, and I pause, briefly, after each sentence. If I don't, their brains don't have time to hear that slight and subtle click that indicates they've understood what I've said, and are ready to move on and comprehend the next thought. I speak with an intent to be understood, which is rarely, if ever, the case in real life. Usually, we speak without thinking, not worrying about what comes out.

But speaking is not the only means by which we communicate. If teaching has taught me anything, it's that we can, and do, and probably should be cognizant of how our entrances and exits affect the mood of a room. The tempo of a place. The energy of a situation. If I come into class glum, with my shoulders slouched, my head resting on my chin, the class can sense it, feel it, disdain it. If I'm smiling, snapping my fingers, clapping my hands together, the mood shifts; a light ignites; a space is filled.

I fear that too often we remain trapped in our little bubbles, not conscious of how each of our movements influences the mood of those around us. Of course it's impossible to get out of our heads and into another's, but we do exist in the same space, like it or not. We sometimes forget that.

Whenever I have a big conference-type meeting with other teachers, or new teachers, I like to look around the room, scope out whose who, imagine what they're like and why they're here, and I'm also doing it to covertly scope out and see how many other people are looking around the room. Too often, not many people are. They're focused on themselves. What's in front of them.

Which is fine, of course. We have to look after ourselves first. But every room we enter is changed by our entrance, like it or not.

Sometimes it's good to remember that, if only to ensure that the energy we bring is equal to the space that needs to be filled.