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Teaching Uncertainty

Dear Stephanie,

Yesterday I was sitting with a young teacher I am mentoring, and she was expressing her hesitance to feel qualified to teach because of her young age. She felt that because there were so many people in the room who were older and in turn more experienced than her, she had some hesitation around what makes her qualified to instruct them. I appreciated her concern on many accounts, partly because I feel our role is to learn from our students while also serving as a guide, and partly because I have felt the same discomfort. Most of the people I serve are older than me, and my age has often been a source of confusion for patients and families I am caring for. I often get the question, “Why are you working here?” from my elder patients in hospice.

The issue of training and qualification is not so interesting for me, as my standards on that are clear and robust. But for me there was a conversation inside of what she was saying: what makes us qualified to teach? How do we know that we deserve to be listened to, to guide others? Is it from an authority around a subject, or experience, or something else?

My teachers have always given three main requirements to be a teacher: 1. You have a teacher 2. You are committed to your practice 3. You care about people. What stands out about these requirements to me is that all three of them suggest a sense of not knowing. Having a teacher means someone is watching over you, that you understand you need guidance and oversight, and you accept the prospect of continually being challenged and growing in a way that is not just about what you choose or prefer. Being committed to a practice is in itself a relationship with change, because more than anything daily practice wakes us up to the reality of constant change in life, the unfixedness of the world around us and inside of us. And if we really let people into our hearts with care, we realize that we cannot ever know their individual experience, and we would be smart to shut up and listen.

I think this concern about competence and authority is essential, but it feels like in caring hands that questioning can actually reside in the acceptance of reality as it is, ever changing and mysterious, and can actually be a foundation from which to teach. Rebecca Solnit talks about the hope that is present in a recognition of the unknown, and I wonder if the true acceptance of this is what makes us fit for teaching. Our students need us to be there with them in uncertainty more than they need answers or perfection. It makes me wonder how we are preparing ourselves as teachers to sit with the unknown, to make space for it rather than be reactive to it; to allow for questions and not answers.

How do you make space for this in your practice and your teaching?

Deep bows, sarah


Dear Sarah,

I know well the rub of the age/experience comparison in student/teacher dynamics. I believe strongly in honoring those that came before us. I don't believe that being a younger teacher or an older student conflicts with that principle. In fact, I think it speaks even more to the listening space that a teacher must hold for a student - a space that allows the student to learn and grow from the precious resources of their own experience within the framework of a practice, philosophy, &/or craft.

I see teaching as a collaboration, a dance between two people reconciling with the ever-evolving unknown. Although knowing the mechanics of the dance is important, it is much more exciting & fulfilling to dwell in the questions with a student –to be open to the infinite, creative possibilities of the questions– than to always attempt to lead the dance with answers. Having all the answers cheats both teacher and student from the profound adventure of discovering, which is where growth (for both) takes place. And knowing all the right steps doesn't actually make for a great dancer. (I hardly ever use dancing metaphors - maybe it's because it's you I'm writing to!)

In fact, what might be considered a “wrong” step may make the teaching that much more real/embedded in our consciousness. In “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” Suzuki relays the teaching of the three horses. One horse learns quickly and only needs to see the crop to know what to do. The second horse needs to feel the tap of the crop to be reminded. The third horse needs to be walloped by the crop to get the message. The teaching says the third horse is the one with the deepest understanding because he has had to feel the lesson, deeply, in his very bones. When we find ourselves in the position of the third horse – struggling with lessons that just don't seem to take, we need a good teacher that knows our experience in the process of learning/understanding is far more important than getting to the answer.

Our teachers can help us to connect to our inner knowing and realize our blind spots. When dealing with blind spots –more often than not– people really can't be told. Telling someone they are not seeing something doesn't mean that they can suddenly, automatically see it. My mentors have shown me that it is more about asking the right questions than dishing out answers. This is a challenging & evolving practice, but also rewarding as student & teacher get to meet at the convergence of good questions. The right questions can lead students into deeper self-reflection & creative inquiry, which may offer new perspectives & the possibility of realizing blind spots.

If a teacher identifies as someone who just “knows more,” the power dynamic between student and teacher is exacerbated and impedes the learning process of both. There is always more to know, more to learn, more to grow–& give thanks– for we are evolving beings! The teacher that is satisfied to “know more” will rue the day her students surpass her knowledge, while the teacher that dwells with students in “not knowing” can learn and celebrate the learning, discovery, & evolution with her students. The not knowing is (perhaps the most important) part of it. Without the not knowing, we would have been done with this scene long ago!

As you said so well, “our students need us to be there with them in uncertainty.” So, a teacher is a person that elects or, really, is elected to do just that. And beyond that uncertainty, more uncertainty surely awaits. So, perhaps being a teacher is about cultivating and supporting a healthy relationship with uncertainty, with the unknown through a strong, clear, faithful, and devoted approach to your practice and your path.

in Thanks & Peace, stephanie

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Sarah Capua is a therapeutic yoga teacher, meditation teacher, and caregiver in NYC and the Hudson Valley. Stephanie Rooker is a vocalist, voice teacher, sound healing facilitator, and founder of Voice Journey Sound Center in Brooklyn, NY.

To read more of Sarah Capua's work, go to her website here. To see more of Stephanie Rooker's work, go to her website here.

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