Sunday, June 3, 2012

Teacher and Student: You're Doing It Wrong

Over the years I’ve been a teacher and I’ve been a student. Whether it’s elementary or high school, college or certification classes, sometimes we have to put ourselves in that unbalanced situation to get what we need before we can move on. But that’s not always the best way.

I made my way through the public and private school system, college and graduate school as a student. During graduate school I also became a teacher, so I was sandwiched between my grad school professors above me and my freshman college students below me. I believed that the teacher/student relationship, in which one set of people (the students) is considered somehow lower than the other (teachers) was good and right. Obviously, if a teacher knows something you don’t, they’re better than you, right?

Don’t worry, I got over it.

The person who helped me get over it, in a messy and unpleasant way, was my first pagan priestess. She desperately wanted to be my teacher. That should have been a clue right there, but I was too young to know better. She wanted to be in that higher position over me, for me to be beneath her as a student. Since she had so much more skill and experience than I did, I bought into that idea and agreed to the teacher/student relationship on those terms.

I learned the hard way that relationships that are unbalanced in power become unbalanced in other ways as well. It probably didn’t help that she was a bit unbalanced mentally to start with, but there you are.

From early childhood we are encouraged to buy into the idea of authority, of someone being in power over us. Students must bow to teachers. Lay people must bow to clergy. Patients must bow to doctors. Employees must bow to supervisors. And, until very recently, women must bow to husbands and fathers.

So it’s only natural, I suppose, that we should expect most of our relationships in life to have a dominance hierarchy rather than a partnership.

The thing is, I don’t think dominance hierarchy is natural at all. (Don’t talk to me about baboons and their dominance hierarchies; we’re not baboons.) I found it to be especially detrimental to my spiritual growth, both in the Christian churches I attended (voluntarily or not) in my early life and in that teacher/student relationship with my first priestess. First there was my long-reinforced but unfortunate desire to please my teachers at the expense of finding my own truth. Then there was the teachers’ desire to be looked up to as gurus, if not demigods, by all their students. Yick.

Soon after I ended the relationship with my first priestess, I was lucky to meet some people who were starting a pagan group based on the idea that we were all on equal footing. Sure, some of us were already trained in some tradition or other. And others were only just beginning. But we set out together, walking the path side by side with no one above anyone else. The rest of the local pagan community was dismayed by how well our organization worked, because our equality threatened their authoritarian setups.

Unfortunately, the later infusion of some people who were bent on being in authority led to the eventual breakup of the group. But while we were able to maintain that equality, we all learned and grew by leaps and bounds. It was, literally, all good.

Over the years I’ve come to realize the only way I can truly learn and grow is to walk in partnership with others. I suspect this is true for many, if not most, people. The authoritarian, hierarchical setup that usually accompanies the teacher/student relationship is a hindrance to real forward progress for either the teacher or the student. Sure, you the student can memorize large amounts of information. Yes, you can perform to the pleasure and ego-inflation of your teacher. But I’m not sure you’re really advancing on the path if you do those things. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not. And the self-absorbed teacher sure isn’t. We just find it difficult to look outside that box, much less actually step beyond its confines, because it’s such an ingrained part of society.

A few years ago I gave in to the requests of several friends and instituted a pagan discussion group. I had expected lively conversations in which everyone participated on an even footing. What I got, instead, was a group of people most of whom sat open-mouthed, waiting for my pronouncements about various topics, waiting to be spoon-fed information they could use, with no effort on their part.

When I cancelled that discussion group, the whining of the poor students who suddenly had to think for themselves and do some real work again echoed for days.

Since then I’ve been careful not to institute anything resembling the conventional teacher/student setup in my life. I’ve come to believe our society’s emphasis on authoritarian relationships simply doesn’t allow for a healthy outcome in that regard. It’s hard enough to maintain a real partnership in a marriage given all the dominance baggage that institution carries; dominance hierarchy is still alive and well in the teacher/student world.

Sidebar: If you haven’t read it already, you should pick up a copy of Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade. It’s the seminal work on partnership versus dominance relationships.

In recent years I’ve had a few friends who were really jonesing to be my teachers. I have quietly ignored them. Here’s a clue: If you’re looking around at the people you know, deciding who among them you should recruit as your next student, you’re not teacher material. If you're desperate to gather people around you and run a group, you need to do some serious personal work first.

The converse is true as well. If you’re flipping through your mental contacts list, trying to find someone to be your teacher and give you the secrets to life, the universe and everything, you need to get your butt in gear and start walking your own path on your own two feet.

My best teachers have been the ones who walked the path by my side. We taught each other. We learned from each other. Sometimes, we leaned on each other. But we never got caught up in the who’s-above-whom game. Ultimately, we’re all both students and teachers. The sooner we accept that fact, the sooner we can move forward and grow.