Thursday, April 21, 2016

Teaching to the Student

Greetings all,

I hope you've had an enjoyable week.  I've caught little moments of beauty in the wake that time leaves behind since my last post.  I've been privy to late night awakenings and the mysterious energies of the dawn.  I've also been lucky to get some great feedback with my teaching lately.

The last 3 years I've grown tremendously in my ability to teach.  I've taught in people's living rooms, wellness centers, backyards, churches, community centers, and gyms.  Tai chi is something I've been practicing for half my life.  I've forgotten as many forms as I currently know, but it wasn't until I started teaching that I think I really began to understand the forms I practice.   When my teacher approached me in the dojo and said, "You're a Sifu,", I was surprised.  I certainly didn't feel like a master.  I was terrible at sparring, I didn't know any Ba Qua or Hsing Hi.  At the time I even had a friend (former friend now) say that he hated how in the west they just passed out titles and how it diluted the potency of it.  (Yes he was that much of an asshole,  I did say former friend).

I struggled with the label for quite some time.  The thing is Sifu could also be translated as teacher.  So in that sense I am a Sifu.  I teach, and thankfully much better than I did when I was granted the title.  It's a good thing I started teaching friends because I had no idea what I was doing.  I still have trouble conceiving exactly how my teacher instructed us.  I get snippets here and there of memories spliced together, but mostly all I remember was him demonstrating the move for us and remarking on the breathing pattern.  He also had several advanced students assisting him in class. When I first started teaching friends and acquaintances, I tried teaching his way just demonstrating the form, but it didn't work.  Nobody understood me and I kept getting people with physical peculiarities.  One student had a leg that was longer than the other, another one didn't have all the tendons in their knees, another had a mechanical heart valve (useful in that I knew when they were working too hard, I could hear it ticking).  I was hyper focused on the form, but for many of the students with physical issues the form was impossible to do "correctly".

A turning point came for me when I landed a job teaching at wellness center.  It was membership driven like a gym so people could drop in one week but they'd be gone for the next 2.  I had to adjust my teaching style so that anyone could walk into class and follow along to most of what we were doing. I changed the focus from form to giving the students an experience of chi flowing in their bodies.  Progress was slow if you were measuring by forms, but each class had it's own grace and flow.  I had a core of students that loved it, but sadly the wellness center closed.  I next moved onto teaching at a gym and I brought what I had learned from teaching from a more personal wellness viewpoint. Currently I teach 3 classes a week: one class is for active seniors with a range of people in their 60s all the way into their 80s, the other two classes are made up to a great extent by people who are undergoing treatment for cancer or who have successfully come through treatment.  So I am once again adjusting my style of teaching.  I don't know that I'd be a success in a dojo, but I feel like what I am teaching now is of greater value to my students.

One of my class participants recently traveled to an event where they had people demonstrating a particular style of fan form tai chi.  When they asked what the beginning level was like they were told that what they had seen was the beginning level. They and others there were discouraged because much of it was out of their ability to attempt.  To be a teacher you have to meet people where they are, not where you think they should be.  That is the most valuable thing I have learned, you teach to the student not the form.  Forms are meaningless, they are simply an outlet for the chi to flow through.

So how does this apply to you?  Well at some point you are going to be called upon to teach or train somebody in something.  Whether it is professionally or in your family we all share our knowledge.  If you want to be effective you have to be able to assess where someone is with their understanding and their current capabilities.  In my mind a teacher is a servant not a master.  The classes I teach belong to the students not me.  By respecting people's limitations equally to their strengths you give them space to grow. That said you  may have a different teaching style.  Do you know what it is?  Are you able to adapt to fit your audience's needs?  Are you more focused on the information or the people?  Teaching is an art form on its own and one that is rarely respected in our culture.  If you haven't taught lately perhaps it is time you do.  It matters not what, just that you connect and share.  A good teacher is hard to find I've been lucky in mine.  May you be lucky in yours.

Peace and Blessings,
Thomas Mooneagle


  1. Well said. You are a teacher! Some people have the profession of a "teacher".... but one is not really a teacher until you reach the student. You can teach the subject or you teach the student. You're there...well done!! Wish I lived closer to be able to be part of a class.

  2. Excellent musing Thomas! Thank you Sifu! <3