With a son preparing to audition for college theater programs, I have been spending more time than usual with his voice teacher. Though I try to behave like the proverbial “fly on the wall” during these lessons, one night I couldn’t keep from laughing at the instructions she gave my son. Fortunately, she laughed too and said, “I swear I’m going to write a book called 850 Ways to Say the Same Sh!t.” When the laughter died down and the singing recommenced, I realized that I could write a “yoga teacher” version of that book myself. I suspect any teacher could say the same.
After all, every student in every class has his or her own style of learning. Some are visual learners. Some learn from listening. Some learn from doing. If you define a really good teacher as someone who is able to reach, and therefore to teach, any student who comes to learn, then a really good teacher must be fluent in many teaching styles. Sometimes you give instructions. Sometimes you give demonstrations. Sometimes you break things down into tiny bits. Other times you throw your student into the deep end and see how she does. Sometimes a soft, gentle hand is exactly what a student needs. Other times, a firmer, no-nonsense style is more effective.
Even within the instructions you give, you learn to change your language. While I don’t know if I have 850 ways to cue someone into Downward Facing Dog and to describe the sensations I’d like them to notice, I’m confident that I have dozens of versions of these instructions in my arsenal. When teaching someone with tight hamstrings, for instance, I often focus on the sensations of the upper body to expand their awareness beyond the loud-mouth muscles on the backs of their legs. When working with someone with a sore shoulder, however, I will be extra-precise as I cue them to stretch into the posture – sometimes using a guiding touch. How I teach the posture to a beginner – often getting on my own mat to demonstrate the posture for them – varies wildly from the way I cue it to an experienced student.
To complicate things further, sometimes a student simply isn’t ready to hear what you’re saying. I can’t count the times I’ve finally “gotten” a posture after weeks or months of practice, and asked my teacher incredulously, “Why didn’t you tell me that before?” She always responds with a little half smile. Now that I’m in her shoes, I know that smile means “I’ve been telling you that for ages, you just couldn’t hear me.” The art of graceful repetition, then, can be critically important to success at the head of a classroom.
Sharath Jois, the lead teacher at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, says:
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”14″ align=”left”]When I began working with Guruji [father of Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois], slowly I began to understand how you must approach people differently in order to make them understand. We have to study the student first, study each student one by one, so we can know how to approach him or her. If I tell him like this he might understand, but another student is different so I have to tell her in a different way and then maybe she will understand. It depends on the student’s mindset and capability of understanding – we have to approach him accordingly. Sometimes we even have to yell, to wake up some people and give them a 440-volt shock![/mk_blockquote]
Like Jois, I believe that my teaching must meet my students where they are. Otherwise the teaching will sail right past them without leaving a mark. To this end, I am willing to give almost anything a try. While I have yet to yell at a student, like my son’s voice teacher, I have tried what absolutely feels like 850 ways to teach the same postures. Rather than feeling tedious, this constant tweaking and changing feels like growth. Each time I step before a class of students, I have the opportunity to refine, to hone and to develop my teaching. And, each time I do this, my chances of sharing a “light bulb” moment with a student (the best outcome in the whole world for a teacher) go up exponentially.
Even if you’re not a teacher, the skill of having “850 Ways to Say the Same Sh!t” serves you well. Anyone who has worked on a group project at school knows that different people require different leadership styles. Anyone who has coached a sport (or even shared a doubles court with a partner) knows that there are (forgive me) 850 ways to teach someone to hit or kick a ball. Friendships, casual exchanges in shops or cocktail parties, and relationships with teachers are all better when you are able to tweak or hone the way you do things. If all these situations and relationships are “the frying pan,” parenthood is “the fire.” After all, no two children respond to the same discipline, the same style of guidance or even the same style of love the same way. Having that second (or third or fourth …) child puts you right back at square one – figuring out all over again how to be a mom or dad.
The good news – whether you’re a teacher or a project leader or a coach or a friend or a parent – is that as you start all over again this time (and the next, and the next) you will have the advantage of having climbed the learning curve before. Each time you do, you will be more refined, more experienced and more agile as you seek exactly the right way to say what you have to say. And, if you’re very, very fortunate, you will have the privilege of being there to share a “light bulb” moment.
So, go ahead, repeat yourself. This time, your words may be exactly what they need to hear.