Tag Archives: student

What makes a good teacher?

Whether you’re looking for a Pagan teacher to guide you on your spiritual path, or for other kinds of guidance, it is tempting to seek out the teachers who have it all figured out. The folk for whom life is good, spirituality is easy, who are totally on top of everything, get it all their own way and can tell you how to achieve that as well. The teachers who promise it will be easy, and happy and that the path is just made of good things.

Who isn’t attracted to good, easy and quickly available?

With non-spiritual teachers, I have noticed repeatedly that folk who do things easily and naturally are not usually great at teaching. They don’t always know what it’s like to not get a thing, or to struggle. They don’t have any tools for overcoming problems, because they’ve never had to overcome problems. I notice that I have to try hardest to teach the things I am actually good at, and can more easily teach someone to do the things I had to grapple hard with to learn. Teaching my son to swim was easy, because it was hard for me to learn. Teaching him ways round the things he struggles with on the essay writing side, has been much harder going.

My spiritual path has not always been smooth or easy. I’ve had doubts and setbacks, I lose direction, I worry about things. I do not have a perfectly smooth, flawlessly happy life in which everything is in line with my will. I’ve not found Druidry to be comfortably easy. It has brought me challenges, periods of struggle, and a lot of questions. I look at the teachers who say they have answers for everything, and I know (now) that it won’t work out well for me.

If the teacher is (appears to be) totally good, wise, right, experienced and able to make everything lovely, while the student is some awkward, sometimes malfunctioning lost soul like me, there is a likely outcome. The teacher will reject the student they cannot teach, fix or heal. It will be the student’s fault for being unteachable, not positive enough, not really trying. Been there, bought that t-shirt.

On the other hand, teachers who admit to being flawed and struggling humans too, who can get things wrong and have off days tend to have the insight to help others who are struggling. For me, Cat Treadwell is a great example of someone with deep and long term dedication to the Druid path who does not tell people they can easily have all the things. I’ve watched her battling against depression for years. Her dark nights of the soul led her to write Facing the Darkness, which is a truly helpful book for a Druid or Pagan who finds themselves in a bad place.

I’m not sure I believe there are people whose lives are just good karma and fairy dust all the way. It may be good PR to pitch yourself that way. It may sell more books and fill more places on courses, it may do the perpetrator more economic good, but I think that’s all it does. Sooner or later, most of us find something we stumble over or struggle with. Most of us don’t get what we want purely by visualising it and stroking our power symbols.

When you’re chasing the idea of the perfectly easy magic solution to all things you can spend a lot of time chasing, only to be let down over and over again. It can lead to feelings of failure and despair – all these magic positivity solutions to align you with your dreams and yet somehow your life is still hard and unsatisfying! I’ll follow the teacher who can show me how to get along as a flawed human with issues, not some image of shiny perfection I know I can’t live up to, and that will, based on experience, reject me when it turns out I can’t reflect all that shiny shininess back to them.

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Eternal Student

Is there a point where we can rest on our laurels and feel that we know it all? Obviously not, because there’s far more to learn than any one person can know. Is there a point when we know enough that we can consider ourselves an authority and not study further? Then it gets interesting.

Of course the most obvious risk if you stop studying is that what you know becomes out of date. Other younger, sharper, hungrier creatures will outlearn you and pass you by. You’ll become irrelevant. The applications for this in any aspect of work are pretty obvious, but it’s easy to think that in spiritual matters, the person who has it figured out doesn’t need to keep on sitting in the student seats.

The person who knows it all, who is wise and enlightened and really spiritual, doesn’t need to keep studying. Or so it may seem. There’s a point of achievement imaginable that says now you are the authority, the guru, others should learn from you now. For me, that’s a bit of a warning sign. I don’t think any of us humans ever get to be so clever and wise that we have nothing more to learn. I do think there’s something distinctly off when people aren’t excited enough to want to learn.

To learn is to admit that you didn’t already know. Or that you weren’t the best you could be. It requires a healthy ego, able to aspire, rather than fragile and unable to admit there’s more to do. To my mind, being human means there’s always more scope. There’s something very healthy about taking off the authority, the teaching role, the status, and rocking up somewhere as a student. It’s releasing. It allows us all to be imperfect works in progress. Also, learning new stuff is great fun.

I read other authors to learn from them. I’m going to some writing workshops this summer because I know I’ll learn things by doing that. I’m doing a free online course in eco-linguistics. I like picking up new craft skills when I can. I like the challenge of learning a new job.

I also really like what happens when, within a community, people pass the ‘teacher’ hat round and take it in turns to hold temporary authority. I like it when everyone is able to sit down and listen to someone else’s teaching. I like how it reduces feelings of hierarchy, superiority and power over, and increases feelings of mutual respect and recognition.


Teaching Druidry, Learning Druidry

I have, at various times and by assorted means, tried teaching Druidry. It’s an odd business for me – not least because I dislike dogma and authority, and firmly believe that modern Druidry is something we have to make for ourselves as individuals. Of course teaching doesn’t have to express authority or dogma, but it’s so easy to accidentally fall into either, or both.

I’ve learned a lot when I’ve been teaching people. It’s allowed me to find out a great deal about other ways to see the world. One of the things it taught me is that I enjoy being a student, and always feel a bit out of my depth if asked to taking a teaching role, but that at the same time I find teaching exciting, and watching people find their own way even more so.

This has led me to the conclusion that most of the time, creating space is more productive than any attempts at formal teaching. It’s also less demanding in terms of time and effort. Give people a space, an opportunity, and let them do it on their own terms, and what they find will be their own, and will have its own shape. It removes all temptation for the teaching to be about how clever and important the teacher is, and it frees the student from any dogma the teacher might have been hauling around.

Too often, teaching can mean imagining the student as the blank page onto which the teacher must write their great wisdom. But, if you start from the idea that what the student needs to do is discover their own wisdom, everything changes. If you aim to have the student find their own inspiration, their own insight, their own magic… then giving them yours is of limited use.

There are a great many ways of creating opportunities, and this is something we can all do for each other without needing a hierarchy of teachers over students. Anyone can make a space, and anyone can work within a space to experience and develop. All that is required of a space is that it gives people room to have experiences. That could be a moot set up to talk philosophically. It could be a ritual or a bardic circle that doesn’t overly direct participants. It might just be a walk, a few pointers for a drawing exercise, a meditation space or room to dance.

I think the best scope for learning occurs when we are least invested in controlling each other’s experiences. One person cannot teach another person to have a spiritual experience – it’s just not possible. All we can do is show each other the things that might lead to spiritual experience.


Beyond being a Druid student

Most people who come to Druidry will start out making no claims about themselves. Recognising that ‘Druid’ is a weighty word implying a lot of things about your role, knowledge and how you are seen by others, new-to-Druidry folk tend to talk about themselves as being students of Druidry, on the Druid path and the like. At some point, a transition will happen from student of Druidry to Druid. Where and when it falls will vary, but there’s often an external trigger. Completing a course can feel like qualification. Leading your first ritual, or Grove, being asked to act as celebrant or to teach something to someone else are also points of transition. Once people ask you to do the job, they will use the ‘Druid’ title in regards to you, and you may as well get used to it!

Many routes to Druidry are self determining. Even in a structured course like OBOD, the responsibility clearly lies with the student, and as they come into their own power there will be a smooth transition from student to practitioner, most often. Where the difficulty often comes is around more personal teaching, where the student submits to the authority of a teacher. That creates a very particular dynamic. It is all too easy for the student to decide their teacher is the all knowing Guru, and refuse to move on from that into responsibility for their own spiritual lives. It is equally easy for the teacher to fall into the ego trap of feeling important because they have all these students following them around being terribly impressed by them, and want to maintain that.

When this happens, the students are not allowed to cross the threshold into their own Druid status. Or won’t let themselves. To move on they will have to break with the teacher – something I’ve seen happen repeatedly. As often as not, this process breaks the student and they retreat from what they were doing. It doesn’t do the teacher much good either, leaving a legacy of wounded feelings that doesn’t make it easier to let future students go. At some point, you have to recognise that even though there are always more things you could teach them, they are ready to go it alone.

How does a teacher avoid this? Not setting yourself up as an authority figure in the first place helps. Avoiding terms that imply power over, or submission to, may help. That way there’s less to break at the end. Don’t teach alone, and if you can, teach with someone whose outlook is different, to avoid dogma and create more space for the student to find their own version of Druidry. If you can’t do that, there are plenty of books now, so you can expose proto-Druids to other perspectives and make it clear you aren’t an absolute authority. If the student is drawn in a direction that is not what you teach, let them go. Don’t make yourself responsible for their spiritual journey. Ideally as teachers we provide tools and ideas from which other people can find out how they want to do things. If we try too hard to make students too much like ourselves we limit them, and take from them the scope to be themselves. If you are taking a formal teacher-student role, have a strategy for how you are going to release them into the wild at the end.

As a student, I would say as a rule the more devotion, acceptance, submission and passivity a teacher asks for (in any context, not just Druidry) the more reason there is to move on. A good teacher will help you be the best you can be, rather than wanting to align you with their own message.

I will always be a student, because there is always more to learn. As a student I have come to value most the fellow travellers who share their experiences without trying to hold authority over me. Where I mentor, I offer myself on those terms as well. One of the things I especially value about OBOD is the emphasis on the responsibility of the student, and the culture of being people sharing a journey. In such company, the transition to self-identifying as a Druid is powerful, but not painful.


Slowing down for Druidry

With hindsight I can see a number of things going on with me when I first came to Druidry, that I would not have admitted to myself at the time, but which I suspect will affect others, too. When we’re doing a new thing, we tend to make public our success, progress, and joy in it. It reinforces the work and makes us feel good. The reality may well be more complex, but if no one else speaks about it, we hardly want to bare all and risk flagging up that we are wrong or different in some way.

I came to Druidry having gone through the formal education system with enthusiasm. I knew how to study, and how to learn. I could absorb ideas quickly and formulate new ones. When I started studying with OBOD, my impulse was to run through as fast as possible, learn it all, get the qualification, do that with all the grades, and then be a proper Druid. I needed those qualifications, I thought, so that people would take me seriously. Fortunately the folks at OBOD clearly know all about this one, because you only get four lessons at a time and they will only turn up once a month. There is no way to rush ahead, hurrying towards faster qualifications. At first, this really bugged me, I felt frustrated, unnecessarily slowed down.

Somewhere in those first months I started to suspect there was more to being a Druid than learning the contents of a course and getting a shiny certificate. Unlike everything I’d ever been taught before, this wasn’t going to be all about doing as much as I could, as quickly as possible and then being graded. The work was not about achievement in the world, but changing myself. Yes, there were things to learn, but far more importantly, there was a process to experience, and that called for doing, and doing at the right speed.

The idea of slowing down terrified me. All those years in the school system being taught how to run and hurry, to push continually and to do it faster… slow meant stupid. Slow was what lazy people did, and people who were not going to pass the course. I had been entirely indoctrinated with the belief that fast was good and slow was almost immoral. Noticing that maybe the prestige of speed wasn’t an absolute truth, came as a bit of a system shock. I had to re-evaluate my life. I had learned that I must always be busy and visibly productive, the idea that important work could be done by sitting quietly was alien and alarming. Meditations and rituals simply don’t work if you take them at a break neck pace.

I still struggle with those old impulses. I still catch myself looking for external proof of success, I let myself forget that worldly success cannot be equated with being a Druid, in which the only measure of success is whether you make the time to show up and do the Druid stuff. Other religions have deities keeping score and an afterlife dependant on racking up enough points. We don’t have that. There is no point of achievement, no ultimate qualification, no externally sourced title or anything else to aspire to. Being a successful Druid means being someone who brings their Druidry into all aspects of their life. Speed is not of the essence.

I still feel like I need to fill my every waking moment with productive activity. I was trained to be a worker bee, and the sense that to be inactive is to be lazy is something I struggle to shake off. In busyness, life is filled with noise and action, but if nothing underpins the activity, it is hollow and unsatisfying. When what I do is meaningful to me, when it is well considered and part of something bigger, I tend to be happier. Time to reflect and ponder, to draw breath, evaluate and plan results in me working more efficiently. I get more done, and the things I achieve are more relevant to my aims and generally more useful. I’ve learned to value good work over the appearance of very busy.

These days there’s no one who would complain if it didn’t look like I was busy enough. I am judged on the results I get, in various aspects of my life, but how I get there is my own business. Quality has become far more important to me than quantity. In slowing down, I have become more in control of myself, and there’s a lot of power in that. The process of running as hard as you can, ticking off the next qualification before sprinting to the next, or the next promotion, or some other gong to acquire, keeps us busy. Always doing, always productive, we aren’t thinking or deciding much. The person who is always running never gets time to stop and think. It’s part of the power of Druidry that it shows us how to slow down and take control of our time and lives.


The joys of ignorance

I’m not talking about the comfort value of wilful ignorance here, but something else entirely. Partly inspired by Red’s recent post – http://theanimistscraft.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/liminal-places-and-studentship/and partly by the John Michael Greer book I’m reading. I’ve found that every time I learn something, if I’m paying attention then it tends to flag up more possibilities, things I don’t know, questions to ask and so forth. My belief is that the potential for knowledge is therefore infinite. One of the surest signs that I’ve not been paying attention, is if I start to feel like I really know and understand a thing, or a person, situation etc. There are often more questions to ask.

In many ways, feeling like I know something is not a happy place to be. Where do you go next? It was always my problem with games, for example, that once I understand how to play and what it takes to win, my interest in playing or even winning pretty much dries up. I find the same thing with people – once I’ve heard all of someone’s stories for the third time, I start to look around and wander off. Some of this is probably laziness on my part, but as my friend Bill says, there are people who turn out to have hidden shallows. Sometimes, there isn’t any more to know, as with really drab board games. I’ve also been caught in situations where failure to understand has held my interest, when the more sensible option would have been to recognise that a person was just bat shit crazy and therefore not making any sense and that there was no discovery to make.

The experience of learning and discovering is one that I love, but the best thing is this: When a great vista of the unknown opens up before me. It’s like getting to the top of a mountain and finding there’s a whole new country on the far side. These are wild moments. Of course then follows the climbing down and slogging through the details, which tends to be more like work and not as numinous, but it’s good too.

There are always moments in any journey when it feels like you’re not going anywhere. I’ve had a couple of years now of resettling in this landscape, shifting from leading rituals to being solitary in my practice. I’ve learned new way of working with and relating to the land and I’ve spent a lot of time working on the space inside my head, but there’s been a growing feeling of lost direction. What is my Druidry, these days? Where am I going? What am I doing? And then, the John Michael Greer book showed me the view from a mountain top. It’s just been a glimpse, and I know if I want to get a proper look at that country, I’m going to need to do some work. But I know it’s there. The rush of ignorance, the realisation that there’s so much I don’t know, so much to be done, this is a very happy thing for me.


The mysteries of teaching

In any mystery tradition there can be tension between how much you tell the student up front, and how much is sprung upon them in surprising and dramatic ways, calculated to change their awareness. Initiations are a prime example of this. How much should be unknown and unexpected, and how much should be done with the consent of the student?

I’ve had experience of teachers who liked to say ‘trust me and I will open the way for you’ and who wanted me to surrender myself into their hands, be guided, trust that they would do the right things for me. I’ve never been at ease with that. I’ve read about people who have undergone surprising initiations, to good effect, and I’ve listened to people who have been shocked and distressed by things done to them in initiation.

If you take on the responsibility of making choices for your student, you have to be aware that you can get it wrong. I once used a meditation I’d taken from a book, which involved starting with just one candle in a darkened room and then blowing it out. After the meditation I learned that one of my crew suffered claustrophobia and that darkness was a trigger. She’d got through, but it was a humbling and life changing lesson for me. I would not want to hold that responsibility for anyone, I would rather ask. I have yet to find any teaching situation where I couldn’t usefully say something in advance about what it was for or what might happen. I’d rather do that precisely because it makes the student an equal partner in a process. I think informed consent is important.

There’s also the mindset of the teacher to consider. I’m sure there are folk out there wise and aware enough to handle the spiritual path of another person, but I’d also bet they aren’t the majority. Taking that responsibility can be all about ego and self importance. Saying ‘I know better than you what it is that you need’ is not always a safe and healthy approach. It makes it easy for us to try and control and direct another person, to hold power over them, to make them do what we think they should be doing, not what their soul needs. All souls are different. The teacher who persuades, guides and suggests has to work a lot harder, can be argued with, and will have to justify themselves. A teacher in that position is also learning.

When we start out along any spiritual path, the idea of mystery can be exciting. Yes, we want to be led blindfolded into a ritual where amazing transformations occur. What we’re rather looking for there, can be for something from outside to come to us and do all the work. Magical transformation, not transformation we have laboured for. And yes of course the theatre is alluring, the sense of stepping away from conventional reality. But does that make it productive? Maybe not.

The world is full of mysteries and wonders without our needing to stage them. My personal preference is to engage knowingly with a teacher, free to take on what works for me and reject what does not. (Thank you OBOD for allowing me to do just that.) And as a teacher, I just don’t want the responsibility. I’d rather offer a possibility and let a student decide whether they like it or it makes sense for them. I know that when I started teaching, I thought people would expect me to be all wise and all knowing. I rather thought I ought to be. I felt like a bit of a fraud, truth be told. But over the years I’ve become a lot more comfortable with not needing to be any kind of guru. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you what you most need to do. I will not take you blindfolded into a ritual unless you’ve told me there’s something of that shape you need.

There are many different styles of teaching out there, and increasing numbers of teachers. If you run into something you don’t like, then it is important to know this isn’t the only available way. (And some less ethical ‘teachers’ may well try to claim there is only their way, just ignore them.) There are many ways, many styles, and the odds are good that somewhere, someone will be teaching at least some of the things you want to learn. You may need to go through several teachers to find your own way. You may end up doing it yourself from a selection of sources. But the bottom line is, if the experience does not feel right to you, then it isn’t right, no matter how much someone else may think they know best. Saying ‘I know what you need better than you do’ does not make it so. This holds up outside magical and spiritual training too. Informed consent is always, in my opinion, the best life choice. I’d ask serious questions of anyone who wanted me to take too much on trust, in any scenario.


Facilitating, not leading

Leadership implies authority. Yesterday in the post Being a Druid Leader  I talked about some of the things that trouble me about leadership as a concept. Today I’m going to poke around the idea of facilitation and how that differs from leadership. The most critical difference is that a facilitator does not have to put themselves in a position of authority. This can be applied to the running of just about anything, and also to teaching.

Leadership tends towards dogma. Leaders tend towards visions, and ways of doing things. Now, we all need ways of doing things and we all need inspiration to guide us along our path, but does this mean we need precise guidance from a leader? When you are first learning a path, be it druidry, or politics or an academic subject, what you don’t know is overwhelming. Having someone to help you get to any kind of path through the confusion of trees, is often a great relief. But the more we learn, the more likely we are to have our own ideas. There will be things we want to try as unique visions come to each of us. Some visions are small and personal, some epic and revolutionary, but all are important.

People who set themselves up to lead, to bring their vision into the world, to teach their particular path and so forth, run the risk of trying to turn students and followers into them. I’ve been there, I have experimented with the t-shirt both as a student and as a teacher. If you are inspired by your own ideas, it can be tempting to want to push others into taking them up. And surely, that is the very nature of religious tradition? Except that Druidry usually prides itself on being non-dogmatic, and teaching your vision can be a quick route into dogma.

Someone who facilitates does not instruct. They may offer ideas, suggestions, and whatnot, but will spend as much time listening to how others want to do things, as they do laying out their own plans. A facilitator creates a safe space, a framework, in which others can explore. Now, obviously the shape of the framework will inform the options of other participants, but if you get it right, they aren’t constricted, just held and reassured.

Here’s a simple example. Running a guided meditation, you can say “You come into a beautiful clearing, sun is streaming through the trees and you feel happy and blessed.” Or you can say “You come into a beautiful clearing, sun is streaming through the trees, it’s a quiet and safe place. Take some time to be in it and see how it makes you feel.” The first approach forces the emotions of the participants, the second does not. In the second, a person needing to deal with grief would be able to sit down in that envisioned glade and weep the tears they could not shed in public, for example.

Facilitating is less work than leading. It does not disempower the people who come to you. It requires everyone to be to a decent degree, responsible for themselves. It doesn’t tie you into ways of working that are quite so likely to sap energy. It also means that you do not take control of where your people go, what they learn, how they practice. You do not get to own what they become.

I learned a lot about facilitating in my time at The Druid Network – an organisation that embodies this ethos of making spaces but not leading. I’ve seen it at work at OBOD – yes, the shape of the written course means you’ve got a path to follow, but good tutors (I had several) will support you in finding your own detours and building your own ways of working. It’s easier to share the work of facilitating – a group of people can collectively facilitate a ritual, but only one or two can lead. There’s more meritocracy this way, more distribution, more, when it comes down to it…. Druidry.


OBOD Druid

By the time I started the OBOD druid grade, I’d already been involved with running a grove and several meditation circles. It would have been more useful to do this the other way round, but that’s life. When I first landed in the druid grade, it felt like a huge relief after the rigours of ovate studies. Then I started looking around for the next challenge, and didn’t really find it. I know the druid course has changed recently, sounding like it goes deeper and further, so my observations are thoroughly out of date!

The affirmation I found in the druid grade echoes my experience of first coming in as a bard. It was a warm, reassuring sort of experience, and this was undoubtedly a good thing. But at the same time, where was the next testing, stretching challenge going to come from? I’d got into the habit of being a student again, and remembered that I liked it. I didn’t want to stop.

No matter how much revision the druid grade has undergone, it will still be a finite thing. This is very important, and is an issue that transcends any individual course or mentor. You get to the end. There is nothing more they can teach you. This does not mean there is nothing more to learn.

I think the most important thing the druid grade gave me was the sense that I could strike out on my own. I’d spent the best part of four years on the three grades, I’d been tested. Wiser and more experienced folk had looked me over and found me acceptable. I’d done everything in the book. At the end, there was recognition in the form of a certificate, and that felt rather good too. It felt like permission. After all the setbacks and put downs and crap that had got me to OBOD’s door, I’d come through and completed the course. I felt proud of the achievement. I knew that I was perfectly capable of striking out on my own and learning for myself. I also knew that I always had been, that I had been misguided by others for whatever reasons, but that my judgement and inclinations were fine from the start.

I think the very best thing any teacher or course can do for the student is get them to the point where said course, or teacher, are no longer needed.

Time to leave the often walked path through the Druid Forest. I eyed up a number of other clearly marked paths, especially the ADF courses, but didn’t go for it. With no plan, map or sense of direction, I ambled off into the undergrowth to see what would happen. Life brought all manner of things to test my sense of self and druidry to breaking point.

When I finished the OBOD grades, I had an awen tattooed onto my arm – a rite of passage I felt I had earned.

Most of the time I have no idea where I am, but there are plenty of fellow travellers who stop to exchange experiences of the journey. I learned, finishing the druid grade, that it’s not a journey to anywhere specific. There are no prizes for getting further than others or going faster. No one is keeping score. It’s very different from school-based learning. And at the end of the course there was no sense of being finished and ready to move on. In that regard it reminds me a bit of Tai Chi. An expert who has mastered the series of moves for Tai Chi goes back to the beginning and learns them again, doing more, understanding more, and knowing that there are infinite cycles of understanding and experiencing.

Ends are always beginnings. The more you know, the more doors open to things you do not know. And then all the questions about what are we knowing this for, what are we seeking to understand, kicks off a new cycle of exploration.