Tag Archives: teacher

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.


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.


Letting them fly

All fledglings must at some point leave the nest. My son was telling me this morning that when it is time for bear cubs to go it alone, the mother bear chases them up a tree and then abandons them. He said he’s glad he isn’t a bear! For him, it’ll be a slower, more gentle process over the next eight years or so, but it is a process we have most definitely started. This week he’s away on a residential thing with the school, having adventures. By slow degrees, he will learn to leave the nest and fend for himself. My definition of being a successful parent is that I will get him to the point where he doesn’t really need me anymore.

There is a lot of similarity between teaching and parenting in this regard. Getting it right means getting them to the point where you wave them goodbye and watch them strike out into the world. Students and offspring alike must not be under your sheltering wing forever. The trouble is, keeping them there can be really tempting. It is very human to want to be wanted, to need to be needed. And so we can easily hang on to children, and students because we like the comfort of them being there and needing us. It can tempt us to hold back a few things, to not tell them everything, so that they still need us for a few bits and pieces. It’s not the right way to go.

In many ways students are easier, because they are more readily replaced. Most of us, on waving the newly adult offspring goodbye, are not going to go and create a whole new person to replace them with. Some of us will get a puppy instead. Students tend not to be around for so long in the first place – perhaps a few years. That makes the letting go easier, and if you’re any good as a teacher, the next one will turn up soon enough.

It can be tempting, with students, to take them on when they aren’t right for us, or to try and keep them once we find that we aren’t the teacher they need. Saying ‘there isn’t anything I can usefully teach you’ is hard. Having a whole flock of students feels like kudos, feeds the ego, helps us feel important and worthwhile. Pushing just one away feels like admitting defeat, or being a failure. It isn’t. Failure is keeping them when you can do them no good.

Of course once you’ve got a child, you’ve got a child and this is a very different scenario most of the time. It’s much less usual for a person to have to consider that they cannot parent the child they have in the best way. But it does happen. Seriously physically disabled children, or ones with profound learning difficulties can be more than it is feasible for a parent to manage. Sometimes what you need are professionals who do not have to manage things 24/7. I can’t begin to imagine how hard and painful a decision that must be to make though. There are the parents who fail so badly that social services intervene and tell them they can have no role in the child’s future. There are also the parents whose offspring reject them. That can happen at any stage in life, and as they get older, if we have messed up, they are more likely to flee from us.

What of the parent who tries to hang on to the child they are unable to properly take care of? We may feel every sympathy for them, may pity their problems, recognise their grief, but it’s not enough. Regardless of the age of the child, no amount of thinking you love them justifies trying to hang on to them when they really need to be somewhere else. It’s far easier to recognise when you aren’t the right teacher for the job than I imagine it must be to recognise that you aren’t the right parent for the job.

Getting trained as a teacher isn’t difficult, but how many of us are trained as parents, or know where to go for help when we can’t manage the workload? It’s one of those issues where I can see the problems all too clearly, and the solutions seem hard to imagine in the context of the kind of society we have.


Mentoring

What does it mean, to take a student? It doesn’t actually matter whether you’re a pagan, wiccan, druid, musician, or artist, the core issues are the same. Being a teacher is a position of responsibility, and not something to take on lightly. Your student is trusting you to know more than they do, to guide and direct them. If you don’t want to be that responsible, do not offer to teach. Students are going to question you, ask for clarification, come up with problems you hadn’t thought of, or reasons you’d not considered. If you don’t like being challenged, don’t teach.

Do you imagine that teaching is all about passing on your experience to another? Telling them how to do it? Showing them the right way? Producing a follower who upholds your beliefs, continues your traditions and gives you some immortality. If this is what you want, then you are, to be honest, going to be a dreadful teacher. I’ve been taught by such folk, and they are depressing, demoralising and restricting souls, the desire to make the student like them seldom compatible with enabling the student to achieve their full potential. Being a mentor is not about knowing it all. Instead, what is called for is the ability to hold a space in which the student is supported in their own learning. We can guide, offer advice, share experience, hand over facts, talk about technique. But when it comes down to it – no matter what we teach – the student will be the one doing, and if they can’t ‘do’ on their own terms, the odds are they will quit.

Of course we know more than our students, that’s why they want to learn from us. But what we know, especially in Druidry, is what suits us. We know our own habits and beliefs, our own assumptions, needs and methods. Does that make it best for our student? Maybe not. They’re a whole other person, and ‘best’ for them might look very different. They might not share our beliefs and priorities. If we try and force them our way, we may put them off entirely. The best students want to think for themselves. They will ask questions and expect answers. “Because I said so” is never good enough reason. If you’re asking someone else to always trust that you, magically, know what is best from them, that’s a frightening amount of responsibility to take.

I’ve done a lot of mentoring over the years – with varying degrees of success. I’ve taught writing and reading skills, meditation, Druidry, and singing, to name a few. I’ve also been taught, in assorted fields by numerous people, formally and informally. The same things have held true in all disciplines.

1) Teach your students want they want to learn. Be led by their enthusiasm, don’t try and force your agenda on them.

2) Answer their questions and do not be afraid to say if you don’t know the answer.

3) Accept their right to challenge you and their right to disagree.

4) Never use emotional blackmail or any other form of manipulation to try and make your student do things your way.

5) Nurture your student. Challenge them, but don’t push them to breaking point. You don’t have to take them apart, or belittle what they have done to make your teaching seem valuable or to bend them to your will.

6) Look forward to the idea of them being better than you. If you in any way resent the idea they could be, then you are not mentor material.

7) Praise their successes. Acknowledge their failures, and help them see where they can progress, but do so without totally demoralising them. If they lose faith in themselves, they will give up. It is not about survival of the toughest.

8) As far as possible, make them do all the work, all the running, all the thinking, all the conclusion drawing. What they figure out themselves will stay with them, and if the answers they find are not your answers, so be it.

There’s a belief out there in some quarters that good teaching is brutal and that good students are passive receptacles of everything you throw at them. This is total rubbish. Good teaching enables, good studying challenges the teacher. It’s not about gratifying the teacher’s ego, or turning the student into a mini-me. It’s about helping the student do what they want to do, as well as they possibly can.