Tag Archives: teaching

Making decisions for other people

This is an issue that comes up particularly around teaching, and it’s a fascinating ethical minefield. Most people do their best learning and growing when they’re at the edge of their comfort zones. Sometimes, breaking out of the comfort zone is absolutely necessary. Consent is also a super-important thing in all aspects of life. Teaching creates power imbalances and stepping up as a teacher is pretty much an assertion that you might have a better idea what a person needs than they do.

All of this creates a lot of opportunity for predators to thrive. You don’t have to be a Pagan long to run into stories about teachers who said that sex was wholly necessary for a rite, or who violated other boundaries. There are all kinds of ways in which teaching can cause distress, and cheerfully shoving people out of their comfort zones isn’t reliably in their interests. It can be alarming, terrifying and counter-productive.

If the teaching is good, then you’ll feel supported when you’re at the edges of your comfort zone, and able to step back at need. You know you won’t be told off, humiliated or rejected if you do need to say no. If you’re invited to enter a ritual or other activity where you don’t know in advance what to expect, you should be able to talk about your own boundaries and needs. And that won’t be normal. It might make sense for an initiation to plunge you into the unknown a bit, but to be pushed that way all the time isn’t good or healthy.

To teach well, you have to be willing to shoulder responsibility, and to make decisions for the people who you are teaching – how fast to take them into something, and what to advise them, in particular. These are issues whenever anything is taught. How do you keep an eye on where the student is in relation to their own comfort zone? How do you handle problems? How willing are you to put their needs ahead of your ego?

It takes considerable confidence to look at another person and make judgements about what they most need. Good teaching and leadership alike can really depend on this. So often, to grow we need someone else to guide us beyond what we’re familiar with. It takes a lot of trust to have that work, and when that trust is misplaced, it causes a lot of damage.


Learning and criticism

The conventional wisdom is that to learn, you have to be open to robust criticism. I’ve been teaching various kinds of creative and spiritual things for a good twenty years now, and I’m increasingly convinced that the criticism approach doesn’t work that well.

What does work, is drawing people’s attention to their own successes. Tell someone what they do especially well, or what makes their work stand out. Tell them what you like about what they do, or where you can see progress. 

People who intend to learn and grow are often really harsh critics of their own work. They mostly don’t need other people to pick holes in it as well. If you’re in a position of being able to offer feedback, praising the stuff that works is really useful. It boosts and encourages the person, and you can learn a lot from hearing about what you are doing well. Criticism, on the other hand, can be demoralising, and if it doesn’t come with solid feedback about how to improve, it might not help a person in the slightest.

It is easier to rubbish someone than to lift them. It takes more skill and insight to feedback to a person about their strengths and very little insight to say ‘that’s crap’. Positive feedback boosts the other person, negative feedback does more to assert the authority and superiority of the person making the criticism. The idea that you have to be able to take harsh criticism to survive as a creative person can push out gentler and more sensitive people. 

The people who can take brutal criticism are often the ones who pay no attention to it. People not interested in learning from others or convinced that they have no need to develop can deal with harsh feedback by simply ignoring it. As a consequence, harsh criticism can mean selecting for people who ignore feedback at the expense of the people who genuinely wanted to learn and improve.

Unsolicited criticism can be really counterproductive, even when you’re in a teaching role. It can come across as asserting dominance and it can be more about the teacher’s ego than their being useful. Critical feedback is best given when it’s actually sought. If someone says ‘I’m not happy with this but I don’t know how to fix it’ that’s the time to come in and talk about what, technically can be improved on, and how. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t know how to improve something, you aren’t especially well qualified to comment on how good it is.

It’s also important when teaching or feeding back to recognise the difference between whether or not you like something and whether or not it is good. All too often, unsolicited harsh criticism is just people asserting that they don’t like a thing. Maybe it wasn’t made for you. It’s ok not to like a thing, but always worth thinking carefully about whether the person who created it needs to hear about that. Good critical feedback tells a person how to do a better job of the things they were doing. Useless feedback tells them that you wanted them to do something else. If you aren’t supporting a person to be themself, you aren’t supporting them at all.


Teaching Cats

In the last six months or so I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the impossibility of teaching or training cats. You certainly can’t train a cat the way you would a dog. However, cats learn all the time, and there’s a lot to be learned from that process.

We often underestimate the impact of our own expectations. If we think a cat can’t learn we won’t try and engage with them in that way. It’s worth watching out for the limitations you may unconsciously impose on cats, yourself and other humans.

Cats learn from their environments. They learn how things work, they pick up a fair few human words. Cats are interested in their own comfort, amusement and wellbeing, and will tend to do the things that please them. They respond to discipline with resentment, a perverse desire to do more of the thing they aren’t supposed to do, or if they get sufficiently unhappy, they leave. Attention can be a reward, and we forget that a lot, in our own interactions and around how we raise children. Attention can reinforce behaviour we don’t want if we’re dealing with a being who is hungry for attention. Those of us with abuse backgrounds can have really problematic relationships with attention, too.

Cats are most likely to learn what you want them to learn if they are happy, and have a vested interest. Mr Anderson has learned to walk on a lead because he likes going out and having adventures, and going out is conditional to being on a lead. Once out, it is in his interests to be cooperative because he has a nicer time if we’re all pottering around together. Cats respond well to positive feedback, verbal praise, affection, treats and so forth. Reinforce the behaviour you want to see by giving the cat more of what they want, and the cat will learn how to milk that for all it’s worth. Everyone wins.

It is easier to coax a cat round to a different behaviour with lures and treats than it is to get them to stop doing something they thought was interesting. This tends to be true for people as well.

Cats are never going to do your bidding. They can however learn to be cooperative members of your household. I think there’s a lot of similarity between raising kittens and children. Yes, you can focus on obedience. Yes, you can frighten them into doing and not doing things. No, they will not be happy, and they will get out and stay away as soon as they can. When teaching is about living cooperatively, cats can and will learn. When what we mean to teach is that we have all the power over them, most creatures won’t find us tolerable.

Teaching is not about making someone do stuff. Put that idea down, and all manner of things become possible.


Learning to learn

At no point in my life did anyone teach me how to learn. How do you learn a dance routine, or a dance move? How do you learn a piece of music, or spellings for a test? I have some very early memories of being frustrated by not knowing how to do something and just being shown the same thing that hadn’t made sense to me in the first place. I have memories that go from there to my twenties of being expected to learn from having seen something once, or somehow just by magic.

Learning how to learn was something I had to figure out by myself. Without that, you’re limited by what you can do naturally and easily. You’re limited to what’s obvious to you.

Of course it’s tricky because everyone has different things they need to work on, different ways of working, and will learn in different ways. Some of us need theory first before we dive in. Some of us learn best by observing and copying. Some of us need step by step guidance on what to do. And it may well not be the same across all our areas of learning. I’m good at learning patterns of physical movement and I can learn that by watching and copying. I can’t learn a language that way, and I need a lot more technical input to work on my art or music skills.

This is a huge consideration for anyone who makes teaching work part of their Druidry. Students will be different from you. What they want to learn and what you most want to teach won’t always neatly align. How they learn can be varied indeed. How much of a student’s needs can your teaching style accommodate? What do you do when faced with someone who does not know how to learn?

A student who is frustrated and who seems to make no progress can be really annoying to deal with. Quick students who pick up what you say are rewarding to the ego of the teacher, and affirming of your teaching skills. But really it is what happens to the struggling and less overtly talented student that measures you as a teacher. Can you teach them in ways that actually enable them to learn? Can you engage and find out what sort of process they need to take them forwards, rather than hanging on dogmatically to methods and content that suits you?

I remember one Druid teacher presenting me with a meditation that I was to do. It made no emotional sense to me and was at odds with my notions of sacredness to the point of being distressing. No alternatives were offered. It was work I was told I had to do, and not doing it in the way described was, it was made clear to me, disrespectful to my teacher and to my teacher’s teacher. Looking back at that exercise many years later, having studied Druidry with OBOD and done some mentoring myself, I have no doubt that the exercise was the problem and it was totally inappropriate for me, and that this mattered.

There’s quite a challenge in figuring out what you, or anyone else needs to learn in the first place. It’s an important question to ask, and to keep asking. This is not an area of personal growth where it is fair or productive to assume that we all need the same things. What lessons do you need to learn? What tools do you need to be given? What skills do you need to develop? What kind of teaching will help you and what are the best ways for you to engage with your learning?

And to anyone who has struggled with learning, let me say it may not be your fault at all. Good teaching teaches what the student needs, not what the teacher wants to hand out. Good teaching helps you overcome barriers and go beyond whatever innate talent you have. Good teaching enables you to grow and develop on your own terms. If you’ve not had that kind of experience, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn the things, it probably means you need better resources.


What is a child?

What we think a child is will inform how we treat them, how we teach them, and relate to them. What we think children are, and what we think childhood means is intrinsically wrapped up with what we think humans are.

There are those who see all children as innocent, and those for whom children are monstrous little barbarians who have to be humanised and civilized. Here the science is fairly clear. Children by nature have a pretty good sense of fair play (sorry, no links, but this stuff isn’t hard to find).  It appears that the more selfish and unpleasant behaviours are the learned ones, not the innate ones.

However, if we believe children are uncivilized monsters by nature, what we have to do to ‘break them in’ and tame them becomes an issue. This doesn’t tend to go with gentle, child-centred learning. It does tend to go with colonial mindsets and beliefs that ‘uncivilized’ people are inferior.

When it comes to education, it’s been popular to think that children are blank slates, or empty vessels and that filling the child with ideas is the job of the educator. This isn’t supported by the available evidence – children absorb impressions and ideas from the moment of arrival in the world and by the time they get to school they definitely aren’t empty vessels. They learn naturally through messing about and exploration – something the entire western approach to education ignores in favour of making them sit still and learn to do as they are told.

One of the most pernicious stories about childhood is that children do not know what they want or need and must have adults make those decisions for them. A child who is allowed to develop and hold opinions will have no trouble doing so. A child who is never allowed to learn through their own mistakes or evolve personal preferences won’t know how to do that. It’s not about what children are capable of, in this area, it’s about what they are allowed.

Do we think children need to be punished for mistakes, or educated to do better? Do we raise them to be questioning free thinkers, or do we want them to be quiet and obedient? Do we consider them capable of genuine malice? Do we look at their behaviour and ask where they have learned it? Do we think they should be sitting down quietly or do we think they belong outside? Do we assume they will automatically be natural in nature, or might they need some guidance?

It is so easy to project personal values and assumptions onto children. They aren’t well placed to resist. They are malleable and informed by their environments, so what adults decide is true and real for them can be imposed and made real, often. Treat a child like a monster, and you may well end up with a monster. Or a child who is anxious and can’t function properly. Treat a child like they can’t think for themselves and they won’t learn how to and you’ll get teenagers who cannot function. Treat a child like they can do things and they will – there’s a great deal of evidence from indigenous peoples around this one.

A child is not an empty thing waiting to be filled or shaped by adults. When we treat them like people, they have a much better time of it.


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.


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.


The teaching of Druidry

I’ve done quite a lot of teaching, in various shapes over the years. At the same time I’ve become increasingly uneasy about the most conventional teaching model, where the teacher offloads wisdom to the student. I don’t like the authority, the power imbalance and the risk of creating dogma. I don’t like the way all of this can set people up as gurus – which does them and their students very little good in my opinion. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s path.

Recently I read Solala Towler’s ‘Practicing the Tao Te Ching’ (proper review going to Spiral Nature). The Tao Te Ching (depending a bit on the translation) talks about what the sage does – the sage does by not doing, primarily. Being neither sage nor Taoist, I’ve previously found this interesting, but of no great use. However, this book talks about how we teach each other, and takes the ‘do by not doing’ to be about avoiding formal teaching in favour of just doing the things you were doing and letting other people learn from that if they want to.

I like it as a line of thought, and I think this blog may be a case in point. You rock up here when you feel like it, read as much or as little as you like, agree and disagree with me as you like. Many of your regularly respond to posts by adding breadth, depth, examples and alternatives to whatever I’ve said – which is awesome. I just float out whatever I’m doing or thinking about, and you do with it as you see fit, on your own terms. There’s no real authority in it – it’s just a blog. Much of my writing is about me groping around in the dark trying to make sense of life. But every now and then I say something that sparks something for someone else. I’m not a sage, I’m just doing what I’m doing and people can encounter it and make what use of it they will.

I like it because it’s a more collaborative approach to learning. I have no problem with experts, and there are things for which formal qualifications seem like a very good idea – any activity where you could kill or maim if you get it wrong, or where you have to make life choices for other people. But most of the time, the things we want to learn aren’t like that. We can afford to be responsible for our own learning, and we don’t need to be taught to do things someone else’s way. We need tools, resources, ideas and places to start – this is true of anything spiritual, creative, subjective, and where developing our own imagination and critical thinking is of value. The default setting of hierarchy of teacher over student isn’t an unassailable truth, it’s a habit, and we can do differently.


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.


OBOD adventures, further

I announced some weeks ago now that I had decided to apply to see if I could be an OBOD tutor, and that I’d post along the way to talk about how that goes. So, I’m in process now. I’m not going into the details of the process, that doesn’t feel wholly appropriate nor do I think it’s likely to be of much interest. But there is a process, and I’m finding it a gentle and helpful one. This is not especially surprising as it goes with my experience of OBOD to date. Helpful, informative, gently testing to find out what I am and where I fit.

I like how supported this all feels. I like the strong sense I have that I’m entering a community in which I can both enable others and be supported in doing so. My wider experience of volunteering has had a very different sort of vibe to it – one of the most difficult things for volunteers is not having the back up to be sure of what you’re doing, that you’re on the right track and so forth. I’ve been places where volunteering was intimidating and felt exposed. I’ve plenty of experience of things I barely understood being dropped on me, and having to learn on the job to the detriment of those who got me during the teething period. I should add this isn’t exclusively a Paganism issue either. Often the problem is that volunteers are in such short supply that people don’t have time to properly train and support those coming in, there’s too much fire fighting going on already. It’s a long way short of ideal.

It’s lovely to find that with OBOD, I’m stepping out onto a path, already very clear about the existence of safety nets and knowing that I will not be expected to fly on my own until I’ve got the experience to realistically do so. And even then I’ll still be part of a wider, supportive community. I feel very, very positive about this. The time frames are not stressful looking. I don’t have to be up and running in a matter of weeks. I’ll be doing some practice work over the next month, and then some reading, and then we go from there. I’m looking forward to the challenges. I’m also looking forward to revisiting the study material from years ago, knowing that I’ll be working closely with that, for some time to come. Opportunities to go deeper, and to see thing through other people’s eyes abound.

My biggest fear around undertaking this, was that I simply wouldn’t be acceptable. It’s a deeply held, longstanding fear that pertains to pretty much everything in my life, nothing OBOD specific here. I worry about not being good enough, and testing that is always intimidating. I’m coming to learn that yes, there are places I do not fit, and yes, there are people who are not going to be ok with what I do and how I do it, but no, I am not innately an exile, I am not that which does not belong anywhere. It’s just a matter of finding the right places and people, and apparently I’m getting better at that.