Tag Archives: teaching

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.

Teaching Druidry

We all do this, every time we speak or act in ritual, whenever we blog, or exchange ideas. The scope to learn from one another exists in every interaction. It’s also there, continually, in our experience of all facets of life, but for today I want to focus on the human.
When I started learning about Druidry, I looked for teachers. Not because I wanted a guru who could make everything miraculously easy, but because I wanted pointing in the right direction and some confirmation that I wasn’t talking out of my bottom! Experience of others starting out inclines me to think that’s all very normal. I found some people who were helpful and some people who wanted to tell me what to do. As a student, I’ve never been responsive to orders. I resent authority, I always want to pull the other way, this seems intrinsic to my nature. My favourite teachers have suggested, fed back, encouraged, counter-argued. They have given me space to be myself, whilst sharing what they know.
When I started teaching, I was terribly organised about it. Not least because I hadn’t sought it. Someone came to me, and there was no one else I could realistically have sent him to. I accepted the challenge, and put in a lot of hours and effort. At that point my own lack of confidence and certainty, my own newness reduced the risk of me being too much like an authority figure. However, the further I go, the more of a question it becomes. Lots of people blog, I like this space because its open, egalitarian, anyone can comment or do their own thing. Being here does not confer authority. There is something about printed books that does have more of a sense of authority to it. The whole process of being published suggests it, and really, what’s the point of writing if not to assert something? I try to walk the lines between sharing what I know, and not actually telling anyone else what to do with that. Sometimes it feels a bit like juggling cats.
I’ve settled on a new way of teaching, lately. I’m just here for people to ask questions (email is good). No set frequency, no set topics, just that I will do what I can with questions that people send me. I love the informality, it takes the pressure off me in ways that are helpful. It puts the direction into the hands of the student. Sometimes it means I write lists of people, books, websites who know far more about it than I do. Teaching can mean sending people somewhere else, and that’s fine.
You never know what another person is going to do with the thing you taught them. It will change as soon as it leaves your hands. Trying to control it mostly doesn’t work, and can make life miserable. Letting things go, trusting other people to find their own way, not needing to hold authority… I learn a lot from teaching.

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.

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.

Druidic Arts: Nurturing

I think that the art of nurturing is one of the most vital, rewarding and under celebrated things a person could set out to do. All of our lives will afford opportunities to develop this as a conscious, deliberate art, and by doing so we enable. A person who loves creativity but does not, for whatever reason, feel moved to create, can adopt nurturing as their art, and through that make the most stunning contributions. Most arts do not happen in isolation. Time, money, resources, space, publicity, feedback are all essential and rare is the aspiring creative person who doesn’t need some of that to come from outside.

Nurturing as an art form is not just about propping up creative people though. Gardening and tree planting are forms of nurturing the land, so is litter picking. Rescuing and healing animals is a nurturing art. Caring for the sick is a nurturing art. So is teaching, running events, library work. Raising children should be held up as an art that requires considerable dedication. No one is ‘just a parent’, if they are making any kind of effort, they are a practitioner of a most complex and demanding art form. Anything that we do that enables others to flourish, is part of the art of nurturing.

Making it more deliberate is not difficult. The easiest place to start is with praise or encouragement for whatever good stuff you see people doing. Be that a cleaning job, a fundraiser or a painting. Just saying ‘that’s brilliant, well done’ will help to sustain someone else in their work. Yoo don’t need pompoms and a tiny skirt to be a cheerleader, but most people need someone to cheer them on, to keep them believing that what they do is worth doing, and is valued. Being a good audience is a skill to nurture, knowing how to listen, how to ask good questions, when to applaud, both in a literal sense and a more metaphorical way.

Without people who create spaces and opportunities, far fewer people can grow or flourish. That might mean an after school club, adult education, running a poetry slam, or an open mike. It takes time, energy and skill to make an event, a class or some other nurturing space go well. One of the measures of having got it right is that people won’t even think about it. They’ll just be noticing all the stuff you’ve put centre stage. Often, to practice nurturing as an art, you need to be willing to stand back stage.

The other important consideration with nurturing in any form, is that you do not dictate the shape. It’s not about creating twenty clones of yourself, or one special person who can actually do what you wanted to do. If you mean to nurture, then those you enable have to be free to be what they are. No point planting potatoes and complaining to them when they do not produce rose flowers. It can be very tempting, with this kind of work, to go too far with the supporting so that it turns into directing, then ordering and demanding. When we nurture, we facilitate. The only thing you can want for yourself is the pleasure of seeing someone else take off, and maybe a little bit of kudos. But if you want to turn them into something specific, the most likely outcomes involves crushing them, destroying their potential or making them hate you. Even the people who turn up and say ‘teach me to do what you do’ will at some point need to take off in their own direction.

This is an art that calls for a lot of letting go, relinquishing desires to be reinforced or propped up by others. And if we do make a safe and nurturing nest for those who come to us, then we have to accept that one day they will need to leave it and strike out for themselves. The whole point of the nest is to get you ready for flying. It can hurt, watching them leave. It can feel like rejection. If they’re truly focused on taking the thing forward, whatever it is, it can feel like being left behind, abandoned. The person who takes up nurturing as their art knows not to cling at this moment. It’s all about taking pride in knowing that you aren’t needed now, and that’s as true for a parent as it is for a spiritual teacher, or someone providing a space to work in.

Nurturing as an art can very readily be practiced alongside other life arts, or the bardic arts, or just as a dedication to encouraging others and being generous with words. It can be a powerful calling in its own right, one that becomes the whole of your life and purpose. Someone who is good at it may make themselves almost invisible, but these are people too, and if you spot them, in the wings, behind the desk, holding it all together and making no fuss, remember that they could use some nurturing too and that this art is as worthy of your celebration as any other you encounter.