Being a difficult student helps me to be a better teacher.

Dear Self,

When it comes to learning I am like a thoroughbred racehorse. My potential and capacity to learn is remarkable, but I am easily spooked.

Very easily spooked.

I am also incredibly responsive given the right circumstances, but if I become spooked then there is no learning happening in a hurry, or that’s how it usually is.

My experience is that if a teacher creates the space for me (or us) to discover something then I am a voracious learner. I am happy to learn technical information or learn experientially, happy to learn on my own or in small groups, happy with all kinds of ways of learning.

I am particularly flighty as a performer getting ‘feedback’, if the conversation is framed around what I am trying to achieve and I am invited to lead the discovery about whether I am achieving that then I can embrace a tsunami of personal discovery and learning.

The problem is that most of us have been taught that teaching and learning are about the ‘expert’ and the ‘clean slate’. So we subconsciously live out the idea that as ‘teacher’ it is our job ‘to know’ and therefore ‘tell’ the student what we know so they ‘learn’.

And, of course it is a part of the role, of course. But this model can very quickly feel to me like someone else taking charge of my learning. It doesn’t spark my curiosity and therefore it doesn’t work for me.

Once one of my favourite teachers, Cathy Madden, invited me to develop a definition of teaching in order to support my development as a teacher. I came up with something that was very similar to her definition…

“To create the circumstances for the student to learn what they want to learn.”

In this method I simply have to ask the student what they want to learn and then be playful with them about finding a way to do this. It involves a lot of listening and handing over the reigns to the student (whilst standing very close by and keeping the process on track).

It has taken me a very long time to be able to see and be honest with myself about all this. I can get very down on myself, when I get spooked it is very unpleasant for me and for the teacher and other students (I imagine…) because I am such an open book! Though I can’t see myself I think when this thing happens to me I become like a raging fire that is being completely contained. There is no outward expression of the fire, but it is clear something big is being suppressed and everyone knows something isn’t right!

In the last few days I have had some amazing experiences with two friends/colleagues who are fellow artists or teachers. We were working together on my performance skills and I was able to explain to them my need to start the conversation about my performance with questions like…

“How did you go? What are you discovering? What would you like more of? What can I help with?”

Both my friends just beautifully embraced this and held me as a student in this way. It is such a joy to learn with this support. They are two very special people to me.

I love that I understand how I learn well and that I am developing a better sense of how to create that for myself. I don’t like this response that I have when it feels like I am being approached in a way that closes off the learning for me…so I am working on it. I would like to be able to respond in these situations with humour and humility, even if it ends up that I don’t learn that much. I would like to be generous to the person who is in the teacher role — I know that they are, 99% of the time, genuinely wanting to help me achieve my goals…just something about the approach isn’t my cup of tea.

Yesterday, when working with one of my friends, this ‘response’ got triggered in me. My friend was able to stay with me and help me work through what was going on and supported me to articulate what I wanted as a student. Whilst it was uncomfortable and I didn’t like this response in me I was also, for the first time able to see it in a way that made me feel grateful.

I realised that because the circumstances I need to learn are so delicate I have developed a sixth sense for listening to the learning needs of others and an endless curiosity about how to partner with my student to create those circumstances.

It feels like my difficulty with being a student has helped me to become a better teacher.


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