Wednesday, April 5, 2017

On not making students into beggars

A colleague of mine recently passed along some advice his teacher gave him many years ago: "Don't make people into beggars." He then went on to explain (because I truly did not understand what this meant) that if a student asks you for something (in the same way a beggar will ask for money), you should not necessarily give it to her. (In fact, it might be better for both of you, if you don't give her anything she asks for at all!) He went on to say that he thought I had done just that in the past, but it might be better if I didn't do it in the future.

I had to think about this for awhile before I began to understand it; and now that I do understand the idea somewhat, I would have to say that I agree with him. I have made beggars out of some people by giving them what they asked for. And I have decided, even though it's a hard habit to break, to stop.

I don't think I always had this problem. It seems to me that, long ago, before I began teaching on my own, I was pretty hard-assed. If someone asked me a question that I figured he knew the answer to, I refused to answer him again. Or I would answer his question with another one. A previous post of mine paraphrased a saying of Confucius: that the teacher gives a student "one corner" and the student must come up with the "other three." In other words, the teacher's job is not to spoon-feed knowledge to a student, it's to point him in the right direction and then expect him to deepen his understanding himself.

I always thought this was a good idea (thanks, Confucius). After all, a student will own her understanding of an aspect of budo training, and in fact value it more, if she has to arrive at that insight herself. To use a well-worn example, a Zen teacher gives a student a koan and the student has to come up with the answer himself, even if it takes years to attain. Budo is a somewhat more practical (and not as deep) type of training, but the point still holds.

However, somewhere along the way, I lost this aspect of my teaching. When a student asked for more training time, about a year ago, I demurred, saying he should practice more on his own. I was already at capacity, time-wise, and, while more training is generally good, quality counts more than quantity. Nevertheless, like the person you see on the subway day after day (and even year after year), asking for money, this student would not give up. So, eventually, I gave in, and added another day of okeiko.

At first, there were several people attending the extra day, and, though I was exhausted by the end of each week, teaching is energizing, especially when the response is enthusiastic. Was I a zombie at the end of the week? Yes. Yes I was. Multiple days of five hours of sleep or less took its toll on other parts of my life, too. Nevertheless, I rationalized it that while I was young enough, and healthy enough, I should practice as much as I could.

Three days in a row of teaching for multiple hours at a time seemed to be great for some of my students. However, I soon noticed that I was the ONLY one coming to okeiko three days a week! Everyone else came one day, or two days at the most. The person who begged for the extra day managed to come three times in a week a couple of times, and he was a wreck by day 3. And he lived closer, and got more sleep generally, than I did.

Teaching is exhausting. When I as an adjunct professor, I made sure to get more sleep the nights before I taught class. It wasn't that the students were smarter than me - they were faster. I needed more energy to keep up with them than they needed to outdo me (and we're talking English Composition here). Even though I was standing in front of a blackboard or sitting in an office chair, I sweated through my underwear every single class. I bristle every time I hear some bureaucrat opine that teachers are lazy people who only work nine months out of the year but get paid for 12. In the first place, teachers do work all year round. In the second place, the good ones work harder than almost anyone else.

Nevertheless, I can say that the collapse was slow. Sort of like how pain drops a veil over you and you don't even realize your diminishing capacity until it becomes really obvious to you and everyone else. I was functioning, but barely. I was forgetting things. Not the important stuff of everyday life, but the things that enrich that life. I have several hobbies (believe it or not) that involve collecting materials. I would buy materials while on vacation, for example, then forget entirely where I put them. Not that I had time to make use of them anyway. Other things that I enjoyed simply went away altogether (like regularly writing this blog). My dojo schedule didn't just take over my life, it became my life.

And my students, for whom I was sacrificing all of that time? Several of them dropped out, as people do from time to time. Relocation, work schedules, etc. etc. Normal things. The one who begged for the extra time is still around, but I think he learned just as well whether he spent extra time with me as not. In fact, I have come back to subscribing to old Confucius - he's better off searching out those other three corners on his own. My providing the other corners did not make him a better budoka. Instead, it made him more dependent on me for things he should have been figuring out on his own.

Just like the collapse, recovery has also been slow. I have kept three days of practice, but one of them is short, and for me alone. Soon there will be a "course correction" so that I will be teaching closer to home, the purpose being that I can indulge in the idea of more sleep just like my students do. I reorganized my hobby materials so I can actually find things when I want them (a never-ending process, but at least now I know where stuff is). Just in time for gardening season. Just in time for maybe sitting outdoors on a nice evening with a beer and just looking at the plants growing. It's a start.

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