By Kellie Schorr
This used to be on the top 5 list of things I never thought I’d say. But, here it is:
Please stop teaching me.
I tried to treat this thought in the Buddhist method of dealing with arising feelings—greet it, and let it go. Yet, it keeps returning like a boomerang from the circus with red flags and a clown car full of ideas. So, it’s time to unpack the trunk.
A friend posts an obviously humorous pic of her dog sitting beside a beer bottle that says “Hank and I getting ready for Monday” and three different people had to write that it is wrong to give dogs beer and what happens to their bodies. Really? You shouldn’t split a 6-pack with your husky? Who knew? Consider me taught
A woman complains that her migraine medicine comes in a package ridiculously hard to open (seriously, your head is pounding, your stomach is spinning and you have to pinch, press, poke and pull all at the same time?) and gets several recommendations to stop that drug and try another drug, prayer, or yoga. Because, the advice of her 8th grade boyfriend from 30 years ago is better than her actual physician who studied migraines. Consider me taught.
A spirituality blogger floats by proclaiming that your study, rituals, prayers, and obligations are unnecessary. All you need is love and breathing. How strange that a person who hasn’t lived through anything you have experienced knows exactly what you need. Taught.
Every well-meaning friend who has read White Fragility pops into your world to tell you exactly what your white privilege is, and how your life reflects it, and what you need to do about it. You drown in a deluge of “Dear White People” posts and reprimands, written by white people, about other white people (It’s the whitest thing ever). There’s so much “calling out” you can’t even hear the voices of people of color trying to “call you in” to awareness and advocacy. Taught.
A young unmarried zen teacher with no prior history of feminist scholarship or advocating for gender equality promotes a rambling vlog about the spirituality of women, although his only experience with women is, “I have two sisters.” Taught.
What to eat? Taught.
When to sleep? Taught.
How to deal? Taught.
When to feel? Taught.
The world is full of people desperate to teach you what to do, where to go, and how to get there. Unfortunately, very few of them are actually teachers.
When Choygam Trungpa advocated “buddhadharma without credentials” he was suggesting that study, prayers, and Buddhist wisdom are accessible for everyone to practice, not that everyone with a bookshelf and website is a guru. A podcast isn’t a professorship and your Facebook password isn’t a diploma. Yet, there are teachers with podcasts I truly respect and learn a great deal from, and wisdom I have gained from many a WordPress warrior.
How do I know who’s a teacher and who needs a little less self-aggrandizement in their morning tea?
Teachers don’t dictate, they co-discover.
A conversation between my 16-year-old self and the bravest man alive (my Driver’s Ed teacher).
Teacher: You’re going to want to slow down at this point. You’re coming up on this intersection too quickly.
Me: But the light is green.
Teacher: And the car in front of you is RED!!!!
You can’t learn to drive in the passenger seat. A good teacher takes that spot. Teachers know there’s a path to knowledge and it is their job to walk beside the student and help them navigate the rocks and turns which appear because the teacher has been on the road before. A teacher doesn’t say, “Don’t trust this person” but rather “You might consider how self-care and boundaries are also a part of compassion. The person in front of you is red!” Teachers travel with students as they learn but let the student do the driving.
Teachers don’t create, they communicate
A conversation between my college self and the coach after my debate partner quit.
Teacher: I think you need to apologize to Ken.
Me: But, I was right! I knew the rebuttal was going to tear his case up. I told him to go with the one we used last week.
Teacher: You were right, Kellie.
Teacher: Is that enough for you? Because now it’s the only thing you have left.
A good teacher doesn’t just sit on their perch or behind their keyboard and “spread out some truth” for the poor souls below. Honestly, when I see someone posting their “here is what <x> means” teaching like it’s water from a sacred stone my eyes roll so far back in my head I may accidentally swallow them. Teachers know they aren’t creating wisdom from their own brilliance then passing it out like a gift. They listen, learn, challenge and engage. They teach in communication with others, not condescension.
Teachers don’t appropriate, they experience
A conversation between my mentoring self and a 20 year-old intern who taught me a lot.
Me: At the AIDS Network we try to help people understand all their risks.
Intern: I think that backfires.
Intern: It’s overwhelming. When you get to the point where everything you do is some kind of risk, you stop caring. You do what you want.
Me: You think?
Intern: <Unbuttons her blouse to show me an open heart surgical scar that runs halfway down her thin frame> I know.
Good teachers instruct on topics within their actual experience, or in which they have demonstrated scholarship. Those are the two forms of credential. Scholarship does not mean, “I read a couple books about it.” The scholastic process means, “I received instruction, engaged in peer review with other scholars, and have proven mastery of the topic in the arena of qualified stakeholders.” Not all scholars are good teachers, but good teachers understand the value of scholarship. There are also some things you really have to live through to understand. To appropriate someone else’s culture, scholarship (uncited), or experience is not a teacher’s path.
In western culture spiritual teachers are a little like vitamins that have no FDA standard and literally anything can be in the bottle. How do you know what you’re getting? By looking the ingredients of the lessons and ensuring their teaching is verifiable, experiential and solicited.
While it’s true anyone can teach you something—a friend, an enemy, a singer, your cat (sooo many lessons), when it comes to actual teachers I have been fortunate to have many good ones. Whether it is in formal study or just a blog post, I know a teacher by their humility, authenticity, generosity, and altruistic intent.
So if you’re not willing walk with me, engage interactively, and actually have credential in what you’re talking about—please, please, please—stop teaching me.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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