Archive for the 'teachers' Category


February 5, 2016

This post picks up where the last one left off, with the issue of the willingness of students.

I suspect I’ve written about the following idea before, because I vaguely remember writing about my experience, as a babysitter decades ago, of a variation on this idea of endless storytelling — one of the children would ask me endless questions, apparently just to keep me seated at the end of her bed.  She actually fell asleep long before her parents got home and I left to go home to sleep myself, so it didn’t really matter too much.  But in other situations it does.  In those situations it’s not a matter of the storyteller averting her demise by storytelling, but the storyteller becoming drained of her life force through the incessant telling.

An unwilling student can be draining on the teacher.  It doesn’t have to be intentional for the demand for continued attention to be a problem.  The student may be unaware that they really aren’t open to following where the learning leads.

Sometimes the teacher sees the student in an unguarded moment and discovers that the student likes the idea of learning, and likes the idea of learning from particular teachers, but doesn’t actually like what the learning requires or has a negative reaction to the actual teacher who appeared when the student indicated they were ready (as in, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”).  For the type of learning the student indicated they wanted, this kind of reaction contradicts the superficial presentation of readiness.  For example, there are some kinds of spiritual learning in which any resistance, whether in the form of fear or anger or judgmentalness or anything else, will turn the enterprise into a catastrophe.

It is no high crime or misdemeanor not to be ready.  But even the most patient of teachers will be harmed by sticking around in a situation involving an unready student that is basically a dressed-up version of giving a servant a pointless and endless task.  Of course, the teacher could perform the otherwise pointless task as work being done for God, not for the student, and through that approach to the task not be consumed by it.  But part and parcel of situations involving unready students, in my experience, is that the student is claiming that they need more of the teacher’s personal involvement than the teacher’s detached approach offers.

It’s part of teacher’s challenge to maintain their own perspective and not become co-opted into the student’s perspective.  It’s also part of the teacher’s challenge to maintain compassionate detachment.  (It may not always be so obvious that the teacher is doing this second thing if the teacher is also mirroring back difficult behavior the student has engaged in.)  What the student’s challenge is is for the student to figure out — I suspect that doing so is a step towards the student’s actually becoming ready for the learning later on.




Undergraduate papers

February 5, 2016

I spent some time grading undergraduate papers years ago, and the ones that took the longest and were the hardest to assess were those that were, in the way I thought about it at the time, ingeniously wrong.

Sometimes it was not that difficult to see why the student ended up saying something wrong:  they took some fact or idea covered in the course and interpreted it without knowing some other information not covered in the course or their research.  There were other ways in which the arguments in papers went awry, but that’s the one I remember most easily.

What took so much time was trying to retrace the student’s thinking.  I would be following along and then the student would write something that was just at odds with either facts or concepts.  I took it as part of my task to explain to the student what hadn’t been taken into account or where the logic of the argument had broken down or how apples were being taken for oranges, etc.  I redid what the student had done, and while doing so, I identified where wrong turns had been made.

We don’t know what we don’t know, and we often don’t know when we’ve made a mistake.  I am always tickled by the fact that it’s easier to proofread somebody else’s work than one’s own.  Willy was apparently quite good at work at helping colleagues get unstuck when they reached an impasse in their work — he had an eye for seeing where things had gone wrong.  On the other hand, he preferred applying what he knew to real world problems to doing what academics do.  He did some teaching, including in the Peace Corps., but he liked “doing.”  With younger colleagues, he would often find himself pointing out that real life problems don’t have answers in the same way in which problem sets do.  He was unhappy at universities — that was clearly a theme for him when I met him.  In the context of a place like Lincoln Lab, where theory met application and real problems were addressed and solutions tested and there was accountability, he thrived.

It certainly helps to have teachers and coaches who have been there, done that in whatever the relevant activity is.  They can correct us.  It doesn’t mean they can do the learning for us.  They can let us know when, rather than seeing only a little piece of the puzzle but seeing it well, we are misunderstanding something for lack of understanding its context.  If we lack a feel for the discipline, they can’t lend us their own, but they can point out particular mistakes that have resulted from our piecemeal knowledge.

I think maintaining a spot between pursuing original research and teaching can be a precarious one.  I am not sure if I agree with “Those who can’t do, teach,” but I do agree that the dynamics of the activities are different from each other.  Correcting undergraduate papers is an interesting opportunity to try to track how other people are trying to “do,” and it merges doing into teaching, in a similar way to the way that for empaths, the having of the experience merges into the identifying of the problem.  Teachers can be grateful for the challenge of coming to grips with the mysteriously off-track college paper as it allows them to unify the two often disparate activities of doing and teaching.

It also takes a willing student for the teaching to produce results — that willingness is also something the teacher can’t supply.

My mother and English Language Learners

April 18, 2015

I found myself going on at a length beyond what I think is appropriate in some news comments I was making, so I decided I’d better bring my discussion over here.

The topic was teaching English as a Second Language and my mother.

My mother taught ESL as a volunteer through a local public library when she was older.  She enjoyed it.

It occurred to me when I was writing about my mother and ESL that my father was an English Language Learner.  He came to this country when he was fourteen.  My parents knew each other in high school (Erasmus Hall High School).  My mother was a little over a year younger than my father.

When my parents were visiting for my younger son’s high school graduation, I asked my dad about my parents’ courtship — I had heard my mother’s angle many times, but I hadn’t heard my dad’s and I was curious.  One thing he mentioned that was apparently a highlight for him was being invited to and attending my mother’s Sweet Sixteen birthday party;  I’m not sure I had been aware before this that she had had one.  It was apparently a big deal for my father.

I think my father had been in this country approximately three years when my mother had her Sweet Sixteen.  My father claimed to have learned English with The New York Times and a dictionary.  He said that spelling was the most difficult part and had no patience with my spelling mistakes:  “If I could master English spelling, you can, too,” was the substance of his reaction to seeing my repeated misspelling of “burry” for “bury” in a third grade report on animal hibernation.  I don’t know what state my father’s English was in when he met my mother.  I think they met through after-school school clubs and societies.  My mother told me that despite their losing touch with each other for nine years after high school, she knew she would either marry Kurt Moses or not marry at all.

So I want to say that my mother fell in love with an English Language Learner and I want to put that together with my mother’s teaching of ESL much later in her life.  I think for my mother, that later experience — her formal teaching of English as a Second Language — was also was wrapped up in a positive feeling for English Language Learners.


November 29, 2014

This is a reaction to Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today.

The Meditation includes some instructions for how to have a spiritual experience.  One of the steps outlined involves crouching at one level of perception in order to produce another.

This assumes everybody (a) is going to understand how to implement the instruction, and (b) has adequate and sufficiently intact and undamaged “hardware” to do this safely.

Hello!  We can produce regression this way, a regression in which people get very stuck.  I’ve seen it in individuals, and I could argue that I see it reflected in Western culture more generally.

I wish people wouldn’t do this [that is, try to teach what this Meditation attempts to teach, especially from such a remove from those whom it is addressing].

I’m pretty sure I’ve expressed that before.

No one has to listen.

Where’s the point of symmetry?

November 16, 2014

So a guru coerces his best student into helping him write a book.  His tactics in gaining her help introduce a lot of negative energy into the relationship.  She goes along with what she thinks the deal is, fearing the alternatives will be worse, and she believes that over the course of helping the guru with his project a relationship has developed.

She has helped him with his dream, or goal, if one prefers, and after his book is done and disseminated, she asks for her turn, with help with her dream or goal.  She could write a book, but that isn’t what she feels called to do.  In fact, she hears pretty clearly that she shouldn’t.  And she believes that out of the relationship that has developed, if not also out of the original arrangement, he will help her with her dream or goal.

For her, the point of symmetry was the dream or goal, not the specific form that took for the other person.

He says no, pretty simply and clearly:  “No, please go away.”

He doesn’t even notice that what she is asking for are things he has similarly asked others for and were extended to him, whether the help was earned, charitable, or some combination of the two.  He doesn’t want to do it for her.

“No, please go away.”

So she’s got a choice: write a book she thinks should not be written, in a life that does not support such an activity, or just accept that for him the point of symmetry was a specific activity, not actually meeting the other person’s needs or desires.

I don’t think it matters which she chooses, I think for her it’s always only been a lesson in discerning perspective — how different people can perceive so differently, and what is her perception of a situation and what is someone else’s.  How any particular situation is resolved is secondary to that.

My support for that interpretation is her being a student of a guru.  That suggests to me that her life is about orienting herself to her relationship with the universe, and that her relationships with particular other people fall into place when she keeps her focus on that.

She has learned that a person who sees trees and not forests will relate to someone who is focused on forests in a way that does not result in balance between them.

Unfortunately, the introduction of negative energy from the initial coercion of the student by the guru produces its own fallout.  That’s kind of like the splash in a dive, or the noise around a signal, but it can obscure the main event.  In some versions of this story, it does, and the guru and the student succumb to round after round of negative exchanges.

Layers of divinity

September 26, 2014

My sense of the spiritual world is that there are what we could call layers and that the highest layer is what some people would call God or Dis or Source.  The essence of the highest layer I think permeates through all the succeeding layers, including into our own, into our material world and into ourselves.  I think it’s very difficult for a human to comprehend the highest level.  I think when we try to, we often resort to coloring it with imagery that brings it down to a lower level.

I may have written this before, but I want to say that what Jesus was trying to say could be taken to be about mistaking the “son” for the “father,” about mistaking one layer for another, about mistaking a “personal God” with anthropomorphic characteristics for the highest layer.  The father-son concept would then be a metaphor for how there is connection between the layers.  Encouraging people to fall in love with a being they could identify with even more than with a more abstract concept could be a way of trying to help people who have trouble achieving spiritual union find the emotional posture to do so.

But the “father layer,” in my view, is not the ultimate layer.  I think Christianity conceptualizes that it is the ultimate layer.  I think a “father layer” is also, and too much, dependent on the person’s need to relate to a being who can be related to in human terms.

I wonder if the teachings got misunderstood.  I would take the father-son idea and the idea of accessing the father through relationship with the son as ways to help achieve spiritual union, but which need to be replicated up the chain through the layers of the spiritual realm to the more abstract layers.

As always, take what you like and leave the rest.

I wrote this after reading Father Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today.

How much?

April 15, 2014

I suppose it is not necessary to believe we have through reincarnation multiple opportunities to develop spiritually to believe that it may be preferable for people to do what they can in terms of what Father Rohr’s tradition calls “dying to the self” instead of aiming to do more than they can safely accomplish.  In the reincarnation model, we can think of it in terms of laying a strong foundation (for future layers), but even without multiple opportunities, we could think of it in terms of progress made — how far we have come from where we started — and see “delta” (change) as what we are looking for.

I have concerns about everybody feeling they should be able to achieve it all, and hence not trying at all or trying in a way that actually results in harm, such as regression or implosion.  I’m in favor of taking solid steps, however small, towards becoming aware of what about us is flawed and ephemeral and what about us is timeless and stable.  Rome was not built in a day.  Every stage of development is important and having people at different stages of development is important.  I would rather see people moving slowly in a helpful direction than not moving at all or incurring too much damage from tumbling backwards after trying to take too large a step on difficult terrain.

Where I do see privileging one stage of development above others is in being able to see a bigger picture and being able to encourage others not to get stuck in limited thinking, in mistaking a part for the whole, or in clinging to a stage as if it were a permanent resting place.  Being able to suggest an overview can be helpful, but the actual nitty-gritty of coaching individuals, in terms of where they are and what may be helpful to their progress, I think is something else.

Forgiving those who disagree or don’t want to

October 29, 2013

Organized religion, including Christianity, may do this already, but I think forgiveness must be accepted as including forgiveness of the person’s not wanting to become enlightened or even believing it’s possible or a good idea.  I think it includes acceptance of people as a group, and individuals we know in particular, as they are.  And most of them aren’t interested in becoming enlightened or undertaking the process of becoming enlightened.  They won’t give it a try.  I think we need to accept that, and accept the apparent fact that they won’t, and maybe never will, no matter how often they are given the opportunity, and no matter how hard or well we try to teach them — or even no matter how much we encourage them, to do so, including with a foretaste of what it would be like.

We forgive them and we forgive the universe that the way things may play out may include that the potential we see in the world may never be realized, that the solution we see may not be implemented, that the way things could work out well won’t happen.  And that that is as “correct” a playing out of the human condition as anything else — if that’s the best we can do, humanity is still beloved of God, to use traditional language.  God is not angry or resentful about that, but neither can God change the consequences of all that, I don’t think.

I read Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation this morning and I wondered about all the preachers who forgive their audiences for not wanting to follow what they teach.  When they forgive that, do they go on teaching, or does that acceptance reveal to them it would serve the greater good if they did something else?

The teacher came and the student said, “Never mind.”

August 29, 2013

I was using, in a news comment online, the old aphorism about how when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Sometimes this happens, and instead of a learning experience, what occurs next is a dissolution:  the student realizes what is entailed and does not follow through.

It can look as if the student was lying about being ready, but I think the problem is that the teacher forgot about free will:  the student has the power to bail out at any time.

What can make a mess of an essentially simple situation is when the teacher has sacrificed on behalf of the student and predicated what they have done in preparation for the teaching on the student’s following through.  That leaves the teacher in an impossible situation.  The student won’t help.  It’s a lesson for the teacher not to go that far for a student.

What has gone wrong is that the teacher had a some personal investment in having the situation work out.  That, together with the student’s capacity to believe their own lies, is enough to have created what looks like a false promise.

The teacher may be left in a difficult situation, but the teacher is the one with the tools and the knowledge.  They know how to let go by simply observing what is going on.  It does not require that the student change what they are doing.  It does require more emotional health on the teacher’s part than the teacher had going into the situation.  But that is between them and God, it’s not about the student.

It’s much easier to see all this if one is a teacher who has been happily married.  Expecting bachelors to navigate this kind of unbalanced relationship is unrealistic.  Expecting bachelor teachers who have been upended by this scenario to ask for help immediately was also unrealistic, but eventually even they got tired of replaying this scene over and over again with the same dismal results.

I can see why they kept at it, though, because the resolution of the situation is very sad and very disappointing, and that’s on top of all the damage done.  It’s kind of like retiring a bad debt and not being seduced into pouring more money into subsequent loans on the hope that this will lead to the entire amount being repaid in the end.

Part of the situation is really what could be called “continuing education” for teachers.  Teachers can have flaws, too.  Teachers may need a tune-up and some gentle supervision, may need some help themselves to bang out a ding to their emotional apparatus.

The teacher can, in time, be grateful to the student for showing them how they have a flaw of wanting to help a student more than serves the greater good of student, teacher, or anything else.  But it’s tough all around.  Nobody walks away unscathed.  When everybody walks away at all, we see it as a success.


June 12, 2013

I don’t see how people who don’t see ourselves as reincarnated beings deal with the fact that some of us appear to “get” spiritual teachings in a fundamental way, and shift their consciousness as a result, while others merely process the information through their intellects and superficial behaviors.  For me the explanation is that some of us have already been through other stages in previous lives and that these stages have made us ready for a next step.

Which brings me to a further point:  some teachings produce damaging results in people who have not yet gone through some of the previous stages.

I don’t think compassion is awakened through learning at the feet of a teacher.  If the teacher’s compassion seemed to be awakened through such an experience, or if the teacher’s compassion seemed to be awakened through the practice of techniques, such as prayer and contemplation, then I suspect the teacher already had had their heart broken open (through difficult experiences?) in a previous lifetime.

I know that what I “know” I myself didn’t learn all during this lifetime.  I am quite sure it is the same for others, whether or not they recognize it.  We create all kinds of unfortunate spiritual knots in people, and in the world, when we encourage them to take steps that are not the next ones for them.  And in doing this, we are also enabling, if not encouraging, people to avoid some of the more difficult stages of spiritual development, I think.  You gotta break a few eggs to make that omelette at some stage of the process.  Nobody can experience that brokenness for us, and if we do try to experience it vicariously, we will not undergo the changes necessary in ourselves for subsequent steps.

It’s my personal belief, no offense intended, that some spiritual and religious teachers and leaders throughout history have been impatient with this aspect of spiritual development and the limits of teaching.  And I think some of this group ended up overwhelmed themselves by their frustration.  We can only do so much.  It’s a group project — a BIG group project — over time and across geography.  We do our piece and then we cede the stage.  The concept of reincarnation I find helpful for understanding and accepting this.  If there are other ways to do this, great, but I am concerned with worldviews that facilitate a sense that it can all be done here and now, through one person, through a set of teachings.