The Art of Teaching
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
"If one really wishes to be a master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an "artless art" growing out of the Unconscious."
When I was ten years old my family moved from Southern California to a town on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe called Incline Village. The first winter arrived a few months after the move and I quickly realized I was surrounded by children who'd been skiing or snowboarding for almost as long as they'd been walking. They had been season pass holders for years, and many of them were riding almost every day after school. I had
skied before, but maybe only a half a dozen times in total. My mom, realizing I'd need to navigate this new social environment, signed me up for a ski program at the nearby mountain.
The program was for local children to ski in the same small group with the same teacher twice a week for a couple hours throughout the season. For the level I was skiing, I was put in a group of kids that were all at least a couple years younger than I was. The teachers were all locals; retirees, students, seasonal employees, and ski bums. My teacher was named Mike.
Mike threw pottery and, if I remember correctly, occasionally taught a class on the subject at the local community college, and had embraced the ski bum life style. He is the first great teacher I ever crossed paths with. He was not an Olympic level skier, nor had he received a certification in ski instruction. He had a more valuable set of tools that set him apart from the rest. He could organize a group of 7-10 year olds, all on skis, on a mountain. He had the ability to meet each student where they were at and teach the individual, as well as the group, simultaneously. He had his own voice; his way of communicating, sharing, and connecting. And, he knew skiing.
By the end of the season I'd learned to ski, developed an intuitive sense of the skill, and was enthralled in the culture. I was so effected by the tutelage and experience that I looked forward to the day when I could teach for the same program, which I went on to do for my last two years of high school. Mike became a mentor and a friend, and we're still in communication to this day.
Lately I've found myself thinking a lot about teaching. I've had a number of conversations with friends and students on the topic. Many have ideas about what makes a teacher good, and the special something that makes them great. Others have clear thoughts on what makes a teacher bad, and the unfortunate creation of a terrible teacher. A few are unclear what to look for in a teacher. And, some of my conversations have been with aspiring teachers wondering how and where to invest their time to improve. I began to ask myself a number of questions:
What qualities do I value in teachers?
Which skills do I utilize when I teach?
Why do some teachers struggle while others make it feel effortless?
How do some teachers know so much, but teach so poorly?
Who are great teachers?
As I churned through these questions, and reflected on the conversations, I came up with my list of four elements that teachers must develop. I found that sharing these elements could potentially be valuable for teachers, aspiring teachers, students, and students looking for teachers. My good friend Matthew Stillman calls this an "offering".
Before I get into the four elements, we first have to assume that the teacher "leads from the front". Or, put another way, they "practice what they preach". If this is not the case, these elements are irrelevant. If you are a teacher, or aspiring, and you don't lead from the front, then start practicing or quit. If you are a student, and your teacher doesn't follow the method to their own madness, then they are a snake oil salesman; quit and find someone who practices. Leading from the front is the prerequisite to the rest of this material.
The four elements are Information, Group Management, Differentiated Teaching, and Public Speaking. Equal weight is applied to each element. We could divide teaching into a 100 point scale, and give each element 25 points of value. So, it is possible for a teacher to be weak in one area and very strong in the other three, thus giving them at least a 75 point value. Still OK. However, if a teacher is strong in just one element, and weak in the other three, they are scoring a solid F.
An abundance of information on a topic and/or a strong personal skill-set is often what people confuse with good teaching. While it is a valuable piece, it is only 25%. Often people think that because they've done a weekend workshop, or have a certification, that they are now a teacher. Unfortunately, no, you only have more information to work with. I also see a lot of highly talented and gifted people confusing their personal abilities with the ability to communicate it to others. Again, no, you have worked hard to develop these skills, but it doesn't speak to your understanding of the material outside of your own experience. Certifications and talent are a false sense of security in your teaching ability. However, reading, researching, and watching, are all important tools teachers need to explore. Go to workshops and seminars, take notes, and expect nothing in return except the gift of knowledge. Jump down rabbit holes of information, and see how new ideas and concepts relate to the old ones. Learn something from every lesson. Ask questions. Seek wisdom.
Class structure. Time management. Utilizing the space efficiently. Flow developing organization. Many new teachers walk in without a plan. This is unacceptable. Learn to read the notes before you play jazz. I spent six years working for the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan running a structured play program for children on Saturdays for 3 hours broken into two 90 minute sessions. There could be upwards of 50-60 children in attendance. In the beginning it was complete chaos and I had no control. So, I started going in with a plan for the games we'd play, how long we'd spend on each game, how to organize the kids to work in the allotted space, and developed creative solutions to move from one game to the next. There was a mountain of trial and error, but over time things began to feel effortless. Eventually, I didn't need to walk in with the plan anymore. I'd learned the scales and explored the classics, and was ready to play some jazz. Working with groups of kids is a gift. I've often said that managing adults is easy once you've worked with children. This is why I suggest that new teachers spend time teaching children in some fashion; volunteer at an after school program, be a camp counselor for a summer, or coach a youth sports team. Working with kids throws you into the deep water. You're forced to get it together, or they'll eat you alive.
Meeting each person where they're at while steering all ships in the same direction is critical. This skill requires creativity and empathy. Everyone is coming from different places, talents, experiences, and strange loops. There is a place within the focus of any lesson for every student to work at their relative high level. This is why it is essential to work with students of all levels, rather than working with one "type" of student. Build a lab with guinea pigs and start experimenting. You develop these tools by observing, testing, observing again, and retesting. Be relentless with your desire to find a place for each person to learn. Don't confuse this with finding an answer for each person. Students can't be given answers. They must be presented opportunities to discover answers. Search for the right opportunities for each student.
People often say public speaking is one of their greatest fears. Some claim it scares them more than death. Getting over this hump is necessary to hold the floor in front of small groups or a sold out Madison Square Garden. When people begin public speaking, of any kind, they often mimic people they believe to be talented talkers. They use similar mannerisms, repeat the same anecdotes, and carry the same swagger. I remember when I began ski coaching I'd often try to be like Mike. Many people hold onto this for a long time, and some never lose it. Humans are gifted mimics. However, this will always be a contrived performance because it not an honest expression of self. Perhaps as you get more comfortable with your mimicked character, the fakeness becomes less noticeable. For teachers seeking simple validation, you may be content at this level. For those seeking honest expression, the more valuable level is learning to be you. In stand-up we called it "finding your voice". Diving into your own thoughts, experiences, memories, stories, analogies, and emotions is where the gold lies. The people listening to you can feel the difference. Go to open mics, try an improv class, or sign up for The Moth. Seek the uncomfortable scenarios where you must talk to groups, large and small, and try to speak your truth. Start throwing shit against walls. Eventually it will start to stick.
Teaching is an art. Above I've described the elements that must be developed. These elements then work in collaboration with one another to create the art. This is not the end of the road though. What comes next is on you, and on me. Practice teaching to a point of conscious non-effort so that teaching is you, and you are teaching. Then you will have your "artless art".