Good Teaching requires life-long learning

I had suspected for quite some time that the yoga studio I frequented for the past five years would soon be closing its doors. As the dismantling began, props disappeared, wall emblems were sold, and a slight mustiness took over what was once glitz.

In this elaborate temple, hundreds of practitioners sweating and straining into ever more complicated asana have attended workshops and classes. Although I loved my yoga classes, I was ambivalent about the extravagance of the décor and had problems reconciling its orgasmic proportions with the humble yoga settings I had known or practiced in since adolescence.

Early on, the studio began to offer yoga teacher trainings as a way for interested students to go more deeply into their practice and, I suspect, as part of the business model for the studio. Such is the norm in the modern yoga world. In the back of my mind, I had thought the aspirant yogi sat under the tutelage of a master until ready to take the helm, a process that could take years, if not decades.

From loyalty to my teachers, but without much forethought, I became one of the studio’s first yoga teacher trainees. Our training was an intense 200 hours over the course of a year. It built a community and added to my knowledge of the literature and philosophy of ancient India. Although this was not the case at my studio, I soon learned that in our accelerated society, a yoga-teaching certificate could be earned over a long weekend.

Our training cautioned that by earning a yoga teacher certificate, we as students were not a fait accompli, but rather at the beginning. Taking on the role of teacher without observation and extensive supervision from those more experienced can be downright dangerous.

I have known many people who have been injured in all kinds of classes involving physical exercise and bodywork. Novices not thoroughly knowledgeable in anatomy and how to guard against injury have permanently harmed students and chased many away from the very practice that could be most beneficial to them. In the same way, a classroom teacher inexperienced in meeting the needs of individual children might well overlook problems or make a less than accurate assessment of a child’s ability, jeopardizing that child’s future psyche and education potential.

Although my yoga teacher training was worthy in it self, I had to ask myself, did my training to become a yoga teacher make me capable of teaching yoga with the required integrity? I have to answer that no, no more than the many thousands of potential, but inexperienced classroom teachers education programs churn out yearly.

After years and years of study, I remember how difficult it was to hear my professors at Columbia University Teachers College tell us achieving a doctorate was just the beginning. Those with newly minted PhDs who thought themselves finished products often met with frustration and disillusionment in the real world. Teaching, with all its complexities, has different requirements than successful testing and completing a dissertation.

Any training program without an extensive practice component takes even the most naturally talented student only part of the way. Based on the cost and the promise of an exciting new career, I understand why, after a few brief months or even years of study, an individual might think that they were ready to assume the role of teacher.

Time and time again, I have witnessed enthusiastic but soon disheartened young teachers freeze in terror when faced with a class of living children. Students can sniff out the novice or one with little practical experience, and depending on sheer luck, the class can be fantastic or an utter failure. Better for the novice to have had the opportunity to be seriously mentored or, similar to doctors, go through a residency before taking the helm or the seat as teacher.

I still remember the difference between my classroom studies on how to become a teacher and the first time I actually took on the responsibility. Until I began to relax, all I did was nervously parrot what I thought I needed to do. Soon after, it came to me the wellspring of my experience was the basis of how I could teach. The curriculum might be standard, but how I transmitted it to the students would make or break my career. Living in Berlin for several years, I became friends with quite a few people who were apprenticing before they entered a trade. This process took years of being on the job and following the footsteps of a master in a particular field.

When the apprenticeship was complete, they were tested and began the process of building a well-grounded professional life. This kind of training seems especially suited to fields that require craftsmanship, and teaching of any kind is just such a field of endeavor. Sadly, the practicums for teachers have become increasingly shortened.

As a student in the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, ( for an entire year, I was honored to study under the well-respected yoga teacher Rodney Yee. His honesty on the subject of lifelong training and always being a student was refreshing and sometimes quite humbling. Rodney’s constant refrain was: “Practice, practice and more practice.” The way for aspirants to succeed around the brevity of experience is to volunteer, observe and to join Rodney’s refrain, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Recently, I attended a graduation party for a young man who had just completed a vocational program at SUNY Delhi in New York State. For three years, he studied and practiced the art of welding and plumbing. Now, living back at home, he is about to begin a long internship, in effect, an apprenticeship. Other parents of recent college graduates were all in awe of this young man who was actually going to have a career. One man who headed a very large company is the father of a 27-year-old who has been unable to find work since graduating from college. He said, “I still think the way to do it is to work alongside of class times. Build up a resume.”

It, however, goes beyond building resumes. Internships, apprenticeships and residencies are opportunities to see if the career or vocation you are preparing for is the right one for you and whether you have the level of competence in order to succeed. Teaching of all kinds is an awesome responsibility, and in the best of all possible worlds, a residency for all novices would be required. Since this is not the case, those of us who are responsible toward others in our care must have the highest level of competence. To honorably take on the role of teacher, seek out mentoring, observe master teachers and volunteer until you are competent and secure.