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I'll Never Grow Out of Being a Teacher-Seeker

The best part of aging is that the addiction to approbation starts to fade, while the appetite for edification lives on. You still like the pats on the head. You just find them less thrilling than the illumination of discovery. Then you're onto the real value of a teacher.
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I am always looking for teachers. In fact, given the amount of time I spend seeking teachers, you'd think I was one of those people who wanted to stay in school forever. I didn't.

I try to find teachers not because I miss school, which I do only once in a while. I try to find teachers because I want guidance. I want affirmation and direction and suggestions. Teachers offer the potential of explanations for things I don't understand. They might steer me toward a book I wouldn't otherwise have found, or a yoga pose I would have sworn I wasn't ready for. I admit to being the kind of kid who valued my teachers' approval as much as I valued learning. For me, the compliment from an authority figure was every bit as heady as the newly discovered ability to solve a calculus problem. Sometimes more so. The best part of aging, though, is that the addiction to approbation starts to fade, while the appetite for edification lives on. You still like the pats on the head. You just find them less thrilling than the illumination of discovery. Then you're onto the real value of a teacher.

You could say that what I'm really talking about are "mentors." You tend to hear that term used a lot more with adult learners than the term "teacher." You could also get into titles like "life coaches" or "gurus" or "guides." You don't quite hit the same notes with any of those words as you do with teacher, though. You veer more toward the practical training or the initiation into a particular discipline. Whereas teachers do something simpler and broader -- they help you learn.

I may value the sage advice of a seasoned spiritual leader. (I certainly wouldn't say no to it.) I may also benefit from the counsel of a person who has had a long and successful run in my chosen career. But I'm not sure I'd consider either of these people a genuine teacher unless he left me with a clearer sense of how to become proficient at something. Note, I'm not talking about whether he'd leave me proficient at something. He might or he might not. It hardly matters. Either way, I'd consider him a teacher only if he gave me a better understanding of the process of acquiring competence. That's true teaching. And it's hard to find! You can locate far more people able to impart knowledge than you can people able to impart insight into knowledge. It sounds like a minor distinction, but it's the difference between a life of training and a life of growing.

You run into teachers in all sort of places. The first trick is recognizing them; the second is being able to accept their teaching without either burdening them with excessive demands of time and attention, or distancing them by placing them on a pedestal you're afraid to even try to reach. Teachers are human. They teach better when treated that way. I suppose it's worth remembering that the same is true of students as well.

Not long before beginning high school, I started taking lessons with a new viola teacher. He was one of many teachers in my life at that time. You tend to forget it as an adult, but at the age of 12, your time is dominated by teachers: gym teachers, English teachers, math teachers, French teachers, metal work teachers, piano teachers, science teachers, cooking teachers, health teachers, drama teachers, woodwork teachers, drafting teachers, art teachers, etc. I remember the viola teacher far more distinctly than any of the others directing my education at the time, though, because he was the only one of them who didn't care whether I did my homework.

In case you are wondering, he wasn't lazy or uninterested. Rather he understood that whether I wanted to devote time to practicing viola (and how much time I wanted to devote) was a decision that only I could make, and that would ultimately affect only me. With his genuine indifference to how closely I followed his instructions, he quickly cut through the layers of guilt, anxiety and desire to please that informed most of my other decisions about homework. Either I practiced or I didn't. There was no moral judgment. If I practiced, he gave me a thorough lesson on whatever scales and pieces I was working on. If I didn't practice, he reminded me of what needed to be done. He'd engage in friendly conversation as he filled his pipe, regardless. It was just that the power to move forward, or stay put, was placed where it rightfully belonged -- with me.

It's teachers like my viola teacher for whom I'm still perpetually on the lookout. Teachers who can change a life's attitude with a single expression or gesture. Teachers who don't so much bestow new information or skills, as bring out your own feelings of competence, agency and wonder. You never outgrow a teacher like that.


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