Friday, February 8, 2013

What makes a good teacher?

I've been thinking a lot about this question, having taken Bikram yoga classes with so many different teachers over the last two years.  Bikram is a very specific type of teacher-training program, and more than any other sport or art I've ever encountered, it insists upon uniformity.  The teachers are required to  give a 90-minute recital of the Bikram sequence, with very little variation.  Bikram Choudhury designed it this way for a number of reasons.  It establishes that, when you enter a Bikram Yoga studio, you are getting the same class in Pittsburgh, in Los Angeles, or in Montreal.

In reality, however, there are variations.  And seasoned Bikram practitioners grow to know them very well .... the slight temperature and humidity differences, making a 103 degree class feel infinitely different than a 105 degree one.  The teacher who opens the door for fresh air at the end of class, vs. the one who seems to crank up the heaters even higher.  The experience of class when you're properly hydrated and rested, vs. thirsty, hungry, hungover, sleep-deprived.  The extra-long or extra-short savasanas; the floor surfaces that are sometimes slick, sometimes carpeted, sometimes made of plastic fibers. Studios that are glaringly bright, others that are dimly lit.

But the difference I've been paying the most attention to lately is the quality of the teacher.  And what makes one teacher stand out as better than others, in a discipline where they are all supposed to be exactly the same.

It's quite simple, really.  What distinguishes the really excellent Bikram teachers is the energy they give out to their class - how much they really care about the students' experiences.  As a student, you can feel this clearly.  Is the teacher just reciting the words mindlessly?  Is he/she just droning on, regardless of what the students are struggling with?

The better teachers call out students by name to praise, correct, or nudge a little further.  They pay attention to the energy of the class, and spark up the dialogue with explanations or anecdotes or pep talks.  They have a sense of humor.  They have a joy in the practice and a passion for getting their students to reach new heights.  They want you to be your very best self.  And as a student, you desperately want to live up to their hopes and expectations.  You work harder.  You are more focused, more attentive, more charged-up.  It's a beautiful thing.

It's all about caring.  How much does the teacher really care about what their students learn?  And that, I think, is applicable to every field of study.  When people compliment me on my teaching - whether it's English, or trapeze - I tell them there is nothing magic about it.  (and to be honest, I am not even the most diligent lesson-planner).  I just care, deeply.  About each student I'm working with.  I want them to learn, and I look for any methods I can to make that happen.

I don't know if you can teach someone this quality - it may not be a skill.  But it is essential to teaching, and something we all need to keep in mind when we are at the juncture of "hey, I'm pretty good at this - maybe I should teach".  Loving the discipline is not the same as loving teaching.

Cheers to all of the wonderful teachers out there.


  1. Wow, there's so much to say on this subject. Teaching is of course an ageless exchange of information between humans, and we all teach and learn from one another on the daily basis. But to enter into the industry of teaching, or to simply take on the identity of a teacher does require an elevated sense of "care" for your student. We should talk about this more.