The I and Thou of Teaching the Spirit
Posted by Erik on September 24, 2008
It never fails. Here it is September, and I’m back in the classroom, and yet again I discover how much energy goes into teaching in a public school. Every year I need to relearn this lesson, and every day I’m amazed again at how much energy teaching takes. Every single fall since I became a teacher has been a little bit like being hit by a truck, which might sound to you like I’m doing it wrong, but I have to disagree.
Teaching–whether in a schoolroom, a coven, or a grove, is hard when we’re doing it right. Because teaching, done properly takes everything we have to offer. It takes being totally present, totally real, and totally open to surprise. It takes being fully in relationship.
I’m hoping that the relevance of this idea is obvious, at least to those who have been Pagan for more than a few years. Though not everyone is called to teach school or to lead a spiritual group, given the rapid growth of the Pagan movement, an awful lot of us do get called upon to pass along what we know. And what we know, if we’ve been actually walking our talk for the years we’ve practiced our religious traditions, is going to be who we are, not just a list of planetary associations or Celtic words and phrases.
Perhaps because of our rapid growth, Pagans are often insecure about what we have to offer our communities as teachers and leaders. We look outside of ourselves, to mainstream models of clergy or professions like teaching and psychotherapy for tips and tricks and techniques on how to take on spiritual leadership properly. I’m not opposed to that, on the one hand. Techniques can be great: there’s a reason I helped get Cherry Hill Seminary off the ground.
But if we are not careful, we can substitute technique and a veneer of professionalism for what matters most in how we teach, how we write and nurture and lead: sharing our whole, flawed-but-growing spiritual selves with our communities.
I came across a quote that I absolutely loved last week that sums up for me, not just my life as a school-teacher, but my life as a coven leader, a seminary instructor, a psychotherapist, and even a friend. Parker J. Palmer, a quaker teacher who writes about the spirituality of teaching in his book The Courage to Teach writes of his own insight into what he’s learned about teaching:
After three decades of trying to learn my craft, every class comes down to this: my students and I, face to face, engaged in an ancient and exacting exchange called education. The techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do they suffice. Face to face with my students, only one resource is at my command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches–without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns.
If this is true of teaching math or biology or English literature (and I assure you that it is) how much more true is it when the subject is not academic, but spiritual, and not just spiritual, but a Pagan spirituality: a spirituality that embraces the whole world and our whole beings, by definition? How can we approach teaching Paganism with anything less than our full, real, deepest selves? How dare we dream that roles (High Priestess, shaman, druid) are enough to offer our students? When we approach teaching our religion as if it were an intellectual exchange that can be contained by roles and by rules, we teach only the skin of our religion, not the heart.
Unfortunately, that is not an uncommon approach to the interaction with Pagan students. Perhaps because so many of us have day jobs that don’t draw on our full selves, we resort to rule books and techniques–sometimes bequeathed us by our traditions, and sometimes coopted from the wider culture–in an attempt to feel more “professional”–more important or trustworthy–as teachers than we fear that we really are. We hide behind a veneer of competence instead of sharing our fullest selves.
I remember when Peter and I were interviewed by a friend for a book on Pagan approaches to spiritual mentoring. We were asked question after question that was on how we structured relationships with students, what sorts of arrangments we made for tracking their spiritual work, and so on. They were fine questions, as far as they went–centered on technique, but technique isn’t meaningless, just insufficient, as Palmer says.
The sad part was when we began talking, Peter and I, about the ways we find ourselves challenged to be fully present and in relationship with every student and every peer we engage in spiritual journey work with us. The discussion continued for quite some time, spirited and lively on all sides, but, after a time, our writer friend confided in us that she had turned the tape recorder off at the point where we began talking about mentoring as a relationship of radical presence.
Our conversation had stopped being relevant at that point, at least in her eyes. It was no longer about technique, so it did not belong in her book. And, indeed, the resulting piece of writing was focused almost entirely on techniques for communicating content.
This is the state of much Pagan publishing today. Lots of how-to books. Very little how-it-is books.
But anyone who has ever brought their idealism and creativity to planning a group ritual, only to find their ideas challenged aggressively by other members of a group knows how vulnerable we feel when we lead. Anyone who has ever racked their brains to create an initiatory challenge or rite of passage that will carry meaning for a Pagan going through a hard transition knows how passionately we care when we create.
Anyone who has ever seen their work in a coven, grove, or hof damaged or destroyed by another’s misconduct knows how painfully we put our hearts on the line when we nurture community.
And any writer on Paganism who has ever heard their words quoted back to them with the joy of recognition, or teacher who has seen their student go on to shine in the wider community, knows the warm flush we feel in our whole bodies when we know that the work we’ve done has mattered to someone else.
When we lead, when we coach, when we write, when we teach, we are so much more than our roles and our rules. And the more real and genuine we are, the more effective we will become, in all of our roles and with all of our rules for spiritual work.
Palmer puts it this way: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”