I had an unexpected bonus conversation with my friend C.T. today, which revolved around some of my favorite topics: magic and the ability to change consciousness; the passion for creating art; the mysteries of saints; and the power of teachers. During this last part of the conversation, we segued to a discussion of the challenge that some teachers put forward — which is that, in an effort to advance their own work and career and power, they wind up trampling on the capacities and capabilities of their students. Indeed, the teachers reap the rewards of the students’ labor, and the students take on the negative consequences of the teacher’s own bad work.
This rocked me back on my heels for a bit. I’m still thinking about it. We were talking about it in a magical/spiritual context. We’d both read a book recently in which a magical society’s inner circle of adepts was teaching rituals to their outer members which made the members feel powerful, but was in fact transferring power to the adepts… and shifting a lack-of-power onto the the students… not merely lack-of-power, but in fact negative-power. A learned helplessness.
Which really rocked me back on my heels.
I mean, the nominal goal of teaching is to make our students more powerful than they already are. Ideally, at the end of a year of teaching, when students go on to their next class, I want them to feel empowered and capable of doing work at a higher level than I am. I mean, ideally, after a year or two in my classroom, they should never need me again, except maybe as a voice speaking to them out of their memories, “what would Mr. Watt do or say about this problem?” If that voice ever comes up in their heads, though, I want that voice to be giving good advice, rather than bad advice. I want them to feel empowered by memories of me, rather than disempowered.
This issue has been coming up a lot lately, actually. Commenting on a friend’s Facebook wall earlier today, I noted that I hadn’t realized that he (much younger than me) had gone to a school where one of my college classmates taught. This younger friend acknowledged that the college friend of mine had been a great teacher, because he taught critical thinking — but at the same time, this friend also acknowledged that the critical thinking he learned was a byproduct of my college-friend’s rants on a subject other than his official classroom subjects. My young friend heard my old friend’s rants, and had to think about them: is this really true? And the answer was often”yes, it is,” as often as it was “some yes, some no” and just as often as it could be “no”.
This is a serious complication in the work of teaching. I mean, if I teach students what they need to know about history, simply in terms of facts, and fact-finding, great. But what it means is just as important. What are the overall themes of history? Are there patterns? Is there some Hari Seldon-esque wisdom to be found in Nate Silver’s prognostications about the last election? Are we empowering students by sharing resources with them, and making them fill out worksheets and take quizzes? Or are we disempowering them by doing the same?
C.T. and I spoke specifically about two magical teachers whose material we’ve worked with recently. One of the things that magical teachers do (which exoteric/ordinary teachers like myself and many of my readers do not do) is give their students rituals to perform for their empowerment and spiritual growth. C.T. had attended a workshop in which one of the presenters pointed out that some of these rituals do what they say they do — they empower the performers of the rituals so that they experience spiritual growth. But, C.T. said that the presenter also warned about the opposite — rituals that disempower those who perform them, such that they think they’ve made spiritual progress, but in fact they have actually inflated their egos and empowered the teacher who has given them nothing of real value. Meanwhile, the teacher gains power from the ritual performed — they get a toehold in the mental and emotional framework of the student, and the student is more inclined to treat further ’empowerments’ as worthwhile and valuable, even as they are disempowered to seek further growth elsewhere. Insidious.
And even as I think about it, I realize that this is something that many of us as exoteric teachers — in the everyday world of seventh grade classrooms and fifth grade math worksheets — have just as much temptation to do as teachers of esoteric systems of learning like Western Occultism or Tibetan Buddhism or Shaolin K’ung Fu. It’s easy to make students need us. It’s easy to make students rely on us for the answers, or to make meaning of history or mathematics. Who among us has watched a student come back to our school, time and again, to seek advice from an old teacher or an old coach… the person that helped make sense in their lives when nothing else did. I’ve had a few students continually return, until they saw through my veils and saw me as a human being; I know other students who continue to return to the same mentors, over and over again. Which are stronger — the students who left us behind, and need us no longer? Or the students who keep returning to the same well, to drink of the same lessons?
I like to think that it’s the students who no longer need me that I’ve helped the most — after all, they can stand on their own two feet without me to carry them along any more. And the ones who keep coming back, well… I help them, too, in my own way, and retailor my lessons to fit what they seem to need right now. But part of me also wonders…
I’ve taught something like 75 students a year, directly, in my classes since I started teaching 16 years ago. So I’ve had well over a thousand students (something closer to 1400 once I start calculating more precisely how many kids I taught in each year). Yet I’d have to say that there are a fewer than a dozen who maintain any sort of regular contact with me. And I have to wonder — did I made them stronger? Or did they recognize that I made them weaker in some way, and drop me as soon as they could?
It’s one of those deep imponderables that can really roil the soul of a teacher and make them question the validity of their career.