Teaching a Witch (by Sara Amis)

[Slightly revised from these two posts on A Word to the Witch.]

There are quite a few articles out there about finding a good Pagan teacher, how to avoid bad ones, or how to know if you’re ready to teach or not.  Precious few are about teaching itself, or how to be a better teacher.

I am a professional educator, from a family full of educators on both sides.  Teaching is my day job.  As it happens, I have thoughts on the matter.

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Knowledge is not enough

Every one of us during our educational career has encountered someone who may have been very smart, very knowledgeable, perhaps even a star in his or her field, but who absolutely stank as a teacher.  Possessing a body of knowledge or being good at a skill is necessary but not sufficient, because teaching is actually a separate skill with distinct requirements.  Fortunately, there is some overlap between the abilities needed to be a good priest/ess and those required to teach, such as perceptiveness about people and a certain flair for the theatric.

In related news, degrees and/or ordinations are also not enough; however, speaking for my own tradition (Faery), initiation is absolutely necessary.  You need the perspective of having walked the whole path up to that point in order to guide someone along it.  Some people feel that an advanced student teaching under the supervision of an initiate is fine, but in my experience students close to initiation (who are the only ones with enough knowledge and experience to teach) need to spend their time and energy managing their own progress.  Faery in particular is apt to go splodey on you at certain stages if you don’t keep your focus.  Your mileage with other traditions may vary, but one of the advantages of a lineaged tradition is that most of the time there are established guidelines for when you are considered ready to teach.  In my own line of Faery, we advise people not to teach until at least a year after initiation; it needs that much time to settle.

This is not about you

If you want recognition, to be seen as an authority, or some other form of egoboo, then you are not going to be as good a teacher as you might be.  Charisma does help and there are some egotists who are actually excellent teachers; but it is generally in spite of that, not because of it.  The reality is that teaching does give you a position of authority, which you can’t manage well either by pretending it doesn’t exist or by diverting it to some purpose other than the task at hand… which is ultimately to empower your student.  If that sounds tricky, well, that’s why I felt the need to write about it.

The point is not to create an intellectual or spiritual copy of yourself, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and mastery of the person in front of you.  To that end, start with what they already know or are interested in; Victor Anderson was reportedly good at this, with the result that he taught each person slightly differently but with a recognizable basic core.  Give them a manageable chunk, in which you offer both the big picture including connections to what they already know and a breakdown of the new information into component parts.  Step back and let them use or demonstrate the knowledge.  Step up again and offer feedback; but be sparing with both criticism and praise.  The reason is that both are information, and tossing someone information while they are learning a complex skill is akin to throwing them a plate while they are juggling.  One is plenty; four is too much.  I generally tell a student what I think their biggest obstacle or problem is, the most important thing they are doing right, and give one concrete suggestion, until the next round.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Be very aware of your language.  Use words that emphasize the student’s competence, and avoid ones that undermine it.  This includes describing someone as a “newbie” or the like.  I know some organizations have formal designations such as “neophyte,” etc. but I assure you students are aware of where they sit in the hierarchy and don’t need their noses rubbed in it.  Even when a student needs to be gently reminded that they came to you for a reason, there are better and more subtle ways to do it.  Always be asking yourself, “what is the best way for this person to learn?”  The answer will vary, and you have to stay on your toes, even as you keep them on theirs.

At the very same time, you don’t owe anyone your time and energy and knowledge.  Being a martyr to someone else’s spiritual progress is all kinds of bad, and they are likely to resent you for it in the long run besides.

Don’t get bored

In graduate school I had a delightful professor and mentor who only ever gave me one piece of direct advice about teaching:  “Don’t let them bore you.”

There’s no excuse for being bored as a teacher under any circumstances if you ask me; teaching is fun.  But doubly so if you are teaching a religious tradition which ought to engage you on the deepest levels.  If you are bored, you yourself have stopped progressing.  If you are bored, you are energetically disengaged (bad enough in a classroom, practically malfeasance when teaching witchcraft).  If you are bored, you probably don’t actually like your student very much… so do both of you a favor and refer them to someone else.  Most of all, if  you are bored you will be boring.

Different models of teaching and their uses

Let me begin by reiterating that I teach for my day job. I have experienced the workshop/classroom model for teaching Pagan and witchcraft topics as both a teacher and a student. I received my Faery training under an apprenticeship type one-on-one model, and I have taught my own students in a combination of apprenticeship and coven teaching, depending on what was going on at the time.

The classroom or workshop model

Fundamentally, this means that you have a number of students and one or two teachers, and the relationship between teacher and student is limited in time and space.  That is, they interact mostly in the classroom setting, with a variable amount of individual consultation outside of it, and once the term of the class is ended there is no presumption of a relationship beyond that.

The classroom model is good for imparting mainly intellectual information, or specific skills that can be practiced within the constraints of the course. It is also an efficient way to maximize resources… either in terms of making sure more people get access to a particular teacher or (if the teacher is being paid) ensuring that the teacher gets a reasonable wage at an equally reasonable rate of tuition for the students.

The classroom structure inherently creates more of a hierarchy than the other types, relatively speaking. This in itself is neither good nor bad, but is a tendency to be aware of, especially if your stated values are otherwise. The frequent internal fights I witnessed in Reclaiming about who was or was not deemed a “teacher”… and who got paid… I believe are traceable in part to the structurally hierarchical tendencies of workshops and Witch Camp straining against the anti-hierarchical sensibility of the tradition as a whole.  A classroom model also creates emotional distance, which is useful to me as a college instructor, but as a means of teaching emotionally intense spiritual subjects, it may be counterproductive.

Apprenticeship

An apprentice is something like a student and something like an assistant; learning comes from both discussion and practice, often in partnership with the teacher, and it easily (almost inevitably) spills over into a personal friendship.  This approach is generally far less structured, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.  The down side is that sometimes major topics get skipped because they just didn’t happen to come up; the up side is that the practice is very much integrated into daily life and the student sees the teacher’s practice in action, not just in theory or by self-report.  This is the most supportive form of the teacher-student relationship, and that level of support is essential for some of the shamanic and ecstatic types of practice. It is also the most time-intensive, on both the student and teacher’s part.

Teaching in covens

In practice this is often a combination of the two, both structurally and in a kind of linear progression; that is, a coven may have “outer court” classes which are taught by coven members to a group, then as students advance they wind up working with a teacher one-on-one.  In a tradition like Faery where there is only one initiation and several initiates may be part of a coven, each initiate may have a student under his or her supervision for individual work combined with group ritual and other activities.  Ideally coven-teaching is the best of both worlds; in practice I could see the potential for screwed-up interpersonal dynamics finding a foothold or being exacerbated.  I will say that in my own personal experience that for any witchcraft beyond the most basic “this is how to cast a circle, here’s the Wheel of the Year, let’s talk about directions and elements” kind of information, the closer the teaching model is to apprenticeship, the more functional it tends to be.  There also needs to be a clear path forward for students, and a clear understanding of who is responsible for what.

Generally speaking, the more intellectual and dry the information you are conveying, and the less expectation you have of any relationship beyond the term of the course, the better a classroom or workshop model will suit.  The more intense and volatile the training, the more an apprenticeship or coven model is necessary; this is why the principles listed on the Faery Tradition website include “We recognize that Faery is highly transformative and extremely experiential, requiring closer attention and responsibility than workshops, seminars, or intensives provide.”

From both the teacher and student’s perspectives, knowing what your goals are (both short term and long term) is vital.  How much support and attention from the teacher do you need/are you able to give?  I have seen people struggling with the emotional fallout of practices learned via a book or a relatively inaccessible workshop teacher, sometimes to their detriment; in my own experience I have found that approach too ungrounded for anything energetically intense.  There are also potential pitfalls for the teacher: in an interview for the article “The Teacher Will Appear” by Christine Hoff Kramer and Sierra Black which appeared in Witches and Pagans #25, I made the observation that “in group situations people are much, much more likely to project their shadow stuff onto me than they are in situations where we have a more organic and personal relationship.” Obviously, I don’t think a classroom model is inherently bad; I teach in a classroom every week.  I have also given my share of Pagany workshops and talks.  I do think that for both teacher and student, understanding the limits and advantages of a given approach will help to avert difficulties and make sure the education you are seeking happens.

Conclusion

In academia where I spend most of my time, teaching is an entire skill and field of study (pedagogy) in and of itself.  I would like to see the awareness that how you teach can be as important as what you teach more widespread in Pagan circles.  As you contemplate your own teaching, consider that values, world-view, your relationship with your student, even theology can sometimes be more clearly conveyed by what you do rather than what you say.  To that end I try to be open, grounded, connected, and flexible as a teacher, emphasizing relationship and experience over declaration while being firm in my own knowledge and practice.  My own witchcraft and the results of it in my own life are the best teaching I can offer.

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