THE ROLE OF A STUDENT

A teacher can only be as good as his student. The student makes as much of a contribution to the class as the teacher. When you are invited to a dinner, you expect the host to prepare the meal. But you would certainly bring a bottle of wine or a box of cookies. Classes are best when the student has practiced and prepared questions to ask the teacher. The other students may never have even thought of the questions you bring. The teacher’s answers may help them reach new levels of understanding.
When I was learning from Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, I would as soon have come to class without a question, as I would have walked out the door without my clothes. I felt I had no business going to class without a question because that would have indicated that I had not practiced. This in turn, gave my teacher an understanding about what I was going through in my practice and spurred him to explain things in new ways. A class is an interaction between student and teacher as opposed to a performance in which the performer performs and the audience sits and listens and watches. Even in a performance, the performers can feel the energy of the audience, and that spurs them on.
The student might relate ideas the teacher is explaining in terms of his own experience. “Is what you are saying like what I do in my job?” “I had an experience in my practice yesterday. Is this experience what you are talking about?” “I read something similar. Is what you are saying the same as what I read?” In this way you hear about the experiences of many people and how they relate their prior knowledge and skills to the class work. It makes the class a richer experience for both students and teacher.
I remember bringing a tarantula into Grandmaster Chen’s class and asking him to hold it. He had never held a tarantula before but let it crawl around his arm and commented on how it moved. That was my “box of cookies” for that class. A student can make a contribution by being corrected by the teacher. The other students can see this correction and learn from it. Often students resent being corrected because they don’t like to feel they are doing something wrong. But they are making a contribution to the class in addition to receiving instruction for themselves. If the teacher corrects you more than the other students, don’t feel badly. This means you are getting more benefit out of the class. Often the teacher will use one of the better students as an example for correction. The poorer students are so bad that the teacher doesn’t even want the class to watch them. He would rather have the class watch a good student so that the correction will stand out better against the otherwise correct posture or movement. The point is to not feel you are being overly criticized but that you are getting more attention and making a contribution to the class.
I believe that a student should go to other sources besides his own teacher. Get the ideas of other teachers and even take workshops with other teachers. And then bring these new ideas into the class. Good teachers will appreciate this. They will not feel threatened by new ideas but just give their views on those ideas. This will also help the teacher know what other perspectives are out there. If the teacher never gets feedback from the students, he can fall into a rut and then teaching becomes a chore rather than a joy. Part of the fun of teaching is to see how each person’s personality blends with the others and creates the atmosphere of the class. The teacher wants to maintain control of the class but not smother the class, so these personalities can feel comfortable and blossom. This provides energy for the class.
You might suggest things you would like to see in the class (readings from ancient books, a few minutes of meditation at the beginning of the class, etc.). It is always the teacher’s call, but if everyone likes the idea it may be refreshing to add new things from time to time. Remember that teachers get tired too. They have to deal with the rigors of everyday life and need energizing. Where do they get that? The vibrant dynamics of the students in a class can provide that for the teacher. Don’t just be a “taker”.
There is a balance between adding energy to a class and interfering with the class. Some students talk too much or try to shift the teacher’s focus, and wind up taking too much time away from the class. Know how to add to a class, but just enough to make it interesting. When you go to a dinner you wouldn’t bring the dinner itself – just a little wine or dessert. It is true that some teachers don’t like this type of student interaction. They want to be more like performers and the students to be more like an audience. They don’t want students bringing any new ideas into class. I was never interested in such teachers. That is why I learned from Grandmaster Chen. Remember also that there are many teachers around you. When I was studying Tai-chi, I also had an animal importing company and was surrounded by wild animals. I traveled to the jungles of Central American to study animals in the wild. The animals became my teachers. I had to tune into their patterns of attention and internal energy so they would feel comfortable with me. And if I wasn’t in tune with them, they wouldn’t just correct me; they would bite and scratch me. I would relate the lessons in movement and energy in the Tai-chi class to what I saw in the animals. Don’t just rely on your main teacher. Find others, whether human or otherwise.
It would be a good idea to keep a diary of what you learned each lesson. You can go back over your progress whenever you hit a snag in your learning. By seeing your progress written on paper you can ask better questions about what you should be learning next. It is common to feel that you haven’t learned much. By going over your learning diary you will realize how much you have really learned. You might also videotape yourself practicing once a month so you can see how bad you used to be and how far you have come. (You might want to keep those videos locked up securely). The role of a student is to find ways to learn better and not just be a receptacle for the teacher’s words. When you bring vibrancy into your practice, you bring it into the class and the whole class benefits. Once in a while, you get a group of good students and then teaching is a joy.
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