So You Think You Can Teach?
By Tai Chi Instructor Dan Kleiman
The desire to teach and share what you’ve learned over time is a natural outgrowth of your own personal practice. In fact, being able to articulate principles you feel in your own body by explaining them to someone else can be a really important learning stage for you. Every time I have the conversation about teaching though, I recommend you do these three things before you even think about setting up your first class.
Like everything else in teaching and practice, you have to hone your craft over time. That’s why I go back to these three teaching tools over and over again. Each time you learn something new.
So, if you think you can teach, first do these things:
Take a Pottery Class
If you want to teach tai chi or qigong, go take a class in something you have zero affinity for. Chances are, the majority of your students are going to be as good at tai chi when they walk through the door as you are at throwing a perfect pot, playing guitar, or speaking Polish. You need to know what it feels like to try something unfamiliar, at every step of the process.
Pay attention to these key moments: How did you find out about the class? What was it like to talk to the instructor by phone or email? What was it like to show up on the first night? Was it easy to find the class? Were the other students friendly? Did you know what to do? Was there special protocol to observe?
See, you’ve forgotten about all of these things, even though you experienced them in your very first tai chi class. Go out and re-experience them and then be as tuned into the orientation process as much as possible for your new students.
One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page
You need to be able to adapt whatever you teach to your students. One of the best ways to do this is to be able to explain the material in as much or as little detail as possible: one sentence, one paragraph, or one page (or more). You’ll find that at different stages of teaching, you’ll need to go up or down to these different levels.
Here’s how I usually see the “one sentence, one paragraph, one page” flow. When you first present an idea to a new student, can you capture it in a sentence? Once they start asking questions, have your paragraph explanation ready. This is where you’ll need to connect more detailed ideas in a logical sequence. The next level of detail, the “one page” level, is all about illustrating those ideas with examples.
And let me be clear, this technique isn’t just for new students. Often, we’ll start a new series with experienced students and they need the same three-level approach. If it’s a seven week course, we have to be able to say in one sentence what the whole course will cover. On the first class meeting, you get a paragraph to give the course overview. In the subsequent weeks, you are essentially writing the page-long description with them, as they explore and understand the material.
I use this technique on paper whether I’m planning a year-long progression of courses, an entire course, a single hour-long lesson, or even a specific exercise in a lesson. What I love is that you can do the work on paper, but when you go live with students, you basically “re-write” the entire thing based on the interaction you have with them.
No matter what you’re explaining though, be sure you remember this rule: show students why they should care about it or as the saying goes, tune in to everyone’s favorite radio station, WIIFM, “What’s In It For Me?”. As commercial teachers, whose students are there by choice, for a blend of recreation, entertainment, socializing and education, you live and die by this rule.
Do or Do Not
The final skill you need to bring into the classroom is to be able to demonstrate every single skill you want to teach, on command. In fact, you should be able to seamlessly slip back and forth between “this is how to do it right” and “this is how to do it wrong”. If you can’t, you’re biting off material that is too advanced for you to teach at this point in your practice.
Now, you might think of examples in education where this isn’t true. Or athletics. Does every coach of a professional sports team need to be able to play at the level of the athletes on the field? Of course not. But what we are doing is not exactly the same thing.
Take choreography as an example. Would you learn tai chi movements from someone who couldn’t remember the whole form? Me neither!
Taoist lineage master Bruce Frantzis has a teaching rule: only teach material that is at least two levels below your personal practice. If you follow Bruce’s rule, every skill in tai chi or qigong that you try to teach should be as obvious as the choreography. If you are teaching someone how to sink their chi, it should be as clear to you whether they are doing it or not as it is if they are turning to the right or turning to the left. And you should be able to say “put your hands on my body. This is what sinking chi feels like. And by contrast, this is not sinking chi.” If it’s not as evident as gross choreography, you’re in over your teaching head.
The two-level rule works because once you’ve moved on to new stages, you have a clear developmental progression in your rear view. Once you’ve understood your own process, you can begin to see how other people go through it and you’ll begin to make better distinctions between stages. (Don’t make the mistake of over-generalizing though: just because you feel something in your body doesn’t mean everyone feels it the same way. That’s lazy and selfish teaching in my book – you need to work hard to understand things from your student’s perspective.)
As a corollary, you should be able to go up and down levels, according to what you are trying to teach. Sometimes you’ll demonstrate simple choreography, sometimes basic body alignment, sometimes deeper internal work. Be clear about what you are manifesting because much of the learning process takes place subconsciously for your students. That is, you convey information with your body as much as with the concepts you are teaching. That’s why we’re in a different situation from professional sports coaches and that’s why you need to be able to demonstrate clearly IN YOUR BODY to teach these arts well.
So you think you can teach still?
Getting to a level of competence where you feel compelled to share what you have learned is an exciting stage of practice. I strongly recommend these three tests, though, before you go out into the world. Again:
- Take a Pottery Class: get into your students’ heads by putting yourself in a new learning situation
- One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page: learn how to articulate your message on different levels to get the right level of detail across at the right time
- Do or Do Not: be as clear in your body as you are in your mind about what you want to teach
If you follow this process, you’ll be on your way to teaching students, not simply teaching material. Long term, this will be more satisfying for you and more rewarding for your students. Good luck!
Dan Kleiman is the Program Director at Brookline Tai Chi where he teaches tai chi and qigong, and oversees teacher development and curriculum planning. He writes about the business of movement education on DanKleiman.com/blog.