Learning about Learning by Teaching

What I learned from teaching…

I learned through direct experience —as a parent, high school English teacher, teacher-educator, yoga teacher, mental health counselor, and writer that one of the best ways to learn is through teaching. Teaching students to write their college essays each year as their English teacher was one of the most enlightening experiences in my life. I know, odd, right? Read on. I’ll mention the most important lessons I learned, beginning with the amazing opportunity to get to know my students as individual people during the first few weeks of their senior year. While conferencing with each one,  we were able to build a relationship on acceptance and unconditional positive regard. This trained me to become an effective listener, a better parent, partner, and a more empathic person, and for my second career as a person-centered therapist.  

My students would be sending their 500-word essays to the colleges they hoped to potentially attend while simultaneously pleasing their parents who were typically pressuring them to become… well, “someone” in the “real world.” Desperate for guidance, they (and their parents) wanted and expected to be told what to do, which direction to take, what to write, how to write it, and exactly how to gain that acceptance they’d been brainwashed to need more than anything else in order to have…well, “the good life.”  And, of course, they wanted that quick and painless A on their assignment. 

Much to their (and their parents’) chagrin, I refused to provide them with answers. I did what I do best as a true humanities teacher ought to do—I  invited them to turn inward and dig deep to find and use their resources, grading them only for effort, for their participation in this never-ending process of knowing themselves from the inside out. I was teaching people rather than content, and apparently, this pissed a lot of people off,  for it opposed to what most had come to expect of me as an educator, which was to tow the carrot-and-stick conditioning line of schooling and collect my paycheck.

My subversion, and the resistance to my humanistic approach, highlighted imbalances within the school system for which I will be forever grateful because these difficult experiences provided me with valuable opportunities to learn more about human beings, how they react to novelty and uncertainty, how they learn, and how complicated and interesting people really are. 

Students wanted to be told what to do by an authority, someone they assumed knew better, and directed to construct and project and image of “someone” acceptable to achieve what they felt they deserved which included bragging rights, a defeat of their competitors, and fulfillment of the dominant narrative about living “the good life.” Contemplating their humanity, their human being, well this presented an obstacle and was contrary to everything they’d been taught in their K-12 journey. It seemed that I was the problem. Why couldn’t I behave like all the other teachers, teach like everyone else was teaching? Why wouldn’t I give them an assignment, ask them to jump through the typical hoop, hand back a grade, and play this game of school? Believe me, I often asked myself these very questions especially in light of so much resistance

 “Know Thyself ”
— Oracle at Delphi

I invited students to sit down with me, with themselves, to stop, breathe in and out, and focus their attention inward rather than on meeting some external expectation. I taught them how to observe what was happening within them, what I now call traveling the inner landscape for learning, and to notice that indeed, they had innate resources, contrary to what they’d been conditioned over time and through their schooling to believe. Students simply hadn’t been shown why or how to stop, focus their attention inward, and simply experience being, and observe their subjective experience of themselves. In K-12, their job had been to meet measurable or graded expectations which left little time to bother with immeasurables or  soft skills—critical aspects of humans like play, mystery, imagination, or metacognition, as the general belief was that none of these aspects of their humanity would get them anywhere in the “real world” en route to becoming “someone.”  It rarely occurred to students to look inside themselves for answers. If they did, perhaps they had been reprimanded for being distracted and dreamy. And why would they turn to their inner resources and their inner wisdom if they were already habituated to being told what to do, who to be, and who they were expected to become throughout their young lives?  

Mimics & Mentors

I understand that brand new humans are social creatures who mimic the behavior of others to learn how to navigate this being-a-human-thing. And we have a store of classic narratives that are incredibly helpful for mapping our way through the landscapes of our lives. Of course, we ought to respect our elders and learn from their wisdom! Mentors and models are absolutely critical for us to know who we are, but too much of anything can become problematic. What I am pointing out is imbalance –too much dependency and not enough agency and autonomy which leads to arrested development, weakness, inertia, and illness. My students had developed the habit of immediately looking everywhere else– to experts, to parents, to teachers, to friends, role models, video games, stories, the news cycle, and online– everywhere else except within themselves, into that mysterious, complex, inner world where imagination, creativity, and potential live.  Many of them were missing mature adults in their environment to demonstrate the process of self-study and show them the ropes of how to be healthy and fully human. And many of those same adults were preventing them from making mistakes, feeling any pain, and being held accountable for their own learning. And therein lies what I see as important problems of modern life and modern health: imbalance, ignorance about our very own humanity, and a serious misunderstanding of learning.

Balance

We spend too much of our time, energy and attention looking to the external landscape for answers, competing to the extreme rather than cooperating,  living out “there” way more often than looking and listening within where our innate resources and wisdom live.  Worst of all, we fail to actualize our  potential, heal ourselves, and create lives of meaning, purpose, abundance, gratitude and vitality. Sadly and unjustly, the unhealthy narratives we’ve been schooling our children with inculcate them to believe they are powerless, victimized, and without resources.  And the remedy for that, of course, is a public school curriculum rooted in blame, group identity politics, critical theory, and social justice ideology, all frameworks for perceiving reality and personal experience that are polarizing, reductionist, and destructive to individual and collective health.  Add to the insult of the schooling system further injury from social media, big tech, big food, and big pharma. And most people are blind to their own manipulation. 

Students and parents’ rebellion to my humanistic approach to teaching the college essay unit over a period of 14 years showed me how truly imbalanced (and clueless) we modern humans have become. So, I decided to offer people tools to explore, understand, and balance their personal imbalances which are the aspects of life they can control and ought to take responsibility for. And if each individual is more balanced, this goes a long way toward more collective balance and health. This is possible, and without public protest.

Slowing Down

When students slowed down…stopped… and at least for a few moments shifted their vision and attention inward, they learned more about themselves, who they were and how they functioned. The more time they spent exploring their inner landscape, the less the unhealthy narratives of the outer landscape could dominate, thus more balance could be accessed. Yes, many students were uncomfortable with my novel approach, as it felt uncomfortable to do the opposite of what they had grown accustomed to, to unlearn previously conditioned behaviors and habits of mind. Yet, many also found slowing, breathing rhythmically, and reflecting inward in the presence of a nonjudgmental listener therapeutic. It was literally and figuratively a welcome sigh of relief (which, by the way, is regulating for the human nervous system). Because my expectations were foreign, they felt unsure, anxious, and uncertain that they could trust me to learn and learn to know and trust themselves. This very uncertainty and fear is part of the agitated physiological state known as learning. Yes, discomfort is part of learning. You cannot be healthy without a bit of pain and suffering.

Students found me and my approach curious, which is exactly what I was hoping to teach them—to develop the capacity in their nervous system, to train it intentionally,  to cultivate curiosity when they felt unsure and even a little afraid; when confronted by a foreigner; by experiences and people alien to them; when learning whether to approach or retreat in those moments of ambiguity and fog and insecurity. And this would be to learn about themselves, their resources, and what it means to be human as the one and only them–an explorer, adventurer, a traveler on the landscapes for learning.  Once they felt safety and trust in a regulated, unconditionally accepting relationship with me, they were then directed inward and more able to trust and accept themselves. 

 The Body Keeps the Score

 I also learned through observing and interacting with students that, sadly, too many of them simply lacked the physiological regulation and capacity for distress tolerance  to “go there,” within, toward knowing themselves and/or they struggled to feel safety and trust within a relationship. Whilst others, those who could face themselves, if even briefly, believed they had no resources. And this is the central reason I left my career in education to become a psychotherapist and behavioral health coach who helps people with  stress management and nervous system health. My mission is to continue what I’d already begun within the school environment– to help young people realize their conditioning, unlearn, and teach them how to know themselves to rebalance what is totally out of whack in their modern human life. I teach people to know their  mindbody system and how to train in balance and regulation. I use a healthier framework and narrative which is that every single individual has resources within them which they can be taught to discover and learn to actualize for a life of vitality, meaning, and purpose. 

 Consumerist Curriculum

So, why hasn’t self-study for self-realization been explicitly taught or been part of the schooling curriculum you might wonder? Why isn’t it a more popular part of our American culture? One answer is that if people believed they had resources and knew how to find and actualize them, well then, what would we buy? What would the pharmaceutical companies and food companies “cure?” What would happen to the “haves vs have-nots” victim and blame narratives that fuel the political polarity, reductive thinking, and extremism?

I learned from experiencing the worst part of having taught the college essay that parents were inhibiting and preventing students from discovering and demonstrating their uniqueness, their true nature, the best of themselves, and relentlessly controlled their children out of fear of their kids failing to thrive in a dangerous world, so they told their  kids who to be and become… or else. The consequences would be dire or at least very disappointing. Ironically, parents (with school administrators and teachers’ help) imposed safe spaces, imploring teachers to enforce limiting speech for fear of hurt feelings and offenses intrinsic to the healthy social learning process, effectively reinforcing victim mentality.

And, at the same time, parents “helicoptered” and “snow-plowed” anyone who might object or present obstacles to their plan that was disguised as compassion and empathy.  As the tough-love Humanistic helper, I was supposedly the bad guy, the mean one,  for discerning and attempting to point out that students’ motivation for growth came from fear rather than love; that constructing their own individual life was focused more on the extrinsic than intrinsic; that parents and some of my colleagues were effectively disempowering kids and fostering their unhealthy dependency. Is it really that shocking that even the highest achievers suffer with acute and chronic anxiety and depression rather than developing personal agency, taking on responsibility, and strengthening themselves with courage?  It turns out we’ve been shaping kids to be weaker, not stronger, and I, for one, really wanted this to stop.  I still do, which is why  I left my career as an educator to teach people about the true nature of human learning, as opposed to schooling young people with unhealthy narratives and unhealthy habits. 

Problem-Solving

You can’t expect students to learn things you haven’t already learned yourself. I decided to use my own inner resources I’d discovered through my yoga practice and other self-study to learn how to address the imbalance and suboptimal health and wholeness of my students. I walked away from financial comfort, a really good paycheck and pension, to walk the walk I hope others will too in order to become healthy, more vital and alive– to live a meaningful life. I combined my self-study with a balance of learning from others–individual ordinary people I’d met  traveling around the world while teaching yoga and from experts  in the study of human nature, human functioning, and mindbody health. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, there are people who you can trust and truth does exist. The result is my book, Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness (2019), and my Humanistic helping education and coaching business, Landscapes for Learning. I continue to help people learn and grow as always, now in the role of  mental health counselor and behavioral health coach. 

For too many of my students, writing this college essay about themselves was the world’s worst and most pain-filled assignment in the world, for it put them in the bind of facing their own confusion and human catastrophe and disobeying the authorities, i.e. their trusted former teachers and parents, in order to know themselves and be true to their inner wisdom. To trust their rapidly changing and developing selves instead of doing what they were told and depending on people who were not  them to tell them who to be — was quite the conundrum. And as I noted above, many resisted. Some ran to Mommy and cried because they didn’t get that trophy as expected and as promised. Yet, others rose to the occasion, struggled hard, suffered, and gained insight and confidence, and this gave me hope. These students realized they had potential. They had resources. And they were responsible for their own actualization through honest effort, which was entirely different from doing only as they were told. They began following the rules, developing discipline,  and then breaking out of their comfort zones and transcending limits with intention. They began to learn and live in more balance.

Yoga & Mental Health

 As you might have surmised by my story about  teaching the college essay unit with high school seniors, I learned a ton about human nature including the power of perception, belief, motivation, habits and conditioned behavior. I also learned about human suffering, taking ownership of it and learning how to respond to it. I was also learning these things as a Bikram yoga teacher. My yoga students were simply older versions of my high school students- still immature and disconnected from their inner world— the Self that remains constant and unchanging— and how to know it. Instead, they were hellbent on fixing their “image” and their inadequacies and perceived brokenness because they believed everything was wrong with them when comparing themselves to others– which they did incessantly.  They’d been taught to power-through in the landscape of extreme competition, focused on outcomes and achievement more often than focusing on and trusting the process and loving themselves unconditionally. I was teaching Eastern union and balance practice with disintegrated imbalanced Westerners. 

In my role as mental health counselor and coach, I continue to be confronted by individuals’ self-perceived lack of resources and their ill-preparedness to learn to know themselves to discover  their inner wisdom. Ask clients about their deficits and they’ll spill out a list of their limitations that’s a mile long; ask them about their strengths and inner resources and they’re mute, or worse, they’ll flat out say “I have none.” They sound like my high schoolers. And yes– this continues to break my heart and fuel my fury which I channel into empowering them to learn their truth and educate themselves about their humanity. 

Too many people believe they are in need of fixing and are without resources to change and heal, likely because profiteers love this false narrative and continue to pump it throughout our American culture– and even more widely online to the entire modern world. I am empathic, as I have been there, myself,  in the dark and believing false ideas that had once conditioned my thoughts and behaviors and disconnected me from my own mind and my body too. Lest we forget, I was also part of the school environment that intentionally or accidentally contributed to this disaster. Thankfully, unlearning and healing are possible. I did it, much by chance at first and then more deliberately. I’ve seen both teens and adult students do it, which is why I believe that you can too– everyone can.

In Filth it Shall be Found

I loved being all the types of teacher and learner I was in my life  because I got to develop relationships with a diverse  range of individuals.  I loved being part of their messy, trial and error process of human suffering, learning, and actualization. I still get to do this as a yoga teacher and behavioral health professional. Learning and growth is an ugly sometimes filthy and painful process because if we are talking about real learning, authentic human growth, then really, only in filth it shall be found, as the  alchemists learned about pursuing the true meaning of your life. The filth is very thing you’d least like to confront but know deep down you must in order to actualize your potential. It was heartbreaking for me to walk away from teaching teenagers, but I realized I had to leap without a net and do the very thing I feared. As my yoga teacher often said— the right way is the hard way. Today, in my daily Crossfit workouts, I reinforce the habit of doing hard things by heading straight into the challenging workouts and movements that scare and overwhelm me most,  so I can literally get stronger in both mind and body. This is the daily grind of habit building and of becoming what I repeatedly do that is required to have a great life. It’s not a chore– I get to be alive and it is a conscious choice to do the work required to suffer constructively to be well. I see it as my duty.   

You have resources!

You didn’t ask to be conditioned for unwellness, with the bullshit narratives from your family and your culture, but now you must take responsibility for what you “got” and become who you could be. I want  to encourage you and show you how to look inside and find your resources and your inner wisdom. My book, mindbody resource podcast, and posts are all tools to  help you to rely on the process of authentic learning and to learn to trust yourself, not me. That will enable you to then better understand and trust others.  We need to increase our ability to trust  more than ever because the rate of change is so fast in our modern landscape that we must rely on the collective individual abilities of others, including  their moral sense and ethical behavior because none of us can possibly know everything that needs to be known in order to solve humanity’s problems. It’s called being part of something bigger than yourself. We have to gather together and share our individual resources if we want to survive and thrive as a collective into the unknown and uncertain future.  We need you at your healthiest and most actualized. 

Pay it forward

 I will tell you that I believe that there’s no amount of money that beats being part of this human actualization process– of helping people know and love themselves for wellness, which is less often rainbows and butterflies and most often a daily grind, the only easy day being yesterday, as the Navy SEALs mantra goes. I love the no-mud-no-lotus process of teaching people to embrace learning and their suffering for their healthiest and fullest actualization because truly the best way to learn is to teach. I sure learned a ton from parenting, teaching students, and especially from studying all my experiences traveling on the landscapes for learning. If you do too, I humbly ask you to pay it forward.

Published by mbakis

Sharing love for learning and resources for a healthy living. Author of Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness (2019) and The Graphic Novel Classroom: Teaching and Learning with Images (2011, Corwin Press) available at Amazon.com

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