Geneviève, a practicum yoga teacher, has been working in my yoga classes this month, and I've been trying to figure out what makes her so excellent, but (in the Frenchie spirit of her name), je ne sais pas quoi.
Wednesday, she helped me stretch into the Lord Voldemort pose (the pose whose name shall not be spoken). With her help, I found new space and flexibility, gifts that I can use independently now that she has shown me the way.
Last week she led the class in a sort of kneeling side bend that challenged my balance at just the right place…just enough so that I felt about to fall but didn’t.
Now I do that pose every morning, and I always almost fall but never do. I do other poses that she’s taught me, too. And every morning, I thank her.
Geneviève is new to teaching, but she’s clearly gifted.
I’ve thought a lot about what makes a teacher gifted.
Throughout the last decade, I worked to help high school teachers improve their craft. I only worked with teachers who wanted my help, and working with me cost them extra time for planning and reflection, so the teachers with whom I worked were a dedicated lot. This collaboration was a sign, but not a cause, of their excellence.
Some teachers were brand spanking new; others were at the end of long careers.
Some were clearly gifted and improved quickly; others, I struggled to know how to help.
The work got me thinking about what makes an excellent teacher and if it’s possible to teach excellence, or if one must simply inspire it.
For starters, the teacher needs to be knowledgeable and passionate about the subject. Some people don’t think this is important: they say that building relationships is the only thing that’s really important in teaching. I disagree. Friends might not need knowledge and passion, but teachers do.
There’s more, though: a certain je ne sais pas quoi. It’s that je ne sais pas quoi part that I’ve been thinking so much about.
I think about another brand spanking new teacher with whom I worked: Sean Riley. He was an excellent teacher from the start. Of course : his teaching improved dramatically with just a few years of practice, but something about him was excellent from the beginning.
I remember visiting him in his classroom after school many days when his student LaJoy was there. LaJoy seemed not quite to be able to believe all that Sean expected of her. As they talked, she would whine and roll her eyes, and he would laugh. It seemed like a game to determine whether or not she was really going to rise to her best self. I don’t know if she did, but I know she was thinking about it. Otherwise, she wouldn't have continued showing up in his classroom after school.
What was it that made Sean so excellent from the start ? There’s that je ne sais pas quoi part again.
Both Sean and Geneviève know their subject matter: Sean, literature and writing, and Geneviève, the body and breathing. Both show respect for their students and joy in the connection. Both laugh easily.
But that’s still not quite the je ne sais pas quoi. In their teaching, neither is ego-driven.
As the poet Rumi says, "All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty."
These excellent teachers see that they are guides, that the teaching is not about them. Both Sean and Geneviève build independence rather than dependence. Maybe I'm getting closer to understanding excellence.
I don’t know if they’d use this word or not, but both teachers convey a spirituality that embodies the sacredness of learning and teaching.
Maybe that’s the je ne sais pas quoi: sacredness in the learning, the teaching, and the connection. The sense that together, teacher and student connect to something larger than themselves.
What is that something? A new je ne sais pas quoi. Perhaps it’s what Rumi calls the moon, some call God, others call the divine, and still others call beauty or truth. Maybe it's what yogis call satya, or perhaps it’s what Robert Pirsig’s schizophrenic protatonist in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancetries to tease out as he searches for Quality.
Perhaps, it's what Anne Lamott called "Howard," as in "Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name." Corny, but amusing. And true.
Maybe like the band Motorhead sings, there are a thousand names for God. But maybe the real name cannot be spoken because the spirit is really too big for a word.
Maybe excellent teachers help us connect to the divine, whatever you call the divine.
It's an excellence that cannot be quanitified. No interview question will capture it (and if a question did, it would be illegal anyway).
And perhaps it’s the blasphemy in a school, a sacred place that must be safe and hopeful, that makes yesterday’s massacre at Sandy Point Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, even more disturbing.
The sacredness of our children in a sacred space now desecrated. It breaks my heart.