I love learning, no matter whether it’s Pilates, Equestrian skills or how to operate a new Blender.
I also love teaching.
There is something unmistakably rewarding when we are able to share knowledge and create a mutually respectful partnership that encourages learning.
As a teacher this should always be our aim, creating a positive learning environment where the student knows they are safe to fail as well as succeed.
But what happens when this is not achieved? If the teacher/student relationship is not a warm and respectful space?
Ultimately the teacher/student relationship breaks down and so does the learning.
During my 20 years of teaching Pilates I have experienced this on one or two studios. It was always disappointing and on a rare occasion it quite literally ended in tears.
I was booked to see a teacher that was highly regarded and I was excited and looking forward to learning. I went that day eager to experience the teaching of a different teacher, to have fun, to learn and be pushed out of my comfort zone and challenged.
From the minute I entered the studio I felt uncomfortable, it was not a welcoming environment. The teacher seemed only interested in highlighting what I was NOT capable of doing and the session felt like a barrage of humiliation rather than constructive pointers.
I was a disappointment.
Once or twice during the session I had to stop to use my inhaler and to be honest I knew it was not the best workout I had ever produced. I was doing my best but I was more than aware of my practice falling under a judgmental eye.
At the end of the session I felt so chastised and brow beaten that I couldn’t wait to get out of the studio. Unfortunately I couldn’t leave quickly enough before I burst into tears.
The teacher simply stood there staring at me. I had no tissues and she didn’t offer one.
The way I was feeling that day, I did not need someone to magnify my shortcomings, I was perfectly aware of them, neither did I expect them to baby me. I simply wanted to be met where I was with an element of understanding.
What I received was something completely different, a demoralizing, soulless teaching experience.
Now, I am not averse to having my ass handed to me on a plate, I truly believe we need to be stretched as a client/student. It helps us understand and stretch our own clients, but I don’t believe there is ever a need to treat students like this or to accept being treated like this.
The role of a teacher/mentor should be a nurturing, sacred space that is based on mutual trust and respect, whether it is for one session or a lifetime of mentoring.
Teaching points should be constructive and helpful, humiliating someone does not come from a place of respect, moreover it does not create a safe teaching environment for us to thrive in, either as teachers or students.
All learning feeds into our own teaching, the more we are given the more we can share and in turn nurture our clients.
Having spent nine years as a senior faculty member at a large Pilates teacher training school I, have watched many teachers develop into thoughtful and compassionate teachers.
I have also experienced the delicate moment of giving negative exam results to students who can be devastated, defensive and emotional. We need to be able to show understanding at both ends of the spectrum of achievement.
My own ski-ing accident in 2008 was a humbling experience and a reminder of how it feels when you cannot complete the smallest physical task.
No matter how elite we become in our own bodies and teaching we should never be far from the memory of how it felt to start and how it felt to try and keep on trying. We must remember how it feels to fail as well as succeed and how necessary the encouragement is to continue.
The principles of horsemanship I have learnt through working with Monty Roberts are surprisingly applicable to human relationships. Monty and his wife Pat have fostered more than 100 children on his farm and he has advised many large multi-national companies on the human aspect of running their businesses.
My husband and I have also used his methods with our own children.
How does this apply to my teaching?
Stick with me on this one.
The main principle of this training focuses on how horses react to “pressure.” Pressure applied both physically to their body and from a perceived threat.
This reaction to pressure is known as ‘Positive Thygmotaxis’ or “The Oppostion Reflex” which is “when an organism seeks contact with an object”.
For example when a horse stands on your foot. Trying to move them by pushing them or leaning into them can simply encourage them to lean back into you harder.
This is thought to be a survival instinct, if a horse is caught by a mountain lion, it will push back into the lions jaws until the lion has to temporarily release its bite to re-grip…giving the horse a moment of respite, to kick out and potentially escape.*
It is also believed that horses are surrounded by 3 “pressures zones” expanding outward from their body.
The outer most zone is the ‘Awareness’ zone’ where the horse will become aware of an external pressure/presence in its vicinity and will remain vigilant incase this presence comes nearer and develops into a threat.
This is when the we enter the ‘Decision zone’ where the horse is faced with ‘Fight or Flight’ and finally the zone closest to the horse the “Pressure” zone, where the survival instinct to lean into the pressure will come into play.
It is said that that a wild mustangs sense of pressure is so heightened it can sense a human from over a mile away, whereas a seasoned riding school horse may be happily dozing oblivious to your approach, until you are standing next to him stroking his neck.
…and Pilates teaching?
Consider your classes, and your clients. Think of the client who knows immediately your gaze turns towards them, even when you are watching them from the opposite side of the studio.
You can almost feel them bristle under your gaze and anticipation of you mentioning their name. Even more so if you begin heading purposefully over to them, effectively moving closer into their pressure zones.
Maybe even bending down next to them for a well placed tactile cue.
Compare this to the client who carries on regardless, even when you are standing directly over their head and addressing your cues specifically to them. Maybe even repeating their name!
The ability to sense when we are getting into the “pressure zone” of another human being and when we may be making them uncomfortable is an essential interpersonal skill.
Knowing when to remove our “pressure”, to “back off” from the client is key in ensuring a positive learning experience.
If we do not recognise when we are applying too much pressure to our client, this is when learning can stop. Overwhelm or embarrassment can happen and the relationship can be damaged.
We may also trigger the clients “Fight or Flight’ response. My response that day was to sob, on a different day the teacher may well have triggered a different more confrontational emotion, resulting in a very different outcome.
Monty has a saying:
“Adrenaline up, learning down. Adrenaline down, learning up”
This is not reserved for horses alone. The calmer we are, the better our own learning experience. Clients do not need reminding of their own shortcomings with additional pressure from us.
Teaching should never be about the teacher, it should always be about the student/client and there should never be a need to raise our voices at our clients, either physically or metaphorically.
All we need to do is whisper.