Monday, April 23, 2012

Teacher or Coach?

Maitre Charles Selberg is, I think, about as good a fencing master as you’re likely to find. His 1976 book, FOIL, is one of my favorites, and he wrote it back when the “sport” of fencing still had some relationship to the use of a sword. He has a video-clip in which he defines the difference between a teacher and a coach, and I strongly recommend that, if you have an intention of being either one, you watch this little video. More than once.
Probably more than twice.

When you try to be all things to all people, you generally wind up being nothing to anyone.  Being a good coach requires a certain philosophy, skill set, and body of knowledge. Being a good teacher also requires a certain philosophy, skill set, and body of knowledge
They are not, however, the same philosophy, skill set, and body of knowledge.
In many ways, those two philosophies, skill sets and bodies of knowledge are contradictory.

Never try to ride more than one horse at a time.
You can be a good coach or you can be a good teacher.
Very few people can do both.
Most of the people who think they can do both are really not doing either one very well.
Of those few people who actually can do both, almost none can do both at the same time, and almost certainly not with the same student. I say “almost” because it is possible. But  I’ve only personally seen it done successfully once.

I never had much interest in being a “coach.”
And that interest was limited to demonstrating that a properly designed training program, once established and religiously followed, would unavoidably result in self-perpetuating excellence.
But the actually winning of athletic contests?
Meh, not so much.
Victory over others is transient; victory over oneself is permanent.

It’s always been hard for me to take “sports” very seriously, and this was the cause of no small amount of consternation when I was a kid and was playing them. I did the training, did my best, because that’s what I do, and I knew the other kids on the team were counting on me to do my part.
Playing was fun. It meant I didn’t have to go home. It meant I often got to skip last period. It meant I had a little advantage when it came to picking up chicks.
But that was about it.
I tried to fake it, just to get along, but I couldn’t summon up the life-or-death feeling for it that makes you tear you hair out, wail, and gnash your teeth if you lose. I just never could get excited about any activity that requires a ball. My dog could catch a ball.  To me it always seemed like if you need a ball, it’s because you don’t have any of your own.

Anyway, “coach” was a title that never appealed to me. Maybe I just never had an inspirational coach as a role model.

But I did have one terrific teacher.
An English teacher.
She profoundly influenced my life.
She treated me with respect, when I wasn’t respected by anyone else.
She treated me as if I were worth something, when everyone else was telling me I wasn’t. She acted like I mattered, when everyone else acted like I didn’t.
She talked to me. More, she listened to me.
And she knew how to listen between the lines, too.

One day, when things had been particularly bad for me at home, she asked me to stay after class a moment. When everyone else had gone, she hugged me, and said, “Don’t give up. Don’t you give up.”  I thought I was going to shatter into a zillion tiny shards.  She was the glue that held me together.  I suppose today if a teacher hugged a student, they’d throw her in jail.
She encouraged me – and she also challenged me. She would cross-examine me in class, put me on the spot in a way she didn’t with anyone else, and some kids thought she was picking on me.
She wasn’t.
She was teaching me how to dance. The dance is called excellence.
It’s not exaggerating one little bit to say she saved my life.

So I have a debt of honor to pay. And I know just how she’d like me to pay it, too.
Maybe I can do for somebody else a little bit of what she did for me.
Maybe I can’t.
But I’d sure like to try.

That’s my personal reason for being a teacher.

I also have a philosophical reason for teaching.
I teach because I don’t know how to build bombs.
(You guys from Homeland Security who are unconstitutionally eaves-dropping can just relax and stand down. I’m only using exaggeration to make a point.)

I believe that ignorant, weak, cowardly, greedy people are easy to enslave -- and they make good slaves, too. Unquestioningly obedient.  Hell, some even like being slaves. No decisions to make, and no personal responsibility to take for any of the hurt or harm you may do. You just do what you’re told to do, in mindless bliss. Just “doing your job. Just “following orders.”

On the other hand, people who value Truth and know how to find it, people who are
physically and morally courageous, people who care about others as much as they care about themselves – those people don’t make very good slaves at all. In fact, they are almost impossible to enslave -- and it’s a real chore to keep them enslaved, if you do.

You can’t get unquestioning obedience from them.
Sometimes you can’t get obedience at all.
All you can do is kill them.
And that may not prove to be such an easy task, either.

You could say I teach as a “subversive activity.”
Good teaching challenges students to think critically, to question the way things are and why they’re that way, to imagine and consider other possibilities. It encourages students to think beyond the conventional wisdom of popular culture, and to critically examine the “official story,” the mythologized version of history that they are spoon-fed by the mainstream media that is owned and controlled by the power elite to serve their own ends.
That’s about as subversive as you can get, daddy-o.

When I teach, I’m interested not only in enabling you to hold your sword up, but also to hold your head up. I want you explore and embrace excellence, truthfulness, loyalty and benevolence because those things are the roots of freedom and justice.

Freedom and justice.
It doesn’t get much better than that.


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