Teachers and Yogis: The Lord God Made them All.

Graduation makes me smile so hard, so genuinely, that my face cramps up. One last time to see my former students, now fulfilling the promise of their work, one last time to see them off, one last time to beam in pride.


And, of course, it means the end of the school year, a joyous event for all. For all the complaints teachers have (legitimate or not) few jobs have the benefit of the end-of-the year exultation, that joyous release of life relaxing, if only for a brief few weeks.


In the context of this blog, however, school’s end has caused me a bit of ambivalence. While I enjoy opining on both the school and the non-school, the sacred and the profane (take your pick which label applies where), knowing that school was ending would shift any subject matter to more of the private life, somehow changing the nature of the grist for this literary mill.


This unnerves me. I often imagine a wall between my teacher self and my private self, fiercely guarding my private life from colleagues and students when possible. (Don’t worry—the irony of blogging on the internet about guarding my privacy does not escape me.) Moreover, when I’m behind that wall in my private sphere, I try not to let the teaching worries encroach too much, which includes articles about teaching that come across my Facebook feed.


In the summer, of course, it is easier to defend this wall. But the wall came crashing down—an idea on each side crashed through to meet the other—and a survey of the rubble inspired today’s epistle.


This bush-league epiphany came in one of the most frustrating yoga classes I’ve attended in some time. That it was outside in 95 degree mugginess on the “sun deck” was enough irritation; that Ken thought this was a good time to have yoga to beach music for “fun in the sun” yoga salted it. Showing up five minutes before class, I wedged myself in the corner against a serrated sheet metal wall overlooking the parking lot. Add to that sound the roof-top air conditioning, the thump-thump-thump of the gym’s punching bag, and the beach music, and I could barely hear Ken’s instructions when they were actually given clearly, spending most of the class figuring it out on the fly, unable to find a rhythmic flow.



As with all frustrations on the mat, I tried to let it go. But since I was letting the yoga go, my mind was bouncing to all manner of thoughts. Cat-Cow…The US/Ghana match. Twisted Cheetah…Planning a beach trip. Crescent Lunge…an argument about a teacher tenure article I had on Facebook.


Mr. Gorbachev. Tear down that wall.


In the California case, the plantiff’s had argued without proof “1-3% of teachers were unfit”, giving horror stories of teachers who let kids smoke pot in the back of class. And as my yoga teacher fumbled with his speakers playing some whack-ass beach music, I watched the students in the class with the eye of the critical evaluator: Below Standard on Down Dogs. Large percentage of students not on task. Students did not meet benchmarks in Crow, Half-Moon, or Wheel. This evaluation would not earn tenure today.



Before this belabored analogy goes much further, allow me to make a few concessions: the analogy of yoga teachers to traditional school teachers breaks down at so many points that it is as threadbare as overstretched white Lululemon pants. School attendance is compulsory; yoga attendance is optional. Yoga teachers are not held responsible for the outcomes of their students, while traditional teachers are. School classes are about preparing for the future; yoga classes are about being present in the moment. School classes have grades and tests and projects; yoga classes never have homework, and ‘judgment’ is often seen as ‘non-yoga.” The list goes on and on.


But I had been thinking about the similarities of classroom teachers and yoga teachers for sometime, perhaps for one reason alone: my practice in yoga has forced me to be a student, considering this relationship from the other side of the divide.


I began my yoga practice in 2008 shortly after I fractured my C2 in a mountain biking accident. I figured I could use some extra flexibility on my neck that now held some extra bone and metal. For all the rest that came with yoga—the chants, the om’s, the flowery metaphor—I was skeptical: I just wanted to be able to turn my head.


My first teacher was Ann, and after discovering her classes again, she is still one of my favorites. She is nurturing but challenging. If she plays music, it is soft and meditative. On the flip side, she is the only teacher I have ever seen who pissed off someone so bad that they got angry and left class, simply by telling the girl to not look in the mirror but to “feel the pose.” After Ann came Jonathon, flamboyant and boisterous, blaring house remixes of the Glee soundtrack. I struggled, having grown used to one style of practice. For a month, I was sure I was going to quit just because I hated the music. But he started turning it down then eventually off, and I started tuning in. His personal interaction with students and encouragement filled the class weekly, and I soon learned to adapt to different teaching styles. Unfortunately, the YMCA has a low tolerance for coarse language, dirty jokes, and sexual innuendo used to describe yoga poses, so Jonathon soon moved his practice elsewhere.


Over the years, I’ve had many teachers, some memorable, some not. Even the ones who I remember the most, however, would likely have met unwarranted, unnecessary critique if put against an evaluation that looks for weaknesses first. Ken barks out orders, teaches multiple challenging variations, and has taught me more variations that any teacher, but he sounds like he’s playing hippie magnetic poetry when he starts talking about “the universe” and “energy.” Jill, on the other hand, introduced me to Yin Yoga and her practice positively exudes a more holistic health and spiritual approach, but all the ladies at the Y who come to prepare for bikini season would scoff at the slow pace. One teacher taught me correctly how to do a free-standing headstand after four years, but her choice of music—piano covers of pop tunes—always had me playing a distracting game of “Name that Tune” in my head. Another one holds long, deep, beautiful stretches and lets the class hold them as long as they can, but she also tries to give yogis a “happy spritz” at the end of class, reads from a yoga book like a student teacher, quotes William Faulkner for inspiration, and cites dubious research that “Tree pose could cure ADHD.”


These “weaknesses” notwithstanding, every teacher has added to my understanding of my own yoga practice. What once started as simple rehabilitation for a neck injury has flourished into a practice that I hold very dear to my daily path. And I owe much to the diverse teachers who taught me different poses, encouraged me in different ways, used a new metaphor,or a new pattern of movement to strengthen my body and mind. And yet each one—were they to be evaluated based on the California logic that “there have to be bad yoga teachers out there”—would have something that would mark them down.


The diversity I’ve enjoyed would be impossible under a system that evaluates by reducing a teacher to a simple statistical category looking for the worst in order to expunge them, but such is the paradigm we are working toward in public education with the California ruling. Musing on this topic made me get straight-up nerdy, as I found this type of evaluation has a name: “rank and yank.” I won’t bore you with the details, but if you want them, this blog has a thorough statistical and metaphorical analysis.


However discredited, “rank and yank” is the trend in teacher evaluation. Championed at Microsoft, it is the philosophy behind teacher evaluations, and it is responsible for many harms to school culture. It is the reason we have such a bloated, expensive system of standardized testing infecting our schools. And it will be the cause of a reduction of diversity among classrooms as teachers elect not to play to their strengths, but rather to hide their perceived “weaknesses,” often a category created for classification alone. In trying to reduce these idiosyncrasies or “weaknesses” we will only reduce the strength that is created by varied styles of teaching.


It is summer. I don’t want to think too much about school. But as much as I wasn’t liking Ken that sweltering day (don’t worry—he’s a really good teacher, actually), thinking about school gave me a small pearl of wisdom—even if I didn’t want it.


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