The ideal teacher

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

Benjamin Franklin

What qualities do you seek in a teacher?

This question arose at a recent yoga workshop that I attended. My classmates (predominantly beginners, although this was supposedly a teacher-training workshop) spouted off the obvious: Sincerity. Empathy. Passion.

I held my tongue. I needed gather my thoughts. To me, it was a complex question that could hardly be summed in catchwords. Even if I agreed about a particular quality, I seemed to diverge regarding the way it is best expressed.

Take passion. A lot of people try to display their passion for yoga out loud. Newbie teachers often gush: “I love yoga!” “Yoga changed my life.” “It’s great for everybody.” Enthusiasm can be contagious but it has to be real.

To me, passion need not be verbalized. It’s clear when someone is passionate about an endeavor (or a person). World-class athletes need not profess love for their chosen sport. It’s obvious by their work ethic, physical condition, mental focus, and pure achievement. Couples in love need not announce to the world, “I’m crazy about him/her” or “my s*x life is fantastic.” It’s obvious by their dynamic, by the look in their eyes (and why do folks feel compelled to announce everything to the world anyway!).

So, as my classmates were agreeing that a teacher should be passionate (and display that quality to her students), I was thinking, “No, no, get a grip. Tone it down.”

On my list:

  • A teacher with high standards: I am drawn more to strict teachers than to lenient ones. They are generally more observant and critical. (Criticism need not be pejorative but, rather, careful and thoughtful assessment.) They raise the bar for themselves and for others. And the best can do so with decency and humor (plus the two other qualities mentioned by my classmates, sincerity and empathy).
  • A teacher who doesn’t try to please others: In the USA, land of ready smiles and open arms, teachers are typically very friendly with students. Fine if its genuine. But I can’t stand trite pleasantries or the “yoga voice.” Also, teachers should know their role as teachers; I prefer my teachers to maintain a degree of professionalism, even a bit of reserve. Teachers who are too eager to befriend their students might be feeding their own egos and agendas. To me, parents should know their role as parents, coaches as coaches … and teachers as teachers.
  • A teacher who pays attention to each student: Maybe I’m spoiled by Iyengar yoga, in which individual adjustments are integral. I expect teachers to know students’ names and to correct improper form. But I’ve dropped in on large vinyasa classes where total beginners are flailing about (think wayward knees, banana-shaped handstands, and accidental balletic arms and turnout) yet ignored. Unthinkable in an Iyengar class!

As for personality and verbal style, I cannot pinpoint any one type that appeals to me. Standout teachers might be intellectual, cheerful, austere, dramatic, modest, quirky… it’s not one or another individual characteristic but the gestalt of a person. It’s impossible to articulate why one teacher resonates with you while another is merely passable. Consciously or not, we all define our own X factor.

What about you? What appeals to you about your teachers?

8 thoughts on “The ideal teacher

  1. what I find interesting is that you didn’t share these thoughts with the other teachers there… but maybe you needed more time for it to percolate?
    I most certainly agree that a few catchphrases just doesn’t cut it for myself with describing a teacher. I spent two years practicing alone after having several traumatic yoga teacher experiences in a row, and when I found a class with an instructor that I LOVED… i cried during savasana (however, yoga always forces me to work through my emotional crap).

    When I pay big prices for a yoga class I would like to having one-one guidance (like you said) and in a kind and open manner. I want the class to be enjoyable and sincere. I want to learn and grow in my practice. I like knowing modifications and being in an environment that is not competitive, and open to sub-steps and super-steps depending on the students’ needs.

    I’ve been finding that lots of yogis can get teacher training, but only some are great ‘teachers’- completely separate from being a great ‘yogi’. 🙂

    (and on an Iyengar plug, I ADORE my blocks). 🙂


    1. Good question. I did need time to ruminate. The question is ultimately unanswerable, akin to asking why you’re romantically attracted to one person and not another (not that I want to analogize between mentors and romantic partners too closely or at all!). I updated my post per your comment. Many thanks.

  2. Being an Iyengar teacher myself, I appreciate your piece. Just as one human cannot be compared to another, neither can teachers. We are all, innately, different.It is in our differences that we shine. That said, there are certain “qualities” that Iyengar teachers posses more readily, than perhaps yoga instructors of a different lineage.
    In our rigid and very lengthy teacher training, we are taught to be a “teacher” and not a “friend” as your piece suggests. We are not to use soft, stroking words or that “voice” (as you wrote), but rather exert commitment and confidence.We are not working to stroke anyone’s ego, befriend anyone, counsel anyone, or handle emotional disclosure (though we can and will if necessary).We are, above all, yoga teachers.
    This kind of teaching is not what most people out there are looking for. We don’t offer classes that you can drop-in to at your leisure, listen to some groovy tunes and feel good for 60 minutes. We want to wake you up, and shake you up, and remind you to get really, really conscious and very real.Not everyone is up for that.

  3. All of the qualities you mention make my list, too, but I would add one more key ingredient… the one that–for most of us, teacher or student–is quite possibly the hardest to come by: humility.

    My favorite teachers tend to be those who don’t pretend to know everything. Those who welcome questions as an opportunity to enrich someone else’s practice, not stroke their own ego. Those who actively and eagerly continue to learn and maintain strong personal practices. Those who actually mean it when they say “namaste” (please god, not in the “yoga voice”). And those who would shudder at the notion of anyone ever calling them “guru”.

    “When huge trees are uprooted by a cyclone and tall buildings collapse, the grass remains unscathed – such is the greatness of humility.” — Amma

  4. I agree that it’s hard to define what makes ‘a perfect teacher’ because it’s a very personal connection that you feel with a good yoga teacher.

    I have felt a warmth from my favourite yoga teachers, they have inspired me in a way that I can’t really explain…

    Interesting topic as I believe that the key to loving yoga is finding the right teacher.

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