How To Best Use Your Teacher


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The first group we'll call hand-holders, and the second group we'll call self-guided.

Take My Hand

The hand-holders want their teacher to do all the hard work for them. They want to show up to lessons, soak up knowledge or skills, and go home, leaving it all behind them until their next lesson. They want the teacher to schedule their time together, and they want to make as few indpendant decisions as possible; after all, if they are paying a good teacher, why should they have to make their own assessments of what is in their best interests?

There is really nothing wrong with this attitude. Some of the best athletes in the world are hand-holders. They have great coaches, who leave nothing to chance or personal whim, and who create ironclad training programs that work. They know what is best for the trainee, and they set the schedule. Of course, to earn yourself such an involved teacher, you have to have demonstrated some dedication earlier in your training career.

This distinction between hand-holders and self-guided isn't limited to sports and fitness however. It is possible to be a hand-holders in your professional life instead. Professional hand-holders prefer to work for a boss who sets their schedule, determines their pay, and guarantees a steady (if meager) income. Instead of learning how to run a business and make their own financial and economic assessments, they let someone else do that for them. They prefer to just show up, do what they are told, and hope that results accrue.

In both cases - fitness and career - hand-holders eventually meet with frustration. They are doing what they are told, but they are not seeing results. Naturally, they blame their trainer/teacher/job and leave to find another one that will get them to their goals, never thinking to change their own behavior or outlook.

But the real problem is that their heart was never in it. They were hoping that their teacher would put in all the heart. But the truth is that no teacher can care more about your goals than you do (or should). You are fully invested in your health, or your education, or your financial security. Your trainer, who probably wants to do their best to help you achieve your goals, by definition cannot care as much as you do. If you're trying to lose weight, your trainer isn't the one feeling the frustration and negative self-image and apprehension at the beach. If you're trying to learn a new skill for your job, it is not your teacher who just can't stand their current position and desperately wants to make life more rewarding. If you're feeling financial insecurity, it is not your boss or your job that worries about paying your electric bill each month, or feeding your kids. That's all you.

So remember, you are supposed to care more than your teacher.

Knowing that, let's look at the other group of folk and how they utilize their teachers.

Show Me the Way

The self-guided know where they want to end up, and they have a general idea of how to get there. More importantly, they are willing to try a variety of means and methods to achieve their goals, one of which (but only one) is to ask for the services of a good teacher.

Basically, the self-guided are comfortable practicing their skills on their own, or putting in as much work as they feel is needed. They usually start down a path on their own, without any instruction or guidance, and then only once they meet with a roadblock do they seek out the help of a teacher who knows the best way forward. They learn what they need, and then set off again.

Clearly, the Warrior Spirit lies in the latter category of people. With big goals and aspirations, you can't rely on someone else to get you where you need to go, though you should certainly make use of the best teachers and resources out there when appropriate.

This doesn't mean that self-guided don't stick with their teachers over time. It just means they use their teachers as a tool. For example, my Kenpo instructor holds two classes a week, and for most of his students, this is the only time they practice or review their techniques. I hardly show up to any of the classes, but make better progress because I pester him for private lessons and practice every single day. I expect I'll learn from him for a good long time, but until I'm ready for new knowledge, I don't waste his or my time. So even though my total instruction time might be less, I have taken responsibility for my own progress, and since I have access to myself all week, that means I can make progress whenever I want, without having to wait on my teacher.

In the same way you might adopt a learning strategy to memorize vocabulary words (flashcards, synonyms, etc.), you can add some personal instruction to your repertoire when trying to learn a skill. But whatever it is you want to achieve, you're going to have to be the one who achieves it. You will have to question your methods, determine how often you need to see your teacher, and when you can practice as well on your own. If you're trying to get into shape, you can (and should) incorporate exercise into your daily life outside of the gym, based on what you enjoy. If you are trying to learn a new skill, you should be reading outside of class (or think of class as a complement to your larger study goals). If you want to be financially independent, you will have to learn how to run a business, how to read economic indicators, and how to value your own time by your own standards.

If you want true mastery, true freedom, you must do these things for yourself. Even the best teacher cannot make the important decisions for you, nor can the best teacher imbue your practice with the degree of real passion and investment that you can.

So if you're in the process of some learning or growing endeavor (we all are), ask yourself if you are taking responsibility for your own progress, or if you're leaving that up to someone else.

In summary, five pointers on how best to use your teacher:

  1. Practice on your own: It takes more than a one-hour session to learn a new skill. Take what your teacher has taught you and make it your own through practice.
  2. Take ownership of your learning: You decide how often you need to see your teacher, in order to supplement your own practice. On the same note, you decide (honestly) how often you need to practice on your own. It is your job to figure out how significant your teacher is in your learning.
  3. Learn How to Learn: You need to be open to new ideas, cues, and instructions. While a good teacher knows how to communicate, you'll make much faster progress (and save valuable time and money) if you can read between the lines and quickly understand what your teacher is trying to say.
  4. Take steps on your own: You need to make your own mistakes in order to learn, and by either starting or moving forward on your own, you make a personal investment in your learning. It becomes something you're creating for yourself, by your own standards. Go at your own pace, but be aware when you need to double check with a good teacher to make sure you're not developing bad habits.
  5. Make learning a partnership: Whatever skills you develop will be a synthesis of your own initiative and background and the methods your teacher uses to help you along. You should treat your teacher as a partner in learning; you both have significant input, so challenge, question, and share ideas. Don't simply rely on the teacher to make all the decisions for you, because even with the best intentions, they cannot read your mind.

To my clients: yes I care and I want you to meet your goals, and I actually get really worked up about figuring out how best to get you there (despite my better judgement, since I know I can only do so much), and I will show up whenever you want to train, and I'll answer all the questions you can ask me, and I'll even give you things to do on your own outside of the gym. But you still have to take the initiative and show up/get in touch/do the program.

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