Great Teachers / Quarterbacks

I got this
I got this

I’ve been meaning to share this New Yorker article for a while. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s study of the near-impossibility of predicting successful NFL quarterbacks, or school teachers. In both these jobs, the professional environment is so intensely unique that “almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.” I thought a few points were really relevant to yoga teachers, too.

A good teacher is more important than a small class.

…the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year… Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile.

Obviously yoga teachers don’t have a curriculum they’re trying to get through, but do have a ton of anatomy, kinesiology, and philosophy to get across. And since yoga is a hands-on discipline, a large class can feel very diluted. But some teachers can lead workshops with 50, 100, 200 students that are amazing learning experiences. And some tiny classes can still leave you feeling ignored.

Plans are great; generating enthusiasm is greater.

Among [the qualities of good teacher-student interaction] is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom.

Yoga classrooms are full of willing participants — after all, they showed up for class voluntarily — but it’s another thing to get or keep them fully engaged. Let’s face it: we often go to class because we think we should, bring our own internal narratives, let our minds wander, or just get bored. And if we’re not focused, we’re not really doing yoga. It’s a mind-body practice, not just body. So, as an asana teacher, I think it’s better to follow your gut feelings on the needs of the class that day, or moment, than to nail students to your plan. It’s such a subtle sensitivity to know when to pick up the pace, or throw in a Child’s Pose, or gently lay a hand, to keep that mind-body union going.

Feedback is golden.

Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success…

Then there was the superstar… Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

Feedback is candy, a main motive for coming to class. We could all get more orderly, detailed information by reading books and following DVDs, but nothing comes close to the “aha!” moment of a great adjustment. Like, “Oh, THAT’S vertical.” And I think that people crave a human touch. So I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when I am in a group class, seeing other students spacing out in all sorts of dysfunctional or even dangerous alignments, and the teacher just stays up front demonstrating poses. In my experience, when I kept wanting to demo, it meant I wasn’t keeping up my own practice. You want a teacher who practices AT LEAST five times a week — they can feel the poses in their own bodies just by seeing you do them, and then are free to work the room much more. Yes, group classes are by default low on feedback, but I do think that a teacher is responsible for keeping an eye on the class, literally. Unless they are great in what the researchers called “with-it-ness” — the quality of having eyes in the back of your head. Or like, a third one in your forehead.

Certifications are not everything.

Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans. [Referring to quarterback Tim Couch, who had perfect accuracy, but flopped in the NFL.]

…[Studies] suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.

…given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher.

I am all for Yoga Alliance and their certification system — my yoga teacher training was one of the most valuable experiences of my life — but it only really tells you “this person has reviewed the basics.” Apparently a lot of senior teachers in California don’t even go through their certification process. I heard a homeopathic doctor / yoga teacher say, “I dissected cadavers, went to med school, now I have to get your little stamp on anatomy?” There are a lot of different ways that people can get the wisdom to become a good teacher, and there are a lot of certificate programs that are not much more than puppy mills.

I think the responsibility really rests with studios to vet and keep checking on their teachers. I wish there were more qualitative check-ins, not just “do they draw a lot of students?” — cause classes often fill up because of their convenience, not their supreme quality. Maybe it’s a supply-and-demand thing — there just aren’t enough good teachers out there — but there were 15,000 registered yoga teachers in NYC as of 2006, so I think it’s just hard to find the gems.

Hope this will enliven any Super Bowl viewing you might be doing today! For more information on the characteristics of good teachers, look up Bob Pianta’s CLASS evaluation system.