My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.
Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification. This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques. I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.
They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction. I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones. He responded, “Okay, light to dark.” This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes. “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”
The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her. She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection. She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders. I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better. She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”
I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration: 1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class. When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears. When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control. When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.
I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth. I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.
A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress. If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions. Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail. He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.
And that sounds like a good goal to me. If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.” And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”