The Danger of “Teacher Proof Students”

I was first introduced to the term “teacher proof students” over dinner at my uncle Jonah and aunt Susan’s house. Susan was talking about high school students who were going to do well no matter what kind of teacher with which they were stuck.

She smiled across the table at my sister, Hana. “You were a teacher proof student.”

Now that I’m a teacher myself (though I teach yoga rather than English) the idea of teacher proof students makes a frightening amount of sense. The idea is scary because it’s so seductive and because it’s at least partially true.

There are students (usually fairly advanced students) who are going to have a good practice no matter what I do. I know I’ve had great practices even when the teacher’s dialogue was faltering and unclear.

There are also students who aren’t  going to have a good practice no matter what I do. While this is an extremely frustrating experience as a teacher, ultimately, there’s not a lot you can do about it. People are going to get out of a practice what they put into it. You can’t make someone take a class more seriously, so there’s no reason to feel like a failure as a teacher when it happens.

Both of these things are true, yet, maybe you can already see the potential problem.

If you fully accept the idea that your students experience doesn’t depend on what you do as a teacher, it’s all too easy to become complacent.

You may begin to neglect the advanced students. You might think, “they’re doing their own thing,” and so focus all of your attention on the struggling students. To a certain extent, this is appropriate. Of course you should pay more attention to students who are newer and need the attention more. However, even advanced students sometimes slip out of safe postures so it’s important that you’re aware of them. It’s also important to give praise when an advanced student (or any student, really) does something well, which you won’t be able to do if you’re only looking at the newbies.

Just as you may begin to neglect the advanced students, if you fully accept that you can’t control a student’s experience, you may miss an opportunity to help a struggling student. Maybe it just looks like the student isn’t trying, but they just don’t know that  their lunge is supposed to be longer. Maybe they have an injury. Maybe they’re just having a bad day, but you checking in with a them (a quick little, “are you alright there?”) could bring them back to the reality of their practice. You won’t know unless you try.

So, what’s the solution?

Try to accept that it both is true and it isn’t true.

Just like when we practice Warrior II and we try to both open our hips to the side of the room and keep our knee aligned over our ankle (two completely opposite intentions in the body), we must both allow our students to have their own practice – to listen to their own inner teacher – and be there as the teacher in the room. Also just like the struggle between opening the hips vs. keeping the knee alignment, we must strive for both but prioritize one. As the knee must always “win” to keep it safe within the posture, so too must our responsibility as teachers “win” over the need to step back.

Our responsibility “wins” by keeping our students safe. Even if that means reminding a student to do the same thing several times, or we give encouragement even when we’re feeling discouraged.

We can still do our jobs even when we allow our students to be their own teachers and listen to their bodies.

Again, just like practice, sometimes I’m great at this balancing act, and sometimes I err to one side or the other. The important thing is to reflect, re-calibrate, and keep going.

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  1. Good point, Zac. You are exactly right in concluding that as the teacher, you need to trust your student’s own process & learning style. That even as your student fails or makes mistakes, you have to let go & let them have their own experience, that some students want your intimate involvement in every stretch, pose, & muscle alignment, while. Others hope you never even notice them. The idea that some are ‘teacher proof,” I would remind you, is very cynical & dismisses the efforts a teacher does make in the pursuit of a student’s education. That said, as a sheer force of nature, Hana managed to succeed with straight As & one B in her years @ high school, whether she benefited fromor survived the efforts of her teachers. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit, but we also learn @ a different pace, & sometimes a lesson will kick in after one leaves the classroom/studio. This is the effect of a good teacher too. I’m sure your students are very grateful to have you as their teacher.

    • The Ink Slinger says:

      Thanks for your comment Susan! You’re right to remind me that “teacher proof students” is cynical, but there’s a tendency among yoga teachers to abdicate responsibility for their classes. When talking with other teachers about mistakes I felt I’d made in a class, my concerns have been dismissed because they said it was the student’s responsibility to “listen to their body.” Of course that’s true to some extent, I just felt there was something to add to the other side of the discussion. Thank you again for reading my blog and giving me feedback 🙂

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