This is the second in my series of essays on Intuitive Teaching. Please see my first here.
My first semester teaching at the community college, I had a student we’ll call Alice. Alice was a “non-traditional” student in her sixties. The first day of class, as the students were introducing themselves, a nervous and timid Alice told us, “I spent the last thirty years working in a factory. I put my five children through college and now I figure it’s my turn!” Despite her nervousness, Alice was a stellar student throughout the semester. Her work was bright and impeccable. She contributed a wise and thoughtful perspective to all of our class discussions. The other students looked up to, and even liked, Alice. She was warm, smart, and held herself to high standards.
Alice brought to college a quality that we don’t often see in the “traditional” student: a strong desire to be there that presented itself as gratitude for the opportunity, which, in turn, translated into genuine enjoyment on her part. While the other students, just about a quarter of her age–even the highly motivated ones–seemed to take class for granted, I could sense that it was a place Alice was glad to be.
The final weeks of the semester brought the required and dreaded research presentations. While every other student was content to stand at the front of the classroom and deliver their project in jeans and hooded sweatshirts, nervously shifting their weight back and forth in worn and dirty sneakers, Alice dressed up when it was her turn to present that Friday. She wore a floral print dress and even added a touch of lipstick, which I knew was not routine. She approached the podium with her speech placed neatly in a folder. Suffering from obvious stage fright, Alice spoke softly and uncertainly. She was prepared but terrified. I could feel everyone in the room growing nervous for her. The dance teacher in me knew how painful it is for an audience to see an uncomfortable performer take the stage.
Finally, she choked and gave up. With a sudden rise in volume, she declared, “I’m sorry; I can’t do this. Could I please try again on Monday?”
When a student as responsible and mature as Alice turns to you with desperate eyes and asks for help, the response is obvious. I was about to reassure her by kindly saying “Of course you can.” But before that warm response could get out, I felt–uncontrollably and out of nowhere–my dance teacher personality assert itself instead.
“No. Keep going,” I found myself saying. I wasn’t rude or even curt. Simply neutral and solid. Alice seemed surprised for a moment, nodded her head, found her place, and finished her presentation.
The other students cheered with sincere jubilation. She breathed a huge sigh of relief and grinned. “Excellently done, Alice,” I said with a wide smile, applauding. “Have a great weekend everyone!”
Sunday night, I received an email from Alice. Her precise words will never fade in my memory: “Thank you for not letting me back out. It would have ruined my weekend because I would have felt like a failure and I would have been too terrified to try it again. You know what you are doing, Professor Katen. Thank you.” She returned to class on Monday relaxed and relieved, glowing with a new self-confidence.
I was touched by her email, but Alice was wrong: I didn’t know what I was doing! I felt as though I couldn’t accept credit for handling the situation as I did. It was as if someone else stepped in for me. My first instinct was, in fact, to give Alice what she was asking for and to inadvertently ruin her weekend and add to her trauma. It didn’t feel like me who knew better.
Where did that powerful second instinct–the one that said “No. Keeping going”–come from?
I understand now that it was my teacher’s intuition.
Teacher’s intuition is a fully formed, fully informed, wise persona that lives latently within us. It grows quietly, completely present for all of our teaching experiences. It’s more observant than our conscious self. It sees, hears, and knows everything that we do, and yet it processes those sensory inputs more profoundly than we could ever be aware of. It watches, judges, assesses, creates, and builds. But, often, we never give it a chance to be heard. It seems to assert itself only when we are on the verge of making a critical mistake. Or in moments where we step aside and let it step in.
I know, because of this experience with Alice, that inner teacher’s intuition is always there. And it always knows best. I would venture to say that it knows everything. Or at least close to it. But we don’t need to wait for critical moments to benefit from its assistance. We can invite our inner teacher’s intuition to step into the spotlight by teaching our conscious self (our ego) to be humble, to admit it’s flaws and limitations, and to step aside.
As when we invite someone into our home by opening the door and standing aside to clear the way, we must do the same for our teacher’s intuition. Clear the way. Or, perhaps more accurately, we have to get out of our own way.
I’ve shared this anecdote of one of my most profoundly rewarding teaching moments (indeed, it was a teaching and learning moment for me!) as one illustration of the power of our inner teacher’s intuition.
I look forward to exploring other aspects, instances, and strategies with you in the near future. But I firmly believe in the transcendent and undeniable existence and brilliance of Intuitive Teaching.