The greatness of a vulnerable teacher
When I was a student in school, and then later in university, I had a very different picture of what makes a great teacher, than the one I have today. I used to truly believe that teachers, lecturers, professors and tutors were infallible in their field. They were the specialists, they knew it all and would be able to answer any question about their field of expertise. I cannot remember any of my professors ever admitting to any weakness or gap in their knowledge, and if they did they must have dressed it up in a way that certainly didn’t show any vulnerability to me. I’m not sure if it was just my perception or if most of the teachers I encountered, particularly at university, conducted themselves to match the picture I had made up in my mind. I come from a rural part in Germany and we grew up with quite old fashioned and traditional values. We were taught to respect “people of standing” and that probably played a part in my previous opinion of teachers of any kind and it was possibly also quite common that teachers back then presented themselves accordingly. Don’t get me wrong, I had some great teachers throughout my education but it is only through my studies of mindfulness and mental health related topics in the past 10-15 years that my perception of what makes a great teacher has shifted considerably.
I remember when we were in university there was the running “joke” that students of psychology are all a bit gaga themselves. Even though this was “only” a mocking generalisation, it was obviously presumptuous, judgemental and discriminating. Luckily my own mental health was ok in my student years, so I never put too much thought into this. Psychology was just a part of my studies and at the time I just saw it as a subject that needed to be covered and ticked off the list.
Fast forward a few years and my mental health started to really deteriorate. I am highly sensitive (HSP) and have Sensory Processing Disorder. Combined with a difficult family history and circumstances, this was the perfect cocktail for “disaster”. I started to have major panic attacks which initially I thought were significant physical health issues such as a heart attack, brain tumour, epilepsy… I could go on, you name it… I had it! At the time there wasn’t the awareness there is today, even though we still have a long way to go, particularly in the area of adequate support systems. For a long time I just kept my issues to myself, there was a big element of shame and fear. People will think I am going crazy, that I can’t be trusted, that I have literally lost my mind. If I admit to being vulnerable and to the fact that I sometimes feel like I’m losing control I could lose everything, in particular my dignity and credibility.
I am a bit of a control freak, particularly concerning my health, so I started researching, reading, studying and after many cul de sacs and episodes of trial and error, I finally found mindfulness meditation. Initially I just dipped in and out, I did some retreats which I loved, partly because here I met people who actually opened up about their struggles. These weren’t “crazy people”, they were parents, nurses, solicitors, teachers (!) etc., well dressed, well spoken people, and it was a revelation. I didn’t think they were losing face or embarrassing themselves, quite the contrary, I thought they were incredibly brave to open up to people they had only met a couple of hours ago. I myself still wasn’t quite there yet though, so I did more research, reading and trying out different approaches and therapies, which all were part of the journey and some are still very helpful to me today.
The more I read and studied about mindfulness and related topics, while also starting to establish a regular practice, the more often I encountered teachers who got where they are today, not by being well studied experts alone, but by overcoming and acknowledging their own struggles often in the form of significant mental health issues. It often transpired that it was only BECAUSE they had to deal with their own bundle of baggage, that they were able to get to the other side with plenty of obstacles along the way. NOTHING has been as powerful and helpful to me as the magnificent vulnerable teachers who opened up their hearts and minds “admitting” to be just as vulnerable and human as the rest of us. They “gave me permission” to first of all admit to myself that I was struggling, but it also made it clear to me that I am ok: I am not crazy, I am not losing my mind, I am not worth any less just because I suffer from mental health issues…I’m obviously leaving out the regular occurrences of the little monsters anxiety and low self-esteem raising their heads still today ;-).
I believe that people who struggle with their mental health have to get out of their (non-existent) comfort zone, their (our) suffering pushes them on in their search for relief, for peace and a better quality of life and their own struggles open their eyes for the suffering of others. It opens them up to become more compassionate and wanting to help others who are finding themselves in a similar situation and they become teachers as a result of their own path and the desire to pass on what they have learned.
I can proudly say that I have come a long way and I comfortably talk about my own mental health issues, some of which are so much easier to live with now through the practice of mindfulness and a generally (mostly) mindful lifestyle. I know from connecting with many mindfulness practitioners and other mental health professionals that, yes… some of us are “Gaga” and to be honest, very proudly so. Nobody, who hasn’t lived through a mental health challenge or has watched a loved one being affected, can ever truly know what it feels like, not just the actual condition but the related feelings of shame, embarrassment, fear, low self-esteem and helplessness.
I recently took part in a course with the wonderful Deirdre Fay. A few weeks later Deirdre was teaching in a retreat in India and she posted regular updates about her experiences. One day she sent a post about a day when she got really triggered and “lost it”, and this is just a small excerpt of what she wrote about it:
“Personally, I hate when I get triggered.
I avoid it like the plague.
But with practice, triggers can open our hearts, to bring compassion and consciousness, integrate us, so we can become more whole.
Even though I know this, and teach it, when I’m in it, it’s the last place I want to be. Maybe you’re like that too?
In the midst of it I was grateful for the years of practice that prepared me to let this experience rise, crest, and fall.”
Again, I was so grateful for her honesty and the reminder that none of us are perfect, no matter how much experience and knowledge we accumulate, there are times when we can be knocked down by a feather. Admitting this is what is powerful, letting others relate and leaving them in the knowledge that that’s just part of being human.
So, thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you amazing, real and “vulnerable” teachers, I couldn’t have come to where I am today without you.
Also available now: Mindful Games for parents and educators.