Zen and the Art of Teaching

by talkbackty on Sep 9, 2011

This is the beginning of a big idea. I wanted to get my thoughts out now because they are still fresh in my mind, but tune in often to see me continue this series.

It all starts with my post on The Energy of People. Which was influenced by Jay Mohr (@jaymohr37). The basic concept is that people all give off certain energies and it is the job of the teacher (or in Mohr's case, comedian) to manipulate those energies to achieve the desired result.

"...and that's why the chicken crossed the road."
As I go about teaching it becomes more and more apparent to me how similar teaching is to stand-up comedy. I perform a routine every day. Sometimes it's four 10 minute bits with 5 minute breaks in between. Sometimes it's an hour and half, non-stop, Dave Chappelle at the laugh factory, crazy train. I stand up and do these routines 3 times a day, twice a week, and then I write new material for the next two days. Then the performance starts all over again. (To explain, our school uses an A/B schedule. I teach 6 classes, 3 each day. Hope that makes sense.)

Ultimately, it's all about those energies my students are giving off, and how I manipulate that energy. How I use it to make them laugh, to focus them, to quiet them, to get them to share something. But what is the most important part of this energy-manipulating equation?


It starts with knowing myself. Knowing my own energy. Knowing who I am. In order to feel this energy and take it in, change it, then deliver it back out- I need to be at peace. I need to be zen.

Athletes call this being in the zone. Ken Robinson calls this the element. The book I'm stealing this blog entry's title from, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, calls it Quality. Both are talking about the same thing; being in an environment where you are comfortable, knowledgeable and capable of producing results. When you get to point where "work" doesn't feel like work. It feels like creation.

I'm not perfect yet. Far from it, but I love going into the classroom to work towards perfection. There are moments where I tap into it. Great, wonderful, perfect moments that artists always hope for when things just flow.

One of these moments happened today. It was my second day of giving the same lesson (remember, A/B schedule), and so I was already feeling like a comedian who had worked out his material the day before. The lesson was regarding the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. The textbook mentioned that he is often remembered for failing to find the fountain of youth. Near the end of class a student raised their hand and asked, "Why would someone be remembered for failing to find something?"

There's a bunch of different possible responses to that. It's Friday, with 5 minutes left in class. I could blow it off- "Because the text wanted something interesting to write about." I could dismiss it- "I don't really know."

Perhaps I would have given one of those answers if I had been feeling anything other than perfectly calm, in my element, zen.

I looked to my right, stared at a student for a few seconds who was talking to a neighbor until he quieted down. Now the class is silent, all attention on me. It's my audience to win over or lose completely.

"Why would someone be remembered for failing to find something? Good question. No, great question... I think it is because of the time period that had come just before. These explorers are sailing only a few generations after the dark ages; a time of decay and disgust. A time when there was no growth in culture or art or science. A time where someone was born, lived and died without ever traveling more than 25 miles from their home."

"Then come these explorers. They tell stories of lands so vast it fills the whole skyline from end to end. They tell stories of strange new people, and of riches so plentiful they make kings and queen look like beggars. They tell stories of cities made of gold and mythical fountains that can let you live forever."

"I think we remember these people because it doesn't always matter if you find what you are looking for. After times of darkness, sometimes the most important thing you can do is tell someone a story that gives them hope."

Bell rings. Class dismissed.

In a world where we are so often told that work is just a device to make us money; I think it is important to find something that you can do in your own element.

I think I've found mine, and I know that every day it's exciting to go back in and find myself in that zone of peace and serenity where words, and concepts, and laughter all flow effortlessly.

It's either that, or I'll try my hand at stand up comedy.

Thanks for reading. Love you all.

This is the first post in my Zen and the Art of Teaching series. Check out the second post here.