Classes without Scaffolding

I went to a yoga class the other day and quickly remembered why I had stopped going to yoga classes. All of the problems that plaque English classes were there in full force.

The teacher was amazing at yoga; he was strong, supple and eye candy for the girls in the group. Unfortunately, none of these is particularly relevant to teaching a good class.

He blew through a bunch of rather difficult asanas explaining what he did as he did it. He never explained how he did it. Not a single student in the group did all of the asanas as demonstrated. One guy was able to get pretty close while the rest of us just flopped around like dead fish. The fact is, this can actually be dangerous and is almost a surefire way to injure yourself. The now (in)famous How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body piece from the NYT is worth a read.

Here’s what went wrong

Simply being an expert doesn’t make you a teacher. Watching someone do yoga all day isn’t going to help anybody get better at yoga. Likewise, simply listening to or being exposed to a native English speaker isn’t going to magically make somebody speak English. It can easily fool the brain into thinking that you have actually learned something, though.

A teacher has to be aware of their students. If you are going too fast or too slow, change your plans.

Demonstrating something and saying what you are doing doesn’t show how to get to that point. Learning how to do a complex asana requires mastering several simpler asanas. Go over these, give alternatives poses and discuss how to actually do them.

Unfortunately, many English programs suffer from these same problems. The native-speaking teacher is a model to be admired like some sort of talisman.

If you feel good after an hour of watching somebody else do yoga while you flop around on the floor, why not stare at a native English speaker for an hour without truly studying?

The way out

Let’s stop wanting a perfect teacher. A yogi that can sit on their head while in the lotus pose doesn’t offer you useful skills for your own practice. Instead, look for a good teacher. Can the teacher explain intermediate to advanced stuff in simple terms? What progressions can the teacher offer to an intermediate student looking to use an advanced structure?

A native speaker might not be the best choice. If you were to ask me who the five best teachers are in Ukraine, I’d name five Ukrainians. In the same way, I don’t need a yoga teacher who could be on a magazine cover.

The primary skill of a teacher is to deconstruct and explain. If I make a “th” sound a hundred times and each time say that I’m making a “th” sound, nobody is going to benefit. Instead, show the proper tongue position and go from there.

When you end up in a yoga or language class and see this going on, just get up and leave. My goal with yoga is to relax and stretch a little. I realized I wasn’t going to do that with this class, so why stay? It’s not better than nothing; it’s distracting me from attaining that which I had set up to do.