Jennifer Louden is one of my favorite personal growth teachers. The best-selling author of six books, Jen's work is soulful, courageous, and wise. Recently, Jen has embarked on an important new project that she calls "Savor and Serve." Savor and Serve is an exploration into how we can dedicate ourselves to serving the world while also savoring life.
One of the ways she's working on this mission of supporting others in service is through Teach Now, an online course she co-created with Michelle Lisenbury Christensen. Teach Now is about teaching -- but not just for professional educators. It's about how all of us can claim our role as teachers more fully and more confidently, and share our knowledge with those who need it.
I recently interviewed Jen, and we discussed why we need teachers now more than ever, how we can overcome self-doubt in our teaching, what qualifies us as "ready to teach," and much more.
When we hear the word "teacher," many of us think of professional, full-time educators -- like kindergarten teachers or the high school math teachers. You embrace a much more expansive definition. Who do you include in the tribe of teachers?
JL: My friend and co-creator of Teach Now Michele Lisenbury Christensen came up with this great definition: 'A teacher is anybody who shares ideas, energy, information with others for the sake of serving.' I love love love this.
The obvious truth is the rate of complexity and change in our lives is requiring us to be students far more than even before -- as in daily. Therefore, life is also calling many of us to be teachers -- to share what we have learned, and are learning.
When you add the need to change the world, if we're going to get to hang around as a species, you really see the call to teach. If you know how to make good compost or grow veggies in your front yard or get along with people who are 'different,' I need to learn from you. Or if you know how to use Facebook, I need to learn from you.
It's vital that we have a new vision of teaching and learning, one that knows no boundaries and is deeply connected with our hearts as well as our minds.
I'm so struck by your insight that we need to learn more than ever before, and that there is therefore a unique need for teaching during our era. So many of us feel called to teach something -- but we let self-doubt and insecurity get the best of us. How can we overcome that and actually start teaching?
JL: Accept that you will never know everything about your subject or everything your students need to know. Embrace the words "I don't know" as your favorite.
Consider that the conversation that arises with your students, the space where you come together, is where the real learning happens. Concentrate on being someone who can be in that conversation, show up honestly, and share what you know without attachment to your students getting it.
Accept that you will very rarely teach the way or what you imagine -- this is the creative gap we all have to live in. You see yourself sharing your information so perfectly...and then you teach...and things never go the way you planned. That simple gap can make people think 'I'm not ready.' Not so!
Instead, have mercy with yourself, and then look for simple ways to close the gap but don't think that means it won't happen again! It will, just in other places or ways.
Finally, no one else can give you permission to teach but yourself. No one. I've worked with people who have been ordained by spiritual masters, people who have multiple Ph.D's, people who can spout all the Latin names of plants, and they still don't think they are ready to teach. They weren't until they accepted the responsibility to teach, and gave themselves the inner authority. You can't wait for someone else to tap you on the shoulder. Even if they do, you won't believe them. It is, once again, like all else in life, an inside job.
Your concept of "the gap" is so powerful -- that our job as teachers is not to get it all right but to be willing to stand in the gap between who we are as teachers and who we aspire to be. Can you say more about "the gap?"
JL: I said a little bit before and I'll add what the wonderful teacher of teachers Parker Palmer says in The Courage to Teach 'the courage to teach is the courage to keep one's heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, requires.'
The gap for me is keeping my heart open...how I do and how I don't. For example, I could be teaching a retreat and become afraid that people aren't going to get what they need. I can, in the moment, that's the key, go into trying to control the teaching experience to 'produce' those results (gag) or I can stop, breath, ground my body, and open my heart to the students, look at them, and see what they need, either by asking them or simply checking in myself, 'What needs to be offered now?'
That is being in the gap. It's about experiencing the groundlessness of the teaching moment instead of hiding in self-doubt or hardening yourself by being a know-it-all or sticking to your material. It's terrifying and so wonderful.
So if we are called to teach even when we aren't the teachers we want to be yet, when teaching feels groundless and even scary, how can an aspiring teacher know if they are ready to teach?
JL: Do you find yourself teaching in line at the bank, at parties, in conversation with your best friend? Do you find yourself looping around learning yet one more thing about your subject because you can't help yourself? Do you have a hard, or impossible, time not sharing what you know? Good signs.
Can you put yourself in your students' shoes with their concerns and fears? All students are afraid to fail, to look dumb, to not know. Can you create an environment where they feel a bit less, or a lot less, afraid? That is the most crucial frame for teaching -- no learning can happen without that. If you are too afraid of what you don't know to do that, you aren't ready.
Will you regret not sharing what you know if you died tomorrow? If the answer is yes, then what else do you feel you need to know to get started? Hint: probably nothing. Make a list of what you feel you need to know to get started, and then share it with a friend. Does he or she agree?
Finally, do you know enough to do no harm? Are you teaching something that, without proper grounding, context, or support, could hurt people or foster ignorance? Most people who fall into this category would either not ask 'Am I ready?' nor read this last section, so you are probably okay but ask yourself anyway.
Mostly, ready is an inner state of self-trust and not an absence of doubt or fear. Remember that.
You also speak a lot about one's "lineage" as a teacher. "Lineage" was a word I never thought much about until I hear you speaking about it. In your view, what is included in a teacher's lineage, and how should we be using that lineage?
JL: People who have a spiritual or intellectual tradition see themselves as having a line of teachers behind them whom they are learning from, leaning on. In many Buddhist traditions, for example, that lineage is unbroken. Your teacher had a teacher who had a teacher...It gives you a real sense of something to stand upon -- you aren't in it alone.
Since I don't teach a particular tradition, I always thought I didn't have a lineage. That made me feel very flimsy. But when we taught Teach Now, we played with an exercise for everybody to find their lineage -- who have they learned from, been shaped by, depended upon? That was so empowering for me.
When you see whose shoulders you stand on, and you allow yourself to humbly acknowledge that you did not spring fully formed as a teacher from thin air or that you have to hide your influences because you are not worthy, you gain tremendous dignity and strength as a teacher. It's also a wonderful place to receive inspiration -- you can have imaginary conversations about what your teachers would have you teach or how; problem solve; ask for blessings. You can get ideas for additional learning experiences. You feel loved.
You are a beloved teacher and retreat leader. What are a few of the tools or ideas that have most helped you as a teacher?
JL: I don't think of myself as beloved, more like just another bozo on the bus, to quote activist and clown Wavy Gravy, who is driven to share what she learns.
That is why my biggest teaching tool is creating safety. I'm afraid too of being a bozo, but I am so I want everybody else to feel safe being a bozo! Permission is my biggest gift as a teacher, based on acceptance of my very flawed humanity.
Another one is giving people things to do. I am a big wiggle worm and cannot stand to sit still. One year at the writer's retreat I lead, some of the gals lampooned me and it was hysterical to watch how often I fidgeted. I include movement and body based learning. Now that makes some people super uncomfortable and it doesn't always work, and sometimes, it's the most powerful thing that happens in an entire retreat.
Last vital tool for me: long ago, a friend in Santa Barbara saw me speak and told me afterwards how useful it was if people had a chance to share their takeaways, how they were affected. I had been afraid to do that because I was afraid of being connected to the audience, vulnerable, and also that there were not any takeaways! She helped me learn that it's essential that students get to give back to the teacher in some way, to close the loop. It's not a sign of arrogance on our part as in 'Tell me how you love me!' but a way for participants to grasp their learning and to reflect their gratitude.
Why did you want to create the Teach Now course?
JL: Three reasons: a dear friend was finally accepting the call to teach. I saw him as one of my teachers and I was amazed he didn't see himself that way. So I thought, 'How many people like him need help to step into teaching' I do so love to help.
Then there is the essential truth I spent far too much of the last 20 years suffering as teacher. Thinking I was alone in my suffering and not knowing there was help available. I wanted to draw some of that help together, and give people permission to link their inner life their teaching life, because that is where the juice is -- not in technique. Finally, I know teaching can help save the world -- from how to cook greens, to how to protest big US banks, to how to parent. So I'm all for helping teachers teach!