8 minute read

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the social nature of wanting to belong to something bigger than yourself as one possible drive for learning tai chi. The social drive is a major aid teachers can rely on to build their base of students. Another one, that we'll discuss here is our habitual drive, i.e. we are creatures of habit. That can be a good thing when it comes to maintaining a student base, but it is also the first major hurdle you have to clear as a teacher when it comes to getting new students.

Habitual Inertia

For some reason, it's easier to see inertia in other people, and attribute it to laziness or stupidity, than it is to appreciate the forces of habit working on ourselves. I've had many conversations with sullen teachers who moan about students not coming to class. Whenever I hear them complain, I always wonder this: "What's getting in the way of you offering classes six days a week? You know, it would be a lot easier for people to come to class if there almost always was a class for them to come to." And of course, these failing teachers throw up a long list of reasons why they can't offer more classes. This is the part that always stumps me: For the most part, the very same reasons they give for not offering more classes are the same reasons that make it hard for people to come to a class when it's only offered once a week.

It's damn hard for people to get out and do things on a regular basis. How many different activities like that do you participate in? Survey 10 friends and ask them. I'm guessing it's not too many.

That's why whenever someone actually walks through the door at Brookline Tai Chi and is ready to try out a class, it's a huge gift. They've overcome so many barriers -- they're breaking their current routine, our schedules match, they've done research and are motivated to try something new. And here's the thing, how many of those steps can I do for them with an advertising campaign? The answer is, approximately half.

See, inertia can go one of two ways. The inertia of your own daily routine can keep you from participating in something new, or it can be the glue that holds together the things you are actively engaged in. From the point of view of running a school, we want to use the glue-side of inertia to keep people engaged, but we also have to be vigilant about finding the cracks in a new student's inertia, and help them shift into new routines and habits. I don't pretend to be an expert at doing this, but I know that there are two sides to this change process, the structural and the inspirational.

The Structural and The Inspirational

The structural and the inspirational support each other. When you come to your first class and feel relaxed and energized after an hour of tai chi, that's inspirational. If there are three more times that week when the class fits your schedule and you know you can come back, that's a structural, systemic fact of how the business runs, and it supports the inspirational.

See, if class met once a week, more often than not, something comes up to break the new pattern you are trying to establish. You have fun on week one, you start to see yourself doing tai chi after a couple of weeks, but then you have to miss a week, and you don't make time to practice, and slowly, the other pulls in your life exert themselves, and your chance to make tai chi a habit slips away. It's not like I see this happen once in a while, I see it happen 30-40% of the time with new students.

As a teacher, you need to find the blend of structures and routines that support the moments of inspiration that you are out to engineer. The most successful teachers I know have this blend working for them. When teachers fail to build a student following, it's often because they don't balance these elements well.

Why a Structuralist Teacher Fails

Structuralist teachers say things like “this week we learn this move and next week we learn that move and in 10 years you will benefit from the practice because Tai Chi is hard”. I hate this approach. It's dry and sounds like “eat your vegetables.” Do you think any of your students who fought through all their habitual inertia want to wind up in your class only to be hit over the head with a boring, drawn-out curriculum that's more lecture than doing? You might get off on that, and I guess your one or two other students will too.

It's not that the Structurists actually want to bore their students into relaxation. It's that they've lost sight of the students through the mountains of information they've combed through, first as a practitioner, then in preparing to be a teacher. They can see a sequence of material, but they can't see the material from the student's point of view.

Structuralists of the more self-absorbed variety thrive around people with similar experience in the practice. When they can talk to someone who is at the same level, they are very clear and compelling. The problem is that they can't see what's going on outside of themselves, in their students, so they fall back on external structure to teach.

Structuralists with less experience face the problem of not being able to motivate or inspire students. They come across as dogmatic and hollow, because they haven't seen far enough down the developmental pathway to come back and tell new students about it. Instead, they rely on the external structure to string people along, because they are also in the early stages of that process.

Where the Inspirationalists Fall Apart

Now, you might think the antidote to the Structuralist is to turn on the charm and engage students in the moment as much as possible. We've seen the all-inspiration, all-the-time trip too, and this fails because students don't have the context to understand the process they are going through.

If this is a forest-for-the-trees problem, the Inspirationalists get students scratching at the bark, feeling it, and experiencing it so much that the students don't even know it's a tree. They just happen upon whatever tree the Inspirationalist feels like exploring that day. I see this tendency in long-time practitioners who have become looser about what they do in their own practice. They forget what they went through to develop their practice, and now they think they can teach people without using any process at all. It just leaves students confused.

The Inspirationalists lose students because they don't provide enough context and a clear structured process for working through the material. I find this is a real shame because all of the good traditions have a clear developmental path. This is what has allowed them to thrive over centuries.

What really gets me about Inspirationalists, though, is that they burn out and fall apart much faster than the Structuralists. They can stoke a lot of excitement in their students in the moment, but they're inconsistent. Maybe the have a good month and they're on a roll, but can you count on them to teach through a full year or even six months? Usually, you can't even get 3-4 times a week out of them. It's a classic loud burst vs. slow boil mentality. To be a successful teacher, and build a stable following of students, you can't be the flash in the pan.

Consistent Inspiration or Inspired Structuralism

So that leaves us somewhere in between. The Structuralists have a steadiness and consistency that makes them reliably available to students. The Inspirationalists create a spark that shows students what's possible. If you really want to build a student base, you've got to work on both levels.

My teaching mentor, Bill Ryan, figured out how to make both of these levels work at the same time. He has an artful blend of structural and inspirational teaching. As Brookline Tai Chi evolved under Bill's guidance, a large, university-like curriculum emerged, but he didn't fall into the Structuralist trap. Instead, every hour of every class was an engineered opportunity to find one-on-one inspirational moments for students. People felt like the practice was tailored to their needs as they received personal corrections. This is how you use structure to set up inspiration.

Bill also used inspiration to infuse structure with meaning. He always provided a narrative for where you were in the developmental process. Working your way through a structured curriculum feels like going on a journey when you use Inspirationalist teaching to tell the a story about the process. Every step along the path becomes a brief scene in a larger adventure. In that way, you can sustain inspired teaching of weeks and months and years. Each hour of class feels like picking up your favorite novel (because the book is about YOU) and diving back into the story. Personal practice becomes writing the next paragraph and over the years you can look back on whole chapters.

In the end, teaching or running a school isn't very different from your own personal practice. Every time you go to practice, you address the particular form of the practice, and the art in your practice is about finding the deeper internal connection alive inside the form. Form without connection is hollow and connection without form is meaningless. Teaching a group for an hour or shepherding a student body through another school year is the same process at the core, just applied to different scales.

(image courtesy of nickweinrauch)