From Where I Stand. – in the classroom with Michelle Vassallo
I’ve got a confession to make, every time I walk into a new class room I feel nervous. There, I’ve said it. Not the breath crushing type, that was years ago, but still a tingle of what I call ‘nerves’.
The reality is that even though I have presented this work hundreds of times I still feel that thrill of entering a new teaching space for the first time. The thrill of knowing that in a few short moments I will be meeting those people that have chosen to spend the next days or weeks with me. I hope that feeling never goes away. I hope I never get so blasé about the delivery of teaching material that I forget what it is like to want to be on my ‘A’ game every time I step in front of a class of willing therapists.
If I was, to sum up how I approach the teaching space, I would say that I take it very seriously but that I also get excited anticipating the fun and the challenge that it will be. I guess that is why I can say without a shadow of sarcasm or bitterness that I love my job. It isn’t really a job, it is more of an experience, and having used that particular noun I want to make sure that it is not just that for me but for my students as well.
At the beginning of every class, I thank those that are in the room with me. It is an honor to have so many choose to spend not only their hard-earned dollars but also their free non-work time with me in the hope and belief that I can teach them something to take away that will enhance the work that they do. I appreciate what it is to organize travel, sometimes flights and accommodation, not to mention child care and/or household and work logistics just to make it to a weekend class. Usually, those in attendance have also worked all week massaging their clients and looking after their own businesses’. What a terrible thing it would be for them to attend a whole weekend in a classroom that was uninspiring, with a teacher that was anything less than 100% committed to making sure they do indeed leave with something that they are able to utilize straight away in their practice.
From the above explanation, you can probably see why I take it so seriously. Why I care so much that my students are enriched and inspired. Why it is so important to approach the teaching understanding that the students in front of me are a diverse group of human beings, each one with a totally different life story, each one with a totally different set of skills and strengths that make their learning experience unique to who they are.
There are indeed many ways that adults assimilate new information. Many factors affect this including previous experience, their ability to connect with the teacher and the material and also the cultural and educational background they have come from. I would postulate that this is just the tip of the ‘adult learning’ iceberg and that there are in addition to the abovementioned a multitude of layers of what I like to call ‘life’ that every single person in that room (myself included) brings.
It is my role as the instructor to ‘tune’ into those nuances and defining features that make each student unique and make sure that I am able to offer each of them something as a way to understand the material. I have often said and also written about the idea that what I do is offer each student their own key to the ‘knowledge door’. Whether or not they choose to unlock that door is entirely up to them. As the teacher, it is my job to make sure that if they decide to go through the door they have both the theoretical knowledge and practical skill to use what I have taught them. How they integrate the learning is up to them, making sure they have something to take away with them is my job.
Along with that path, interesting things happen and from where I stand in the classroom it is gratifying to see how students connect and work with each other. I have often said that the students that end up partnered with each other for the weekend are often an excellent fit to be working together. I know many students that have met new friends in the classroom that they have kept a connection with long after we have said our final goodbyes. We all know that massage can be a very lonely profession so meeting like-minded and similarly employed souls can be both a deeply gratifying and also very satisfying experience as a student. We often spend a few minutes at the beginning of each day sharing our massage histories and finding out each other’s stories, namely what has led each student to the point where they are seated in this classroom ready to tackle and embrace a brand-new skill.
Another aspect of teaching that I observe and still feel elated by is the light bulb moments that happen at differing intervals for each student. When I say to students that they won’t believe how fast they will grasp the new techniques, in this case, Manual Lymphatic Drainage, I know there are many who don’t really understand what I mean. The exponential learning curve that takes place is incredible to watch and I cannot help but smile every time the ‘ah-ha’ moment happens. Not only does it bolster the confidence of the student, but it also reminds me how exciting it is to be witness to that.
One of the most important things to remember as a teacher is that adults also like to have fun, and in truth learn best when they are in a relaxed environment where fun enhances their learning journey. One of the absolute classic examples of this is a game that I play with the students on the second morning of the two-day training weekend. I divide students into groups of between three to five and proceed to make a game of asking theory questions. Groups battle off against each other sharing knowledge and working together to try and produce the best answers possible. The sweetener is there are prizes for the winning group – and let’s face it everyone loves to win a prize!!
Although the weekends are jam-packed with practical demonstration and practice this is one part of the two-day course that I am happy to dedicate solely to theory. The laughter and friendly competition between the groups not only assists with underpinning the knowledge but also provides lots of hilarity and banter, bringing members of the class together so well.
What else do I see as a teacher when I look out at my student group? For the most part, I see what an incredibly self-less and caring bunch of people massage therapists are. I see people who truly want to make a difference. I see people who care deeply about humanity. I see a group of people who are willing to take their free time and turn it into a new skill in the hope that it will be able to assist their clients with all manner of physical issues that come into their clinic rooms.
And finally, I see a group of people who have much to teach me. A friend and peer once gave me a great piece of advice many years ago before a big presentation at a conference. I was a newbie to the teaching world and very nervous (breath crushing nervous in fact) and he said to me “Just don’t pretend you know it all”. Little did he know it at the time, but it was one of the best pieces of teaching advice I ever received. It took the weight off my shoulders and allowed me to understand that yes, I have expert knowledge about my subject matter, but I do not know everything about it. What a relaxing position to teach from. Ever since then every time I get asked a question in the teaching room that I cannot answer I remember how much I too still have to learn. I love that my students can give me ‘homework’ too, something to research, find out about and share.
In closing, I would like to convey my most sincere gratitude to every student past and present who is reading this. I want to say thank you for allowing me into your lives. I want to say thank you for being part of the learning journey not only in my classes but in the schoolroom of life as well. I have learned more than I can ever share here about the inherent goodness of people and in particular massage therapists and I am humbled every time I walk into the new classroom. Next time you are seated in a class with me please know that I appreciate that you have as much to teach me as I have to teach you, and so from that shared space of mutual appreciation let us enjoy and embrace our time together.