We tend to not think about it, but we are all teachers. We may not have earned a degree in teaching, or even feel like we have enough knowledge to consider ourselves teachers, but nevertheless, we are.
You may have heard it said before: You are the expert on your life. No one else can ever fully understand, judge, or change your experience to the extent that you yourself can. For this reason, we as individuals have a serious and powerful obligation to share our thoughts, values, and experiences in a way that can help change our relationships, whether we are inside a classroom or not. Whether it is our parent-child relationships, romantic partnerships, sibling relationships, friendships, etc., our abilities to share knowledge and experience in a way that allows for deeper connections and growth in and with these relationships has the potential to make or break the best of them.
In our relationships, we are at times teachers and at other times students (and often both simultaneously). Without understanding and properly carrying out these underlying roles, we put ourselves at unnecessary risk for jeopardizing our connections with others on a daily basis. To explain this, the following will focus in on the importance of our “teacher roles” within romantic relationships.
So what makes a good teacher? There are of course many important skill-sets and qualities tied to such a title, but the FOUR listed below are certainly fundamental.
1. Self-worth/Humility- One of the most crucial aspects of a good teacher is the ability to recognize one’s own flaws, limitations, and “smallness.” A good teacher does not “practice out of scope” and try to lead others to a destination that in reality is just as unknown to him/her. A good teacher does not need to rely on this method to keep up appearances and to uphold a false image of wisdom and instead, is able to admit when wrong. One who is a good teacher knows that learning is never mastered, never done, but is still able to maintain a comfortable sense of his/her overall value and intelligence in spite of this.
Now, think about your romantic relationship and the last argument the two of you had. That one where he or she just couldn’t seem to get a hold on what you were trying to say. And ask yourself:
-Were you trying to sound more knowledgeable than you really were? Just trying to win the battle even if it meant breaking rules and even your own values? Or were you aware of your mistakes and where you went wrong in your efforts?
- Did you make yourself bigger than the moment, or were you able to put yourself back in your place?
- Were you stubborn, or did you alter your approach toward a changed result?
-Did you push your partner away for causing you to fail or show weakness, or did you withstand any perceived “blows” to your ego until your partner learned your points and got closer to you?
-Did you take your partner’s misunderstanding and emotions personally, making it all about you while neglecting his/her needs?
A strong (and healthy) self-worth is a key ingredient for any teacher. Without it, our partner’s (student’s) questions/different perspectives are likely be perceived as challenges or purposeful resistance, rather than innocent confusion/ignorance. This sparks our defenses and causes us to lose sight of what our partners need in order to understand us better and get closer to us.
2. Communication- If we want to be the best teachers in our relationships, we have to be capable of more than one way of communicating. Ideally, our communication should be adaptable with each student. A teacher must have an eye and ear for others’ most successful methods of collecting information and not force one way that is assumed best.
Again, let’s apply this to your relationship and that same recent argument you were asked to recall previously:
-Did you communicate in a way and within a context that was most suitable for your partner?
-Were you spitting thoughts at your partner while he or she was rushing out the door for work?
-Were you speaking in a volume that was too loud and emotionally-triggering for your partner, or perhaps, too soft for him/her to hear clearly?
-Were you dominating the conversation without allowing your partner room to ask questions, or make comments?
-Did you break down and explain unfamiliar (or advanced) subject matter in a relatable way, or did you have an unrealistic expectation for your partner to just naturally keep up?
An inability to keep in tune with our partner’s needs as they listen about our firsthand (and unique) mental, physical, emotional experiences will cause us to lose them in the conversation. This is frustrating and disappointing on both ends as this effort to connect, learn, and grow together ends only in feelings of the opposite. Unfortunately, this disconnect is at risk for hinting at the listener’s lack of care in what we’re saying (especially for those teachers weak in self-worth) and once again, can result in unnecessary anger/hurt.
3. Patience/compassion—A good teacher knows that growth at any speed requires some intense process. There is a starting point, failure, repetition and several steps in between. To teach successfully, the teacher cannot rush the student’s understanding and must genuinely feel for the student’s exhaustion and struggle to change his/her habits and ways of thinking. A good teacher expects to work for as long as it takes, all with an undying trust that the desired goal will be achieved.
So again, think back. How did you do with patience and compassion in your last argument?
-Did you expect immediate answers without allowing enough chance to digest questions?
-Were you open to trying different approaches and hearing out your partner’s point of view (even if it seemed way off from your original meaning)?
-Did you use anger to “wake your partner up” or to “snap them out of” what you perceived to be their laziness, stubbornness, unintelligence, etc.?
-Did you take a break when you saw your partner becoming overwhelmed, or were you fixated on getting your sought result in both timing and form?
Most times, growth happens at a slower rate than most of us would like and this is one of the core reasons why such strong tensions develop in our relationships. It is crucial for any teaching role to come equipped with the knowledge and acceptance that any successful/pleasurable growth in our relationships requires time, guidance, creativity, love, and flexibility. Any good teacher knows that we certainly should not rely on anger to scare growth into happening.
4. Letting go- The best teachers are not caught up and blinded by a world of grades and rubrics. In fact, they know that even with the healthiest self-concept, impeccable/adjustable communication skills, and the utmost patience/compassion, a teacher’s sought results at times may not take visible, tangible, or any other measurable form. Instead, these teachers are aware that sometimes the result is a feeling. Some unspoken mutual understanding that both student and teacher are overcome by involuntarily after working together for an extended time. The good teacher is conscious of such moments and places just as much value on them as he/she would tangible growth. It is here that the teacher no longer requires tests or explanations from the student to prove his/her growth and is simply able to let go in trust of that student’s success.
Let’s reflect one last time on that argument between you and your partner:
-Is it possible you were so caught up in achieving a specific outcome (a hug, an apology, tears) that you may have missed or disregarded deeper moments of understanding/connection?
-Were you so set on the belief that you did A,B, and C so perfectly that you couldn’t tolerate a less structured (yet, equally meaningful) response?
-Did you have a relentless need to interrogate your partner in a “guilty until proven innocent” manner?
-Were you able to let go of your need to be “graded” as a partner and instead, experience enough peace and satisfaction tapping into the underlying trust you have in your relationship’s ability to strengthen and grow?
With a foundation of trust and security in our relationships, teaching/connecting/communicating becomes easier. There is no longer a sense of having to work so hard and the need for control is lessened with reduced worry about feared outcomes. Overtime, a developed sense of security in our relationships reaches a point that requires significantly less testing, interrogation, and proof, making it so much easier to let go with one another in a way that actually strengthens our connections.
In thinking about ourselves as teachers in our romantic relationships, we become able to take a step back and reflect on how well we’ve been doing our parts to bring about growth in our partner’s understanding of and connection to us. It’s likely our styles of communication, patience, trust, and self-worth would come about in a much improved form when in a classroom with a student, but don’t our partners deserve that same level of care? We have to face up to the fact that if our messages are not getting received, it is often not the student’s fault. Our desires to connect and grow with the ones we love must always be the driving force behind our willingness to work with them at any pace, for any length of time, for any number of times, with faith and love all the way through.