Why I Am Not A Guru

Only the blind follow me.” – Alien Sex Fiend: Ignore The Machine

In The Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy, the titular character loses his primary senses following a childhood trauma, eventually finding his way through the tactile experience of playing pinball. He then concludes that simulating his experience as closely as possible could cause other people to fulfill themselves in the same way. Spoiler alert: this does not work.

As teachers, as artists, parents or just plain old human adults we are all biased towards our own experience and specifically the type of learning that most yielded results for us personally. For myself, that turned out to be creative music making led by open improvisation and finding out everything I needed to express the ideas in my head (in a word, jazz). I also immersed myself in what I understood at the time to be the necessary skills of a professional musician (sight reading, performing by ear, repertoire building), but even that definition has changed and expanded in the intervening years, calling for a whole new set of skills and attitudes – though I do not consider what I was trained in to be in any way obsolete.

When I began teaching alongside being an active musician, I naturally gravitated towards the path that had worked for me. It worked for some students, but not so well for others – I was too green at that time to really understand the distinction, though a key moment came when one of my regular students turned to me and said plainly, “I am not you”. When I finally comitted to formal teacher training after about a decade unqualified, I discovered to my horror just how much I didn’t know and how many bad habits I’d developed without knowing. I had to deconstruct everything I thought I knew in order rebuild my approach, distinguishing between the parts that were actually useful and those that were misguided, while opening myself up to a universe of different approaches and styles of learning that I had hitherto not known about or avoided learning for fear of diminishing my sense of authority.

In short, I needed to get over myself. But once I did, I found paths I never knew existed and became a better teacher as well as a better musician.

In the modern online world there are many people offering online tuition in various subjects, some good, some not so good. They range from experts in a particular field wishing to pass on their knowledge and experience, through professional pedagogists who specialise more in guiding students in their learning than in a particular subject (doing and teaching are separate skills – it is very possible indeed to be an accomplished practitioner and a terrible teacher) and, finally, cheesy salesmen trying to exploit would-be learners. To tell the difference you need to look at user feedback, the track record and past work of the teacher, what became of their past alumni and objectively sample whatever trial materials they offer up. But a self-appointed title I would be suspicious of from the outset is “<subject> Guru”.

The term guru in this context (not to be confused with actual spiritual Gurus, who I doubt enjoy any comparisons made with a college dropout who quit selling vacuum cleaners to start a two-bit distance learning course) has come to us from the world of corporate office jargon, particularly marketing types who love to give themselves creative and silly job titles. Content Ninja! Big Data Csar! Social Media Engagement Mammoth! Good luck to these people, I will freely admit to knowing little of their world and they might well have useful specialist knowledge to impart that I do not, but I do know that when all the focus is on the teacher rather than the student or the subject, what transpires is a cult of personality where complexity is denied or sacrificed and learning becomes less important than the Product.

A guru will insist that a student follows their path and no other, like a jealous God. A good teacher will provide a clear path to follow while encouraging the student’s natural curiosity.

If a guru’s teaching is not getting results, they will blame the student or, worse, degrade them. A good teacher will work with the student to figure out what barriers are getting in the way and how to overcome them.

If a student brings skills not posessed by the guru, the guru will downplay, discourage or destroy. A good teacher never stops learning themselves, from every source.

I am no guru, please never call me one. But it is my honour any time I can use my knowledge and experience to help others express themselves creatively, to play my part in a cultural universe far greater and more wonderful than any of us.

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