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Lessons Learned from My Tai Chi Master

Arthur Asa Berger
Broadcast & Electronic Communication Arts
San Francisco State University


The material that follows, taken from a book I'm writing called Teaching as a Performance Art, deals with an experience from a few years ago when I reversed roles and became a student of an ancient Chinese martial art, Tai Chi. What was particularly interesting to me about my learning Tai Chi was the mindset I adopted when I became a student. I could recognize many familiar patterns of behavior that I saw in my students and found troubling, so I gained a certain measure of compassion for them when I became a student and acted the same way.

It is stressful and difficult being a teacher, but it is also stressful being a student. After we've been teaching for a while we tend to forget that. We forget that students have their lives to live and often have to struggle hard to support themselves and find time for their studies. We would do well to become a bit more compassionate and understanding when dealing with our students.

It Takes a Long Time to Learn a Short Form:
or How I Met Bob, the Tai Chi Master

A number of years ago I noticed that the adult education service of my local high school in Mill Valley was offering courses in Tai Chi. I decided to give Tai Chi a try. I had been told by a sociologist I knew, who had taught in China, that Tai Chi had helped him and his wife avoid colds and ease respiratory problems, and thought Tai Chi might help me, also. The class met for an hour, twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays.

I spent the better part of three years learning "the short form," a very complicated set of movements that takes about eight minutes to do. There are something like thirty-five moves in this short form. After nine months I still couldn't remember all of the moves, though I could do most of the form by memory and follow the teacher, Bob, and his assistants (some of whom have studied with him for fifteen years or more) doing the form.

Although the short form was, without question, difficult for a novice to learn, one interesting thing I noticed about myself is that when I assumed the role of the student in the class, I almost immediately fell into a state of mild lassitude or lethargy. As a teacher, of course, I get upset when students do this, since it prevents them from learning as much as they could if they were more actively involved in the class. And yet, once I assumed the temporary role of student, I was guilty, I must confess, of the same kind of behavior.

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