Teachers don't choke; they just provoke
Oftentimes when a new poetry teacher reads one of their students’ poetry, they obsess over whether or not they can understand it. They feel like they have to display a sort of “mastery” of their student’s perspective to be able to succeed in their role as a teacher.
There are a couple of reasons they might do this, but in general, I’ve found that this tends to be a result of teachers feeling like their job demands that they have all of the answers to the questions that their students and their students’ work could possibly raise; otherwise, the value of their own years of experience is bunk. So the teacher looks at the new poet’s work through the lens of their own perspective, since that’s what they know best, and they critique it by pointing out every little thing that the student does differently than the teacher might.
More often than not, this leads to one of two outcomes (neither of which anybody wants): either the student listens to the teacher unquestioningly and strives to become their carbon copy, and exploring a far narrower scope of perspective in the process, or they see the differences between their own voice and their teacher’s as a failing, lose confidence in the value of their own writing as they fail to emulate what their teacher is able to create, and eventually they stop writing altogether.
In both cases, the young poet ends up missing out on opportunities to actualize their own voice.
The teacher I’m describing, I think, is guided by the concerns of their own ego. In our popular cultural perception of the student-teacher relationship, the teacher is made to believe that if they encounter something in the student’s work that they don’t understand, or if they are unable to provide a precise roadmap to lead the student through every nuance of the craft that they might ever encounter, that they have failed in their role as a pedagoge.
But I also think that this ego-driven assumption belies our actual job as teachers.
Our job isn’t to replicate our own voices flawlessly; it’s to learn the language of our students’ poetry and help them succeed within the framework of their own vision and abilities. This is a frightening challenge to take on for many, because it requires us to humble ourselves within our application of our own expertise. Despite the natural anxieties that this approach might raise, however, our ability to understand that the differences between our students’ language and our own is precisely what will empower them to leave the impact that only they, through their unique perspectives, are capable of leaving. And guiding our students to this mastery and impact isn’t a matter of strangling their styles into the narrow confines most familiar to us, but merely provoking the reflection and introspection that enable them to chart their path themselves.
So I encourage you to think of a relationship you have with a poet you’re trying to lead.
Ask yourself whether you’re listening to them closely enough to truly understand their language.
Ask yourself if you’re posing the sort of questions that allow you to see what body of work they’re trying to create, even if it is bound to end up looking differently than yours.
And when offering them guidance, don’t choke – just provoke.