Teacher’s Toolbox: Always be a student
“First and foremost, always be a perpetual student” Rael Isacowitz, Basi Pilates
Earlier this month, a colleague who also teaches Pilates and the GYROTONIC® method traveled with me to Phoenix for my annual required GYROTONIC® Pre-Trainer Update. The 3-day update never seems long enough – so much material, not enough hours in the day! It is always so beneficial to have another GYROTONIC® teacher give manual hands-on cues so that our own practices can deepen in understanding the work.
Over the weekend, my Mentor Master Trainer Dominika Gaines (Kinesphere Center for Movement Education) commented on a discussion on a Pilates teacher board. The discussion was centered around how teachers continue with their professional development after becoming certified teachers. As with other fitness modalities, there are an infinite number of half-day courses, weekend workshops, conferences, retreats to choose from – but are these types of events truly the best investment to gain new teaching skills in terms of time and money?
My interest in the fitness industry began when I was working full-time in the corporate world. I took as many courses as I could on the weekends to figure out what excited me the most – it may come as a surprise that I took a spin certification long before spin was popular, and even water aerobics! I never taught either though Eventually, I let all my group fitness certifications lapse so that I could concentrate on Pilates and GYROTONIC®, and fully immersed myself in learning as much as I could about them.
Certainly, when we are beginner students at anything we work to develop a strong base of understanding. When beginning a teacher training, it’s equally important to continue being a student of the Pilates work (continuing to do your own workouts with other teachers) and to start being a student of the teacher training (learning how to teach the Pilates work). Ideally, a teacher training will allow time for both. However, in the Pilates world, there are programs that can be completed in as little as a couple of weekends (these might only have time to focus on learning how to teach the exercises) as opposed to year-long or longer certifications that require self-practice, lessons, mentoring hours, and teaching hours.
What is often missing in the shorter trainings is time to digest, embody, and apply the information, and to ask more experienced teachers questions throughout the training process as questions come up when working with clients. It becomes less about the exercises and choreography, and more about understanding how to “see” a body and work as a team with your client. It is the mentoring and teaching hours of the teacher training program that will start to hone these latter skills.
When I became a Pilates teacher in the early 2000’s, Pilates workshops and conferences were just starting to become mainstream. Many of them were all about learning new variations and choreography rather than deepening our understanding of what Joseph Pilates intended with his work (think first year university course vs. a graduate level thesis topic). Coming back to the discussion about professional development options post-certification, it is my belief that exploring and taking a “graduate level thesis” approach to learning will offer the greatest rewards long-term.
“Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back” ~ Chinese Proverb
I like to think of teaching as a bright shiny onion (or like the Blooming Onion appetizer at Outback Steakhouse. If you don’t know what a Blooming Onion is, you can look it up on the web – it is also known as an Onion Blossom). The unpeeled onion holds the entire body of Pilates knowledge inside, but once you start slowly peeling back the layers, it opens up like a blossom and looks nothing like a raw onion! Peeling the onion open is an art, and takes time. It wouldn’t look like a beautiful giant onion blossom if we just smashed it quickly to break it open.
Weekend workshops are like smashing the onion – you will get some of the juicy goodness inside, but it won’t be as satisfying as taking the time to enjoy the big blooming onion. Don’t get me wrong – weekend workshops can be really amazing and motivating, and still provide new insights. However, as a teacher who values growing as a teacher depth-wise, it seems the continuing education answer lies not in short hour long or weekend workshops but in long-term mentorships.
It is interesting to note that Joseph Pilates only ever certified two (yes two!) teachers in his lifetime – Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel. The Pilates elders (those who studied directly with Joseph Pilates) all mentored with him for months or years, until he sent them on their way with his blessing to teach on their own. Pilates is not just a series of exercises, but can be considered a system of movement principles that can be applied to the entire Pilates repertoire. Instead of memorizing a bunch of modifications for someone with a knee injury, it is about understanding the intent behind the exercise, while also understanding the biomechanics of the movement so that the appropriate modification arises from this understanding. Being able to teach intuitively, rather than by the book, happens over time – and it cannot be rushed. So how does a teacher develop this intuitive skill? By going deeper into the work, and if possible, with a mentor who you can visit regularly.
“By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn” ~ Latin Proverb
One of the requirements of being a Pre-Trainer for the GYROTONIC® method is an annual update where I go over the Pre-Training exercises with my Mentor Master Trainer. These exercises do not change, yet since becoming a Pre-Trainer in 2013 each Update has been different and has given me another layer of my Blooming Onion. It is not about a new advanced exercise, but at looking at a fundamental exercise in layers. This year, we expanded on a concept that we started on last July, and I now have a better understanding on the hamstring series in the GYROTONIC® work. Working with Dominika as my primary mentor over the last seven years has been invaluable for my understanding of movement and teaching skills. While I do take courses from other Master Trainers, there is a familiarity and comfort level knowing that I can call her up at any moment for feedback.
Like my clients, I am a perpetual student – each of the different trainings I have been working on or completed in the past couple of years (Nutritious Movement® and Antigravity Fitness) have been to better understand the Pilates work and the GYROTONIC® method. It is my intent to pass this curiosity and desire to learn on to my clients – not only questioning the “why” behind the exercise (in terms of what muscles are working or what bones are involved) but the “why and how” this relates to their individual big picture, or to their personal blooming onion.
May our Pilates and GYROTONIC® practices be like blooming onions! (Now, who wants to go eat one with me? If you are like my husband and have never had one before, you are in for a treat!)
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