Classroom management, Matthew Sweeney style

First off, just a note re: my interest in classroom management. My background (my official, professional background, not my actually-more-real, what-I-really-love background of visual art and writing) is in educational technology.

I am interested in how people learn, which, in turn, makes me interested in how people teach. Matthew Sweeney, I was happy to find, runs a very tight ship.

If you are itching to talk about what YOU know, what YOUR theories are, forget about Matthew Sweeney’s workshop. He leaves no opportunity for hijacking of his class, no opportunity for people to make themselves out as experts, no chance for people to start establishing intra-classroom hierarchies. It is really quite remarkable, how Teflon-resistant his workshop is to hijacking.

We’ve all been in classroom situations where every concept, every sentence, is an opportunity for some participant to launch into personal commentary and expert pontification. Sigh.

Not to worry, though. MS makes it impossible for any individual to shine a spotlight on his or her self. There is absolutely no teacher’s pet opportunity, either. He just doesn’t play that.

In the afternoon sessions, he offered a ton of info on practice and adjusting (we usually ran half an hour over), and he clearly delighted in people working together during adjustment practice. But he also asked us not to go into “teacher mode” (i.e., try to teach each other as authorities).

I imagine he would be cheerful about any individual who conducted decades of personal research and decided to hit the road to share his or her experiences. But not in his classroom.

MS could often be found, during the hands-on portions of the adjustment program, standing off a bit, observing like a scientist. He had no interest whatsoever in giving out personal “strokes.”

In the Mysore room, I felt that he was rather like a classical psychoanalyst: he mirrored my practice back to me, in a way that offered means to proceed (note: I didn’t say “progress”), but he eschewed any *individual* or *public* validation. Each person was practicing. Each person was where he or she was. Each person could benefit from some direction on how to proceed. None of that had anything to do with the ego-individual or the public-individual.

Despite this rigorous classroom style, I felt a great deal of human validation from MS. Doled out in a “grand scheme” sort of way. But he utterly refused to go down the path of elevating or validating individuals or individual practices. I don’t, actually, think he refused so much as failed to imagine why he WOULD do such a thing. It all felt highly egalitarian.

Not to say that his interactions weren’t very focused and open — very present and connected. Talking to him, particularly during Mysore practice, was not unlike talking to one of the zen monks.

At first, in the lecture-heavy sessions, I could feel some people shifting about a bit, eager to share their personal ideas — eager to be seen as “special.” But there was a “special” vacuum in the room. Again, similar to the feel at the zendo. Yes, we are here; yes, we are sharing this experience; but each of us is present as part of the larger whole and as individuals who have the capacity to contain our own practices (and, consequently, our selves).

So, perhaps a bit austere for some. A few people seemed frustrated at having their desires thwarted. They wanted to share their theories/personal experiences and were not given the opportunity. No chance of “I’m special” feelings.

On the other hand, there was absolute present in-the-moment interaction in the one-on-one (Mysore) setting.

A kind of greater validation that we are in this together. And that individual idiosyncrasies fall away when you look at the bigger picture.


12 Responses

  1. Hey MS’s style sounds like something I would like to see. I totally get what you mean by people wanting to appear special, and trying so hard to get that from a teacher. I enjoyed reading this post.


  2. Hi K,
    Nice discourse once again.
    Yes, MS has command of the room, he has a wealth of experience, both as a teacher as well as practitioner. I have come across teachers who have amazing practices, but lack in experience of teaching. Such teachers may attempt to control the room, but this does not work. I have come across other teachers with not only deep asana pratices, but a wealth of knowledge, academic for example. Such teachers have control of the room, but as a student it is not the same, as with MS. And this I believe is due to MS being so grounded.
    When instructing such a large group, it is a necessity to have students assisting other students, assuming that the teacher wants to accomplish a certain agenda, in the case of MS assisted backbending, including dropbacks. This said, I am not a fan of having students give assists.
    Yes, practicing under the stewardship of MS one has a sense of mirroring, and this was a nice experience.
    Your experience of “egalitarian” I attribute to MS being grounded.
    Analogous to “Zen Monks”? Well ….
    Desires thwarted, Yes! I was so disappointed that he did not demonstrate/teach jump backs with straight legs, but Me and My Ego learned to deal with the perceived shortcoming.
    Thank you 🙂

  3. I like that the egalitarian sensibility was so noticeable in discussion-times and workshop-times. Easier to establish that during Mysore practice… but there are so many more variables when talking and face-to-face stuff is happening.

    And it seems like those of us who self-select as ashtangis are somewhat used to being “the special student” or “the one who is closest to the teacher’s heart”… that can get so intense all around.

    As for MS, nice that he can love asana and sequencing so much (I assume he does, since his teaching is a lot about variations and play within the physical practice) without that translating to some kind of “Wow–look at that!” vibe in the classroom. Hmmm…

  4. There was not a speck of “wow, look at that.”

    The egalitarian sensibility was established right up front. A few people tried lobbing some personalized salvos right at the beginning (“I find that…,” “In my experience…”), but he shut them down quickly and directly. I was interested to see who would accept being shut down and who would bristle and feel insulted.

    Another notable thing was how he moved through the room to show us different adjustments or to ask people to demonstrate postures. He didn’t do the “you can do this pose well, so let’s use you as the model” thing. He went right up the row of mats, person by person, accepting the level of each practitioner and demonstrating accordingly.

  5. That’s very interesting. In the Tim Miller workshop I attended earlier thjis year, there was quite a bit of showboating look-at -me nonsense. One person in particular seemed determine to take over the workshop.. Tim was very patient, but made no attempt to shut this person down. How did MS do it?

  6. Um, he just shut them down and said it wasn’t relevant or that it was something he would talk about later. LOL! I think it could easily have been construed as rude, actually. I was impressed, though, because as you experienced with Tim, that kind of stuff can easily get out of hand.

    Certainly, one of the interesting things with Matthew was that is never seemed authoritarian when he did it. And people got the point quite quickly.


  7. I love this. I guess this is how he can be seen as rude, but I appreciate it. It’s the opposite of a workshop I took with Mark Whitwell, where I was expecting him to actually talk about something, but the whole lecture part was taken up with other people ‘sharing’ their problems and experiences (i.e. looking for strokes). I paid for that???

  8. It’s the accent. Brits and Aussies can get away with being much ruder than us Yanks.

  9. Hi Karen
    Yesterday I received the latest book by MS. It’s big. Bigger than most books I have, and chock full of neat pictures.

  10. Let me know what you think as you get into it more, Arturo. I’ll be curious to hear.

  11. I’m about to post on the Lion sequence. In a word, it RULES.

  12. Great notes, DZM.

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