To Co-Teach or Not to Co-Teach

I live on Salt Spring Island, a small island of about 10,000 people, on the west coast of Canada. Out of necessity, I have taught many 8-week courses on my own, without a co-teacher. I’ve been teaching the Hakomi method of mindfulness-based psychotherapy for 13 years with the same co-teacher who happens to also be my husband. In general, I have a lot of co-teaching experience and find it valuable. Everything I read says co-teaching is “best practice,” it makes sense to me, and I believe it.

And yet, something in me was secretly grateful to have the excuse of there not being another teacher in my area, so that I could teach alone.

I was feeling stifled by something in my co-teaching relationship with my husband, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Beyond having a real sense of connection to and love for the MSC program, part of why I decided to teach MSC was to get a fuller experience of myself teaching, to hear my own voice, to be able to follow the energy of the group where/when I felt it was moving, without needing to consult with anyone. I needed to spread my wings and connect with my own values as a teacher.

This need to spread my wings outweighed the feeling of being completely intimidated by the MSC teacher’s manual on my first 8-week course, while taking it on alone and whole-heartedly.

The course went well enough for a first run, and I was grateful for the support of the Zoom sessions. While facilitating one of the Zoom sessions, Chris Germer suggested that my next step as a teacher was to find a co-teacher. I nodded politely and told myself I didn’t ever have to co-teach if I didn’t want to. I wasn’t ready to “share” the space at the front of the room yet. As I look back on it now, I can see that even though I didn’t have the benefit of the support of a co-teacher, I was having a fearful relationship with a “phantom” co-teacher. One who might disagree with me, insist on doing things a certain way, or interfere with my meeting participants’ experiences with enough finely tuned sensitivity. These fears have helped me to identify some of my core values as a teacher: freedom, cooperation, trust, and capacity for compassion for self and others.

Despite my fears, I recently had my first experience of teaching with an assistant, and I am grateful that I took the risk.

When I worked through the process of mentorship sessions to become a Certified MSC Teacher, I continued to be uncomfortable about the idea of co-teaching, and was really enjoying watching my teaching style open up and take less effort. After completing the certification process, I taught an MSC course over eight half days, with one session per day. I invited a trusted colleague to attend the course at no cost in exchange for being an assistant, available should any of the participants need additional emotional support.

Although it wasn’t officially “co-teaching,” letting go of some of the control over the ownership of the course afforded me more freedom than I had imagined.

My assistant offered an empathic presence which combined with mine to seamlessly create a sense of safety in the room. The group bonded quickly, and for the first time, I felt the benefit of the Awakening Our Hearts practice. I took my time with it, allowing participants to go a little deeper than I normally would while teaching alone, and the heartfelt connection in the room was palpable.

I think that part of what happened was that I felt supported and therefore could allow myself to slow down and invite participants deeper into the practices. I knew that someone had my back, and I didn’t have to worry about what to do should more than one participant need individual support at the same time. As there were two of us modeling Loving Connected Presence, the container was stronger. I was moved to talk more about common humanity than usual, and participants began to experience not just compassion for themselves, but to model compassion for each other. The atmosphere of respect and connection was far stronger than in any other MSC course I have taught.

Maybe it was because I had some great mentoring and the time to integrate it, or maybe the group was particularly skilled in compassion and connection before they arrived?

Maybe somehow, having support actually helped me to trust myself and the group more deeply and to access the deeper, more sensitive or soulful parts of myself that can support and facilitate the group to get the most out of the course.

I do know that the experience of working with an assistant has helped me to see that her presence didn’t create an obstacle to the expression of my teaching values. I was surprised to find that having an assistant actually supported me to deepen my connection to and the expression of my core teaching values.

I thought I was a pretty good MSC teacher by the time I finished the certification mentorship process. I now think I can be an even better teacher with the support of a co-teacher!

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