Student-teacher relationship: A Buddhist perspective
by Robert P. Craig
Clearing House
Vol. 69 No. 5 May/Jun.1996
Copyright of Clearing House

Teachers often face crisis situations in the classroom, even though at
times the teacher may not interpret a particular episode as a crisis (for
instance a student's putting her head on the desk). Further, as teachers,
we often view a crisis as something negative or bad. In reality, a crisis
or a conflict gives students and teachers a unique opportunity--the chance
to break out of their habitual personality patterns that block the flow of
caring, compassion, and love. A crisis or a conflict is an opportunity to
grow in new directions and, thus, to connect more deeply with ourselves and
with life itself.

Buddhist Psychology

According to Buddhist psychology, which emphasizes consciousness,
mindfulness, and awareness, to find a solid foundation for relationships we
(in our case, teachers and students) need to consider what we most value in
our connection with someone we care about (Beck 1993). What are the moments
in a relationship we most cherish? Perhaps we answer, "When I feel loved,"
or, "When I really feel seen and understood."

Yet, what is really happening at those times? In such moments we become
more fully present and thus taste the richness of our being. We no longer
have to prove anything. Something in us relaxes, and our usual cares and
distractions fade into the background. We feel more aware, more awake, more

Like many spiritual traditions, Buddhism views our daily experience as a
path. Our connection with people we care about and love, our students, can
be one of the best vehicles for growing on the path. But in order for the
path to unfold, relationships must become conscious, not merely implied or
suggested. Being conscious of the student-teacher relationship of caring,
compassion, and love helps us to develop greater awareness, depth, and
spirit. Students and teachers discover a larger vision (at least "larger"
than their own ego needs) and purpose that can help them persevere on the
days when nothing seems to go right.

The more students and teachers are open to one another, the more they (and
all of us) begin to encounter obstacles that stand in the way of that
openness. According to Buddhist psychology, these obstacles and inhibitions
arise from all those habitual patterns of resistance, avoidance, and denial
that we have developed as ways of coping with painful circumstances in our
past (Beck 1993). Change and renewal only occur when we are aware of the
myriad ways we shut ourselves down in the presence of others--the
particular ways we "wear a mask" so as to avoid being hurt again (Craig

Buddhist psychology emphasizes nonduality (Beck 1993). That is, becoming
more human involves working with the totality of who and what we are--both
our openness to others and our imprisonment in the concepts and behaviors
we use to avoid pain and hurt. Buddhist psychology asserts that although we
are all conditioned by our society and culture, the basic nature of the
human heart is unconditional caring, inquisitive intelligence, and openness
to reality.

Thus, students and teachers have these two forces at work: an embryonic
sense of caring, commitment, and love that wants to blossom, and the
imprisoning weight of our past fears, anxieties, and hurts. If either side
of a student's or teacher's nature is emphasized to the exclusion of the
other, that person cannot move forward in relationship in any meaningful
way. If, for instance, the student is stuck in the "bliss trap"--imagining
that the teacher is a surrogate parent who will solve all life's problems
and eliminate all the student's fears and limitations--attachment is
formed. Becoming too attached to anything, according to Buddhist
psychology, leads to rude shocks and disappointments, such as, in this
case, when the student is forced to deal with real-life relational

Another distortion in the student-teacher relationship is the "security
trap." For instance, if a teacher tries to make a relationship with a
student serve the teacher's needs for friendship (or any other form of
security), the teacher loses the sense of the greater vision of both
education and relationship. Neither of these traps constitutes a path.
Neither of them really goes anywhere. They both sustain illusion and a
false sense of relationality.

Caring, compassion, and love are transformative powers. For instance, love
brings two sides of the teacher or student--the expansive and the
contracted, the awake and the asleep, the aware and the unconscious--into
direct contact. Rigid places within us that have been hidden from view due
to our hurts and fears awaken. We can choose to soften them or to let them
remain hardened. Without this awareness, no choice is possible, and the
student-teacher relationship suffers because of hidden, nonconscious scars.

From a "stuck" perspective, such as the bliss trap or security trap, the
student-teacher relationship seems frightening, for it forces both student
and teacher to face things (negative psychological states, attachments)
they would rather not look at. The relationship between a student and
teacher can help free both from hidden entanglements by allowing each
person to see exactly how and where he or she is stuck.

We must not imagine that we can get rid of all the difficulties that
inevitably arise in relationships or think that, if we could just "get it
right" with life and relationships, we could finally get on with "the real
stuff." The student-teacher relationship is the real stuff. Because a
relationship is always a living process, never a finished product, new
questions, obstacles, and challenges continually arise; they are there to
help us keep growing. The difficulties we have with intimacy, caring, and
compassion become not so much obstacles as an integral part of love's path.

A Classroom Process

A process that I have found useful to help students and teachers learn
about their inner obstacles to the student-teacher relationship is the

1. Ask the students to think of some person, thing, or situation they would
like to avoid. Tell them to pay special attention to their physical
reactions to what is being imagined.

2. Ask them to write their reactions down and to name their techniques of
avoidance or nonacceptance of whatever they imagined.

3. Have the students describe this process in a journal, which only the
teacher reads and may decide to comment on.

4. Then ask the students to think of some thing, event, or person in their
lives that they are grateful for. It could be a person one loves, a sense
of well-being, something beautiful, or a wonderful thing that happened.

5. Invite the students to vividly create this valued thing in their
imaginations, to savor whatever they have chosen to recall.

6. Ask them to imagine that this person, place, thing, or situation is a
language that is telling them something. Have the students write down (in a
journal, perhaps) what they learned from the language, how it spoke to
them. Ask them to notice and to write down how their body feels when they
are in a mood of acceptance and how this differs from how they felt when
asked to think of something they try to avoid.

7. Have the students share any of their experiences or what they wrote
down, or have them keep a journal in which they essentially do the same

We find this process beneficial in that it is holistic--making use of body,
mind, memory, and imagination. And, for some reason still mysterious to me,
such a process, even if merely kept in a journal and read only by the
teacher, usually increases trust within the classroom. Students become more
free to share, to honestly and authentically participate in the class. The
source of this increased trust may be greater awareness on the part of
teacher and students of the obstacles and blockages that exist in


Satachidananda (Kabat-Zinn 1994, 54) wrote:

You can't stop the waves,
but you can learn to surf.

Students and teachers can't stop the thoughts, feelings, and memories that
thwart interrelationship. Yet, the Buddhist perspective discussed here is a
way for them to "learn to surf," to learn about the waves--the blockages
and obstacles that inhibit relationship. Through awareness, the waves
become vehicles for stronger, more viable relationships.

ANSI/American National Standard Institute
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