As a teacher, you want to share what you know with your students, both in classes and in workshops. When students have questions, it feels natural to give a full answer. But it can be tough to walk the line between addressing students' questions and giving in to the more vocal in the group, sometimes to the detriment of the quieter members of class. Here's how to receive students' questions without deviating from the session's original intent.
Know Where You're Going
First, be clear about your goal for the session. Are you teaching a workshop on the hip joint? A flow sequence building to a quick pace? A restorative class designed to create a quiet space for students to relax? Once you know exactly where you're going with the session, you'll have a path set out, and deviations will be less tempting.
Prepare thoroughly so that you're able to guide the students through your points. "First of all, it really helps to know your material," says Leslie Kaminoff, who teaches yoga internationally and is the author of Yoga Anatomy Sometimes questions naturally reinforce your main point. Kaminoff explains, "For me, the most powerful way [to teach] is to have some of my main points arise in response to a question." This allows your teaching to flow naturally. When you know that questions would lead you off topic, it's easier to defer them.
Ingrid Yang, founder of Blue Point Yoga Center in Durham, North Carolina, and teacher at Prana Yoga Center in La Jolla, California, says that building time into your lesson plan for questions is key to keeping a class on track. "If you feel like there might be a lot of questions, leave time for that in the lesson plan, or plan to make the workshop half an hour longer," she says. "If you feel that questions might hamper your lesson plan, ask students at the beginning of class to save all questions until the end."
Lay the Ground Rules
If you let students know from the beginning what the procedure for questions should be, you'll be less likely to encounter off-topic interruptions. When you begin, explain your approach to your students. "You can say what kinds of questions are appropriate; say it right up front," he says. "To do that before the issue arises is better than to say what your policy is in the moment." You might, for example, request that students hold questions unless they are feeling a specific pain or puzzlement.
Or, if you are teaching a workshop where questions are more appropriate, invite students to engage in dialogue as their questions arise. Either way, make sure you are leading the conversation.
Next, be sure you understand each question that your students raise. Doug Keller, author of Yoga as Therapy (available at DoYoga.com), suggests: "Grasp as quickly as possible the central point of the student's question, and summarize it back to the student to be sure you got it." This way, you can make clear how it fits with your main teaching and answer it in a way that reinforces your original point. The threat, Keller explains, lies in your own temptation to go off into a long or involved explanation. Avoid the temptation. Students actually appreciate direct, uncomplicated answers.
Sometimes a highly specific question can be deferred to the end of class. Keller says, "If the problem is personal (for example, their own unique hip condition), you can say, 'I'll have to look more closely at exactly what is going on'—and offer to do that during the next pose or after class."
Questions sometimes indicate that you're not being clear enough. Keller says, "Often the deviation from the planned topic is entirely appropriate—it becomes evident that what you planned doesn't fit the general group's ability, understanding, or interest."
But at other times, you will have to guide discussion back toward the path you set, which may mean not answering questions. Yang suggests, "Often, harnessing a rambling student is as simple as respectfully acknowledging his question and stating that time is short and there is a lot to cover, so you can address his questions after class or wait until the end if there is extra time for everyone to share."
"It comes down to space and boundaries," Kaminoff explains. "Teachers want to be open, accepting, helpful, and responsive, but the willingness to allow for that kind of space always has to be balanced by whatever boundaries you're able to set. Teachers can get sidetracked by the unwillingness to say, 'Well, that's very interesting, but perhaps we can deal with it after class; we need to keep this class going.'"
While it can be frustrating for both the teacher and students when one student takes up more than her share of the class time, it's important to treat these students with compassion and understanding, too. Outside of class, spend some time reflecting on the deeper motivations at work, including how you perceive your role as teacher, and why students might be asking questions.
"Some students have the urge to show what they already know," Keller says. "When it's a matter of the student showing off, find a point of agreement with the student and acknowledge your agreement; often that acknowledgment is all the student is looking for."
Whatever you do, don't be defensive. Yang remembers, "I used to regard [questioning] students as challenges and immediately went on guard. I perceived their interruptions and assertions of knowledge as intentional acts to wrestle control away from me. This reaction left me insecure and grounded in my ego. Eventually, I became aware of my feelings and instead of viewing these students as launching a personal affront, I began to see them as my teachers. This helped me become more present about what the student was saying and more readily able to bring the conversation back on topic or ask pertinent questions that helped the whole class."
Just make sure your focus is on how you can best serve your students, not on showing them how much you know. "When there is a student with a particular question or problem, we risk going off topic by trying to answer, cure, correct, or otherwise 'fix' the student, reaffirming to ourselves our status as teacher," Keller says. "We can recognize these tendencies in ourselves by maintaining a sense of the big picture of our role as teacher—to serve the group as a whole, while taking good care of the individuals in it. If we can balance these two concerns, we're doing a pretty good job."
Sage Rountree, author of The Athlete's Guide to Yoga and The Athlete's Pocket Guide to Yoga, teaches yoga workshops to athletes nationwide and is co-owner of the Carrboro Yoga Company. Find her on the Web at sagerountree.com.