Teaching is a Healing Art

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Teaching is a Healing Art

By Kiera Nagle, MA, LMT

We all know the famous quote “to teach is to touch a life forever”, but we also know there is “good” touch and “bad” touch. When I set out upon my career as a teacher, it was not in the realm of touch therapy, massage, or healing arts, but I had been “touched” by many teachers, in a good way. I come from a teaching lineage: raised by two English teachers, I am an ace at spelling and I know where all the commas go. I was also inspired at the most crucial time in high school by several art teachers who “gave me life” at a time when things seemed bleak. There were also a few teachers along the way from whom I learned what not to do—those who would seem to be working out some personal dysfunctions in the classroom. With a captive audience and the power differential tipped in their favor, the potential for tension eclipsed any good content that could have been imparted in those rooms. I’m sure each of us can name teachers from both these categories that we have encountered in their lives, as well as some who were less polarizing, but just as effective in getting some message or knowledge across.

Armed with a BS in education, a master’s degree in art, a year of student teaching kids age 5-18, and a heart full of passion, I stepped into my own classroom at the ripe old age of 23, on September 9th, 2001. Even formal teacher training does not fully prepare one for the moment of taking charge of one’s own classes, and students can smell the “fresh blood” of a new teacher pretty easily. Initially, it was hard for me to find my voice. After all, I had spent a lifetime thus far not raising my hand, nose in a book, pencil in hand, communicating with the world in a quieter way. Now I was in front of the room, and I was “on”. In addition to the challenges of my own relative immaturity at that time, and the lack of interest / understanding of relevance most of my audience had for the subject at hand, two days later, we were faced with a significant world event that would shape the days, weeks, months and years to come.

As events unfolded on September 11th, 2001, school administrators spent the first few hours trying to figure out what to do. We could see the towers from the west side of the school building, which was located in Queens. Basically we were told to teach and remain in the classroom until instructed otherwise. I reached out to my next-door classroom neighbor and happenstance mentor, a veteran teacher and mother, who had seen and experienced so much more than I, and said, “What do we do?” She said, “We make art. We let them work with their hands.” She was a rock in that moment, and would become a dear friend over the years. We often joked about our different teaching styles: I called her the “queen of improv” because she was so good at coming up with ideas on the fly, flexibly adapting to the needs of the students. She called me the “queen of planning” because I was so organized in my lesson plans and curriculum, and we could always find what we were looking for in my supply closets.

I had been drawn to teaching because it was a lifestyle I knew growing up; for example, the “new year” in my family did not refer to January, but to September. I also believed that an appreciation for art and the creative space to make things were an integral part of a child’s schooling, and an opportunity to counterbalance the structure and lack of creative outlets in other aspects of a student’s academic experience. I saw art as a therapeutic practice. I wanted to help people, and share what I loved. There was a lot of reward: encouraging students’ creativity and ability to think “outside the box”, being able to create a safe space for other fringy kids to find themselves and likeminded peers, and facilitating class discussions about art, which often turned to the subjects of perception, and life.

Eventually I did get into a good groove in my teaching. I taught lessons and modified them each time. I experimented with collaborative group projects and developed new curriculum in a variety of media. I got the classroom management thing down, even in the more challenging cases. I learned what to do and what not to do from the students, just as I had from my teachers along the way. There were many students who were happy to have the refuge of the art room, as I had been, and there were just as many, if not more, who didn’t really care about art at all. I got over taking that personally and figured out ways to engage them as well. (Art as creative problem solving applies to any field.)

After several years of teaching art in this NYC public high school, however, I began to feel that I wasn’t helping as much as I would like to. Many of my students lived difficult lives: they were immigrants from other countries, kids from the projects, lived with many others in small spaces, had too many responsibilities, and were otherwise traumatized in ways too various to catalog. While it was significant to teach them about art, I felt that what they benefited most from was my consistent and non-judgmental adult presence in their lives. Most of them could have probably used a hug, but it was inappropriate to engage in touch that could be misinterpreted or misconstrued.

There were many students whose faces and names I still remember. One of them was Leo (as in DaVinci). Leo was a really amazing illustrative artist. He was talented, but had not had any encouragement. It was great to see him work and get positive feedback from his peers. Beyond being engaged, drawing was second nature to him; he did it almost subconsciously, like breathing. From the start of the year towards the middle of the term, he seemed to brighten and blossom, coming into himself and his work.

And then I gave the class a collage assignment. Leo didn’t seem into it at all. In fact, he almost seemed annoyed by it. I figured it was because it was taking him out of his comfort zone of drawing. I told him he could use some drawing at the end to bring the elements of the cut paper together, but he continued to work at such a tedious pace on the project that I started to get irritated with him. Finally, one day, I really watched him work out the corner of my eye while I was setting up materials at the supply table. I noticed that he was holding the scissors awkwardly with his right hand, and using his left hand, obscured by his sleeve, to hold the paper in place. “What happened to your hand?” I asked him audibly. He looked stung by my words. “I’ll talk to you about it after class, ok?” After the other thirty-odd students filed out of the room, he was still sitting there. “Is everything ok?” I asked him. He pulled up his sleeve. His left hand was completely deformed, immobile. All these months and I had never noticed. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s ok,” he said.

He would go on to finish the project, but something had changed. I could explain away my lack of observation by saying, he was one of 125+ students I worked with every day, and with the drawing projects there was no way to have noticed, but this experience really taught me something about awareness, and careful communication. Of course, there were not hundreds of deformed hands in my future, but there were hundreds of students, many with hidden stories up their sleeves. I made my best effort to see better in order to help them learn about the subject at hand, about life, and about themselves.

My life and health outside the classroom in this period led me towards the healing arts, specifically yoga and massage therapy. It wasn’t long before I began to pursue massage therapy training myself. Having taking no bioscience coursework in my previous academic career, I was afraid of the rigor of anatomy and physiology, neuroanatomy, and so on, but I used my visual skills and tools to assist in my learning process. As I learned more about anatomy, I reinterpreted my perceptions of the drawings and paintings of artists like DaVinci, and Kahlo, and their depictions of the body and its processes (as well as their impressions of the iterations of the inter-connectedness of body, mind, and spirit). As I learned about traditional Chinese medicine theory, and the practices of shiatsu and acupressure, I better understood the illustrations of the elements in Asian art—Hokusai’s “Great Wave” and the repetitive patterns of Yayoi Kusama. It fascinated me that, like art, massage therapy has its scientific aspects (anatomy, technical skills) and its interpretive aspects (intuitive skills, palpation, choice of variations and sequencing of techniques). Just as my visual illustrative style had become a pastiche of my favorite artists, my teachers’ influences, and my own interpretations, it was fascinating to me that my massage style would also be influenced by the techniques I learned and adopted from various instructors, the massages I received and enjoyed over the years, and my own intuitive skills in piecing it all together in the present moment with the client I was working with. And so, massage therapy became another passion, and allowed for personal healing and a reconnection with my own body.

I straddled the worlds of teaching art and learning massage for a while, but when I became licensed, I wanted to completely immerse myself in massage practice. I had completed an elective in prenatal massage and was mesmerized by working with pregnant clients. I was offered a part time position in a groundbreaking integrative setting: the hospital where I worked paid me to provide free chair massages for women in the waiting room while they waited to be seen by their OB/GYN or midwife, or checked in for mammograms and bone density exams. In this way, I got to meet and treat many clients, and talk about the benefits of massage for women’s health. I also worked in a large group practice where I was one of two prenatal certified massage therapists. And so, while my massage practice grew and I gained experience, art moved into the realm of hobby/personal therapy while massage moved into the realm of profession. (Of course, my artistic and graphic skills have always been very helpful in website and logo design for my business!)           

I love working with clients in a one-on-one dynamic, creating space for them to connect with their bodies and facilitate their processes of healing. I like to educate clients about various modalities and benefits, and foster their self-education about their own bodies. I have spent many hours in clinical practice, in quiet, dimly lit spaces, my hands sinking in through layers of fascia and tissue, working with clients in the process of connecting with their bodies through touch. This aspect of the work appeals to my introverted nature. I realized that part of the challenge of teaching large groups had been the immense amount of presence and qi required to lead and guide so many people in process simultaneously.

However, I also began to miss teaching. While I love working with clients on an individual basis, there is another spark that is ignited by sharing the practice in a larger group. In the last four years I have integrated teaching and massage therapy, while remaining in clinical practice, and I finally feel as if I am achieving the balance I had been seeking for so long. For one thing, I am never, ever bored. I teach a variety of classes, including basic Western massage techniques, foundations and ethics of massage, and prenatal massage therapy. I also supervise massage interns in the school clinic and at a local hospital.

What I have come to realize in this multifaceted professional life is this: teaching is like treating an entire room full of clients at once. Good teachers have the pulse on each individual student in the room, as well as the group pulse. Within the “one-room schoolhouse” of our classes, we may find eighteen-year-olds who have just graduated high school, mid-career changers, retirees, some students with previous degrees, and some who have never been in a post-secondary school setting, as well as students who are not easily categorized. Therefore, we are hyper-vigilant in our attempts to strike the balances between:

  • encouraging support and tough-love boundary setting
  • articulating difficult content clearly and providing student-driven, active learning opportunities
  • connecting the student in their own process of healing as they experience receiving a great deal of bodywork for the first time, and also connecting them to their partner/client’s experience

It is a lot to manage. It is “meta”. It requires so many energies on so many levels, so much information, so much material to work with, so many connections to make. It is an amazing opportunity for challenge and growth.

Part of my healing process as teacher is to reflect on my own strengths and challenges. Both I and my former students can easily tell you that one of my strengths is my organization of materials. If you are a student in my classes, you will get written protocols with numbered steps (yes, you can deviate from these once you have “got it down”). You will get slide presentations, and binders, and articles, and lists of resources both academic and clinical (maybe more than you want? The trees thank goodness thatthese can all be shared digitally now). You will get images throughout all of these because I am an artist.

Another strength of my work is my almost-religious adherence to Carl Rogers’ person-centered philosophy (applied to client interaction in my clinical practice, and reapplied to student-centered in the classroom.) I make my best effort to meet students (and clients) where they are, to hold them in unconditional positive regard, and to facilitate their healing and learning (rather than impart the teachings, fix the problems, etc.) Yes, this is both a strength and a challenge. Having considered myself on the “outside” of things as a student and person at various times in my life, it is my strength to empathize with those who feel judged, who judge themselves, and yearn for safe spaces in which to not only exist but to learn and process and heal.

My challenge? Going beyond my introverted nature, pushing myself outside my comfort zone in terms of public speaking, working through insecurities about what the value of my experiences is and how to pass that on to students in my role as their teacher. I’ll never forget the first time a student asked the question, “what do you have to offer as a teacher that is beyond what you were taught by your mentors?” It flustered me and threw me offguard, I blushed, and my response was not articulate. The question haunted me, and I had to talk to both a trusted former student and a mentor about how to answer it (for myself, as the student was long gone). Finally, I came to this: just as a baby inherits genetic material from both of its parents, its representation of that material is uniquely its own- incorporated with its own qi and influenced by its own experiences. I am an amalgam of what I have learned from my teachers: what to do as well as what not to do. But the knowledge I have collected is infused with my own experiences: as a person, as a practitioner, and as a teacher. I pay homage to those who I have learned from, by name, when I reference something that I remember came straight from that source.

Another turning point has been an ongoing process of acceptance of who I am as a person, practitioner, teacher. There is often a societal pressure to feel we must need to know “everything about everything”. It’s been a relief to acknowledge as a teacher that, sometimes, I don’t know the answer. I can help a student find it, point them in the right direction, refer them to another source. Or it may be that such an answer does not exist—that something hasn’t been explored yet in that level of detail or through research. I am not an expert in sports massage; I have many fine colleagues I can refer clients to for that modality in practice, or to learn from as students. While my clinical experience has focused on prenatal massage, I don’t “own” that “specialty”—I am happy to train other therapists in this content as it is often omitted from basic foundational massage training and I believe it is such important work. 

The most spirit-feeding experiences I have had as a teacher have been in circumstances where a group of students or LMTs that I have trained simultaneously treat clients in a community-style setting. To be in a room with 18 therapists treating 18 clients, carrying 18 babies (or more, if there are twins) is a sight to behold. In those moments I am invisibly bursting with joy—I joke with the students after the session that it is like church for me. I am so proud of them on so many levels; having had good foundational training, the new protocol is easy for them to pick up and they begin to fine-tune and riff on it right away, making it their own. Others may find that they can complete the training but that they are not attuned to this work, and that is okay too. I am so happy to provide the opportunity for the pregnant clients to experience the prenatal massage work—many of them for the first time. Additionally, the community that is formed in the experience amongst the practitioners, clients, and myself is its own healing practice; the ability to connect through the bodywork to the human experience of pregnancy is phenomenal.

I recently shared an experience with a small group of students that was a bit more difficult. In order to work in the hospital setting, I train the student interns in prenatal massage protocols and modifications for high-risk pregnancies and post-partum cases. The interns have the opportunity to treat patients in the antepartum unit who are on extended periods of bed-rest due to complicated pregnancies, as well as post-partum clients who may have delivered surgically or vaginally. The students are also able to offer chair massage to patients’ visitors and the hospital staff, so that the entire unit is supported in self-care. A few weeks ago, the holistic nurse briefed our group upon our arrival, as usual, about the patients on the floor that afternoon. One patient had a “red rose” on the door- the symbol in this setting for an infant demise. The nurse explained that the patient had endured a C-section two days prior for a stillborn baby who had died before the surgery, of unknown causes. The holistic nurse had done some guided imagery with the patient and her partner, and had mentioned that the massage team would be available that day. They had requested that we stop by. Although the interns had been working in the hospital for several weeks at this point, they were understandably very trepidatious about approaching this family. I explained that ,unlike in the other patient circumstances where we enter cheerfully and greet the patient, we would enter the space quietly and I would introduce us in low tones, explaining what treatments could be offered. We referred back to the patient-centered philosophy and the Empathy vs Sympathy discussion we had as part of the pre-hospital training. I reminded the interns that this experience was not about our feelings about the situation, and that all we could provide was massage, not false reassurance that things would be okay. When we entered, I addressed the patient and her partner, who were very clear and connected despite the difficult circumstances. We offered the patient, her partner, her mother, and her sister 20-minute chair massages. They all accepted. We arranged the space within the private room accordingly. I treated the patient and the interns treated her family members. We worked in unison. The shift of energy in the room was palpable. Everyone breathed. Everyone reconnected with their bodies in the moment, noticing where the stress was manifesting: elevated shoulders, pinched necks, clenched hands, furrowed brows. It was an honor to provide massage to this family, whose strength and love for each other was so visible. They were overwhelmingly grateful, as were we, to connect with them in that moment through the bodywork.

I have heard many teachers say that the process of teaching provides continuous learning and varied perspectives on the content and the experiences. It can be draining. It can be rewarding, just like any other profession. While I am not “old”, I do see the generational differences between the students that I am teaching now and myself (age is only a part of it). In the last couple of years I have seen a 180° turn; I used to have to incentivize the students to log in to our virtual classroom. Now, if I’m a moment late posting something I said I would, students are emailing me, “where’s the PowerPoint?” They have a lot of requests and a lot of opinions. While, as some colleagues state, and I totally understand, these “millennials” can be challenging, I like the fact that they are super-engaged, and that they give me opportunities to establish and maintain good boundaries (so that I can model that behavior for them instead of just teaching them about it).

I appreciate that the role I play as a director of a massage program gives me the space to meet with and talk with other teachers. It is important to have a “teacher group” for support, and humor about the oddities of this job. It is especially important to connect with teachers/practitioners who may be dealing with similar challenges regarding dual relationships and other field-specific challenges. Online educator forums and conferences are good for this as well. Connecting with other teachers helps to rejuvenate the love of teaching. Through occasional commiserating and processing our teaching stories, the connections can help to promote more meaningful experiences in the classroom.

Teaching is a healing art. I have learned so much about art, people, the world, psychological dynamics, the body, massage and energy work, and more, through the process of teaching. I am grateful to have the mindful practice of teaching as part of my professional life. While I like to keep the Rosa Nouchette Cary quote: “do it with passion or not all” as my benchmark, some days are less passionate than others. But it is passion in the long haul that keeps me in the classroom, both as a student and as a teacher, and as a being on a quest for healing in this human existence.

Kiera Nagle, MA, LMT, serves as faculty and clinical supervisor as well as the Assistant Dean of Pacific College of Oriental Medicine-NY. She provided prenatal massage at University of Nebraska Medical Center in a groundbreaking integrative health partnership, and serves as Clinical Supervisor for Massage Therapy Interns at Katz’s Women’s Hospital at NSUH-LIJ. She’s also the mother of an amazing four-year-old.

 

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