To undertake the mantle of being a witch is to make yourself a student of the Universe and how it works. And whether you practice as a solitary or as part of a coven or other group, you will have many teachers. And no matter how much you know, or how badass a witch you become, you will always be learning from someone or something in your life.
Some of those teachers will be actual human individuals that you make a formal agreement to learn from, and may or may not involve the taking of oaths. Some teachers may be more transient — people that you take a workshop from at a pagan gathering, or who you talk to once in a while when you have a particular question about a particular thing. Some teachers you will never meet, but will influence you through a book you read or a podcast. Often, though you may be in the role of teacher, your student may wind up teaching you a thing or three.
Sometimes the teacher the universe presents you with teaches by negative example, showing you the way by demonstrating the behavior you DON’T want to emulate. Sometimes you will teach yourself with bitter experience. (This is why I often say that anything that passes for wisdom with me is likely the product of surviving my own stupidity.)
To undertake the role of teacher in the Craft is no small thing. It is to place yourself at the Crossroads in someone’s Path. And Crossroads are sacred places, where sacred purpose is accomplished, where lives inexorably change. Sacrifices are made as one way forward is chosen and another set aside. Our gods honor sacrifices as holy things. The Crossroads are the places where the veil is thin, and those beings beyond it may be reached, and reach for you.
There are a number of great blog posts and articles out there aimed at prospective students of the Craft that talk about selecting a teacher, and what students should look for and avoid in that process. There is also material that deals extensively with what it means to take up the responsibility of teaching the Craft, and the fact that teachers have a responsibility to their students because of the trust they are being given.
I actually want to hone in on the Intersection between teaching and correction. Correction, the act of identifying things that are wrong or may be improved, is often part of teaching, especially in ongoing teacher — student relationships. It’s a valuable opportunity for learning, and necessary when potential harm, either to yourself or someone else, is imminent.
Lately, however, I’ve been seeing correction deployed in another context — where a person. “calls out” problematic behavior or language, offering correction to a fellow participant in a group activity or discussion. And because I am seeing more and more of this, not just in pagan circles, but in the wider world, it’s got me thinking about the intersection between teaching and correcting.
As is often true in things viewed through the lens of the Craft, intent matters. Why we are choosing to correct someone and what we hope to manifest from the act of correcting matters. There are a lot of legitimate reasons to correct someone’s actions or words. It may be that you have a pre-existing relationship where you are their teacher, and part of that teaching relationship involves correction. I have been correcting my son’s misbehavior for most of his life, and as his parent and his first teacher in the world, it is my right and responsibility to do so. Sometimes that correction is very gentle. Sometimes it is less so. While it is wrong to do physical violence to a child even when one is engaging in correction, i’ll own that sometimes correction at an elevated decibel level, or using the revocation of privileges is needed to make sure the correction is heeded. The nature of the relationship I have with my son means we both expect I will do this.
I have this kind of relationship with my high priest. Because he and I have an established relationship that contains explicit and tacit agreements that mean I accept his role in my life as teacher (one of many roles he occupies in our complicated relationship), he has a right to correct me if he sees that I need it. As our relationship has grown and as I have grown, the ways in which correction does and doesn’t happen has changed over the years. And there have even been times where I have corrected him.
Even in such a well-established relationship with a lot of love in it, correction is not always comfortable. Being the type of person that tends to internalize criticism, correction often stings for me even harder than it might for someone else. And when it comes from someone I love whose good opinion I value, it’s even harder. I don’t like disappointing people I love. But the context of the relationship, grounded in love and support, means that even when he is harsh with me, I can accept my high priest’s correction and make productive use of it. If for some reason it seems unjustified or too harsh, I know I have the ability to push back, and we work it out together. I am his student, not a doormat.
Sometimes, however, the offer of correction is being made not by someone you know well and have an established relationship with, but with a peer or even a relative stranger. Correction from peers becomes tricky. It is one thing to receive correction from someone whose role in your life is to provide tutelage, or is responsible for your behavior in some way. It is quite another to accept correction from someone you don’t know from a hole in the ground.
By what authority is this person qualified to offer correction? In some cases, their authority on a matter is derived from their obvious experience or status. A black woman will unquestionably be more authoritative on the experience of being a black woman than someone who is not. A member of the military wearing a service uniform can be presumed to be an expert on matters related to their branch of service in contrast to someone who is and has always been a civilian. Deferring to someone else’s greater experience with something is both common courtesy and common sense. Experience with a matter will usually confer authority.
Sometimes authority is expressly conferred. Your boss at work has the authority to correct you on matters pertaining to work. A leader in a group therapy context has the authority to correct behavior within the group that is unproductive, though they might choose to be very judicious about it if members of the group are emotionally or otherwise fragile. But the fact that someone has the right to correct in one context does not confer a right to correct in others. Your boss has no right to correct behavior that happens outside the workplace that has no impact on your job, for instance.
But what happens when the authority to correct isn’t so obvious? When I correct you on a matter concerning the proper way to draft a legal document, you have no way of knowing that I have a law degree and was licensed to practice law in three different jurisdictions for nearly a decade. It’s not like I wear a badge that says that. You would have to know me and know a little bit about my history to know that. So my correction on that point, without further knowledge of who I am and where that authority comes from, might seem presumptuous. And given the fact that you might not have asked me for an opinion, my correction might boil down to unsolicited advice. And we all know how unwelcome that is.
Sometimes the authority to offer correction comes from the fact that the behavior or words or action in question has worked direct injury on you. Correcting someone who is harming you is a categorically different beast from correction as a teaching endeavor. Correcting someone who is injuring you, telling them they need to own their shit, is always within your rights. And once a person is told they are harming someone, that triggers a whole dynamic around the social debt they now owe.
Correction as the calling out of harm against you is not about a teacher-student relationship. And in fact, casting this kind of correction as an offer to instruct the offending party is problematic.
Make no mistake, teaching is a skill. And good teachers are amazing people who have collected the tools to be effective at teaching and use them with discernment and joy. And while good teachers are emotionally engaged with their students, and bring their whole selves to their teaching, a really good teacher knows that it isn’t about them. Teachers are acting in service to their students. Whether they undertake a long-term relationship or are simply teaching a one-hour workshop, a teacher’s primary thought is of what their students are taking away from the experience, and the enhancement to the students’ life and growth. that results.
Part of the duty that a teacher undertakes to their students when they assume the role of teacher is that they are not seeking to harm their students and try to keep them reasonably safe during the teaching process, especially if the material being covered poses risks. If a student is going to be at potential risk of injury of some kind, be it physical or emotional, a good teacher minimizes the risks where possible, and warns students so that they can make an informed choice about the material. There have been instances where a teacher in my life has “thrown me into the deep end of the pool” and exposed me to risky material without warning, and has even allowed me to get hurt, but those instances are usually within the context of a broader relationship that is built on years of love and trust and is never done without a specific purpose that is designed to further my learning. Had it been done for any other purpose, even just for the hell of it, I would have considered the teacher-student bond violated and walked away.
Exercising power to hurt someone without their consent is violence. Period. Full stop. And no one is ever under an obligation to make themselves someone’s punching bag.
If you are teaching for the purpose of fulfilling a need to be looked up to or a need to have attention or a need to feel personally validated then you are not doing your students much good. Don’t get me wrong, teachers deserve to get something personally valuable out of teaching, and good teachers can and should engage in self-care, and set boundaries for their students. Teachers are servants to their students, not martyrs. That said, teachers that are exclusively focused on their own needs, and not those of their students, usually end up harming their students. You are not teaching at that point, you are feeding your ego.
Correction that is born from a need to stop harm that is being done to you arises from your need, not the other person’s needs. And even in the context of an established teacher-student relationship, the fact is that if harm is being done to you, your emotions and your ego are fully involved and centered here. Even if your relationship to the other person renders you entitled to act as their teacher, in this moment, you probably shouldn’t.
Make no mistake, being harmed does merit a response and correction. That you are someone’s teacher does not mean you have to just “suck it up” when your student hurts you. But because the personal demands of your ego, born out of your being hurt, are driving the train, do the work of correction that centers in those needs and circumstances first, and do not confuse them with the very different dynamic of teaching. Anything else is functionally dishonest and deeply unfair to your student. By all means ask them to own their shit. Demand a complete and authentic apology, seek restitution where it is possible, and give grace on your own terms. But do not for one second pretend that this is an act of instruction. Because it’s not.
When it’s a matter of personal harm being done to you, and you try to gussy up your correction in the fiction that you are trying to teach them, you’re being dishonest. Because you’re not trying to teach them. You’re trying to “school” them which is categorically a different animal. Schooling someone isn’t really about their growth, it’s about satisfying your need to see them learn — the hard way. Schooling someone is primarily about your emotional satisfaction that they have paid some sort of price for their transgression and have “learned their lesson.”
The problem isn’t that you’re seeking some kind of reparation for the injury they caused. The problem is using the mantle you wear as teacher to extract it. Your student came to you to be taught, they did not likely sign up to be schooled. So unless your student explicitly signed up to be your punching bag, using your status as teacher to extract personal emotional satisfaction at their expense is violence. Period. Full stop.
One of the key ways to avoid doing violence to your students is to be fully checked in to your emotions and their implications. Anger is a really important one to watch out for, because anger is almost always indicative that something has become personal. We may be frustrated with a student that doesn’t seem to “get it.” And managing frustration may require some self-care. Good teachers do not take their frustration out on their students. It’s called patience and no one who teaches succeeds without it. But when you become angry with that student, now you are likely taking their behavior to heart, because their behavior has worked some kind of injury to you that you may or may not be fully aware of. And if you’re trying to instruct from a place of anger, there is a strong possibility what you’re doing isn’t teaching, it’s “schooling.”
Again, the key here may be step back. Check in with yourself. Where are you operating from? Is the anger you’re feeling based on a wrong that’s been done to you that needs correcting? What is your goal here? Is it to grow the student or assuage your feelings? Sometimes the student has triggered a personal response that has nothing to do with the student’s actions. But sometimes, there’s an injury that’s been done that needs to be dealt with.
If it’s the latter, Maybe you need to step out of your role as teacher for a minute and take a personal moment with your student to deal with the process of telling them they have hurt you and asking them to own their shit. Yes, this can feel like a risky thing. But for your own sake and your student’s, you should do it. Otherwise you’re undermining the trust your student has placed in you, because you’re no longer teaching, you’re feeding your ego. And if it’s the former, consider being honest with your student about where your head is at. Sometimes saying, “you know, I’m really struggling to manage some personal pain right now, so maybe we should take a break and pick this up later,” can provide an important lesson on self-care for both student and teacher.
Sometimes teachers feel that appearing too human with their students undermines their ability to command authority. The vulnerability of saying “you hurt me and you owe me an apology,” or “I am struggling to do this right now,” may feel like it’s a surrendering of power. But it isn’t. The best teachers know that presenting yourself as invulnerable, as impervious to pain, is not a sign of strength. Actually, it’s a pretty strong indicator of insecurity and weakness. It certainly doesn’t engender the kind of trust and love that in witch circles we know is needed to make space for true power, and to empower everyone.