Remember 5 questions in 5 days? That seemed to go over well so I figured I would take some more questions.
This one is a doozy: “How does one learn to become a good teacher? Can lower ranking students teach?”
When considering this question I quickly realized that I couldn’t create a prescription for what makes a good teacher. There are far too many varied approaches that can work given the right personality and skillset. Nevertheless, I think I distilled some ideas that can help in recognizing the path of a “sensei” in the classical sense (that is to say, what a sensei was meant to be and what they can be in the modern world). Please enjoy:
I know this video is pretty extensive, so here is a breakdown of some of the main bullet points I touched upon for your notes and reference:
What a Good Teacher Isn’t
- A coach is responsible for the physical performance and readiness of his athletes.
- Some modern instructors do fit that description, especially in the realm of MMA athletes and tournament competitors (like tkd olympics).
- The classical sensei’s subject matter is far more pressing. They are concerned with their students taking other human life in their hands. They have to impart the mental and character skillset to recognize the repercussions of damaging a life, not just on the targeted person, but on their family, on the student, on the student’s family, and in a broader sense, deciding what kind of societal impact the decision process will have (will this individual go on to hurt others?).
- There is also inherent right and wrong matters that a sensei must address. Whenever we see a martial artist doing something disgraceful, we suggest that his/her sensei should have helped him/her in controlling their abilities. In old times, every action of a student reflected upon the sensei significantly, so there was a deeper connection than mere coaching.
A Life Guru
- Being a sensei does not grant someone automatic license to give advice on all life matters.
- Most sensei are not professional trained psychologists, therapists, financial experts, etc. Therefore they are not qualified to give relationship advice, financial advice, etc etc.
- In classical times, the sensei or sifu was a much more integrated part of village life. Their training often made them not just the most deadly individual, but also the best trained in medicine, herbs, physiology, and more general education like literacy, government policy, etc etc. These sensei were highly integrated into a town’s ecosystem. Sometimes farmers would ask advice for when to plant crops and parents would seek out help for naming their children (so as to avoid bad luck).
- That is no longer the case for modern sensei. In our connected society we have real professionals that do all these other things, and modern sensei are not trained to be village counselors.
A Good Teacher…
- finds the proper balance between coach and guru.
- will focus on passing on the curriculum as it was handed down to them, preserving it as best as possible for the students to explore. They’ll resist the ego stroke of flavoring everything with their own flair.
- will understand how to minimize the politics of rank and ego.
- will find the balance between physical technique, mental tuning, and character development. Too much of one will begin to sacrifice the others.
- will understand when to guide students strictly and when to allow them space to explore on their own.
- will do their best to help their students surpass them, giving them tools when they are ready and without ego-based restrictions.
- will recognize the difference between a student who is ready for higher learning, and one who has yet to develop the right character.
To learn how to become a good teacher, you need to pinpoint those unique aspects of instructors you’ve met and absorb them. You need to find ways to embody those things that a teacher should be and avoid those things a teacher shouldn’t be. That’s why lower rank students can help teach. They can assist higher ranks or even take classes once in awhile. But it takes many years of analyzing their instructor and understanding what makes him/her so special in order to integrate that into themselves, and be able to use it to benefit students.
The other day I revisited a cartoon I used to watch as a kid. After about 10 minutes I realized I was gritting my teeth and wondering what the heck was going on.
The plot was nonexistent and the voice acting made me want to find the mute button in a hurry. Nevertheless, when I was young this cartoon made all the sense in the world and I loved it.
Was I wrong as a kid to hold it up as greatness? Am I wrong now for seeing it differently? No. I simply have a different mind today than I did all those years ago.
Of course, growing out of a cartoon isn’t a very monumental personal development. But there are more subtle examples of how the mind can develop year to year, week to week, and day to day.
Books, in general, are read once and then filed away. Every now and then one stands out to each of us in such a way that it demands closer inspection. Most prudent martial artists have a few specific books about the arts that they deem exceptional, and have revisited them from time to time.
The important thing about special books isn’t the raw information but the complexity of the concepts; the depth of the insight that reveals more over time, and improves as the reader’s experience improves.
The cartoon of my childhood was entertaining, but it lacked depth. On the contrary, I can watch certain movies that I grew up with and experience them like they are brand new, filled with powerful emotion and drama.
I’m not suggesting you should go reread old books (although you should). Nor am I suggesting you should revisit old movies (although you could). What I’m saying is that every day you have a new mind. Sometimes the difference between yesterday and today is infinitesimally small. But of course, the depth of that development is entirely on you.
Every time you step into the dojo you are bringing a new set of experiences, a deeper wisdom, and a broadened outlook. Just how much of that growth you supply is dictated by your desire to learn new things and keep an open mind.
This reality is critical when practicing the fundamentals of your system, sometimes called “basics” or “kihon”. Every time you execute a technique you have a chance to see it in a new light with new context. Your mind today can see with better potential than you could yesterday. Of course, not every repetition will result in spontaneous enlightenment, and if you get entirely lost inside your own mind you’ll soon feel mental fatigue. As in all things there should be balance. Indeed, sometimes quieting the mind through pure physical expression can be more valuable than analysis. Regardless, the decision should be conscious and aimed at higher goals.
If you find yourself settling for “knowing enough” or going through the motions, then you’ve allowed yourself to become stagnant. Participation without thought and emotion is a waste of Today’s Mind, and a disservice to yourself.
After a hard evening’s workout, a sweat drenched student approached her instructor. She shuffled her feet for a moment, then asked, “Sensei why do we always do our blocks the same?”
The sensei replied, “Because that is how my sensei always taught them. We are carrying on tradition.”
The girl asked, “But why did he do it that way?”
The sensei replied, “Because that is how his teacher taught him! You know, I’ve explained the fundamentals of our blocks, the physics of our movements and how each block compliments our stances. I’m surprised you don’t know all this already! Certainly by your rank you should know.”
The girl responded, “Yes, but I was just wondering if there is no better way to do it. Are we sure we are doing it the best way?”
The sensei replied, “Yes of course. This way has always proven effective for me and those that have gone before me. Are you doubting your own system?”
The girl responded, “Not doubting, just curious.”
The sensei learned a valuable lesson that evening.
For centuries, being the uke of a skilled instructor has caused cold sweat and second thoughts in students. There’s something about bowing and walking toward your impending doom that seems like a bad idea.
Times have changed somewhat, and with the increase in school sizes and seminars students are more likely to watch techniques from an expert rather than experience them. In fact, a lot of students get good at melding into the background when the instructor gazes around the room for viable volunteers.
This begs the question – what do you get out of watching a technique vs experiencing it?
Back in the ‘ooool days, teachers didn’t do a lot of active discussion. They mostly demanded repetition from students and then tossed them around to demonstrate technique. There’s something intangibly effective about this method (just watch the old masters for proof).
However, we’ve learned a lot more about pedagogy since then and the ways in which we can maximize human learning.
It’s silly to ignore the value of discussion, explanation, and cognitive science. That’s why western style teaching has ultimately influenced martial arts all over the world. A dominant part of the western teaching philosophy is watching and listening (just imagine any given classroom).
When you watch a martial art technique performed, you get a big picture sense of what’s happening. You can observe the distance between the two opponents, the way the engagement occurs, and the way it concludes.
A detail-oriented teacher can explain the ways in which he/she is using physics to maximize force or leverage. They can show how and why they are disrupting their opponent’s timing or balance.
This is all very valuable input, but not a complete learning experience. Think of it this way: You could watch Xgames skateboarders every day for ten years, including every instructional video made. Armed with all that knowledge, what do you think is STILL going to happen the first time you step onto a skateboard?
You might think to yourself…well yea Matt, your point is obvious – a student has to train to get better. That’s why we do partner drills after an explanation, so that we can try the technique!
Not so fast.
Two people that don’t know the technique can help each other improve…but are either truly doing what the instructor is doing? Is it as good? How do you know?
Being the uke for an experienced instructor, while often regrettably painful, offers a unique learning experience. You get to feel exactly where the pain is supposed to focus, how the body’s balance is broken, where the points of relaxation and emphasis are placed, and what rhythm is needed to optimize effectiveness.
In addition, you get to feel the energy and spirit pressure placed upon you by someone at a higher skill level.
Of course, there’s a flipside. When acting as uke during intense techniques, your mind is often narrowed and sometimes blanked by the intensity of the event. You can certainly feel things, but recalling exactly how it happened (and why) is another story. There have been many occasions where I’ve been uke for an instructor and shortly after their demonstration I’ve walked back to my training partner in order to ask what happened.
Receiving high level technique is critically important…but not independently ideal.
The Best of Both Worlds
Maximizing your learning potential requires a little bravery. First, you have to take your best blending-in-with-the-crowd tactics and stuff them in a box under your bed. Get up there and experience the real thing. On top of that, you can’t be afraid to ask questions, even if it means going through another round of demonstration.
On the other hand, you don’t want to get too caught up in the action. Give yourself a chance to slow down and really look at what’s going on. Analyze the science in order to get to the art.
Remember: technique speed and physical strength are the go-to methods of students who are trying to breeze over the finer details of a technique. Do things slow and relaxed until you get it right. Pay attention to the small things like foot placement, body movement, angle, timing, etc.
If you have a teacher who tends to discuss technique while relying on partner pairing, politely wait for him or her to become available and ask to see the technique a bit closer. Every teacher I know is happy to oblige such requests.
There’s no question that caution and common sense should always guide your training, and I’m not suggesting you throw yourself headlong at every teacher you see (that would be impolite, and some teachers should genuinely be avoided because they lack control). But if you are with a good, kind teacher that also happens to be very skilled…it’s in your best interest to experience what they can do first hand.