Saturday, March 1, 2014

Notes on being an instructor



As I progressed in kendo inevitably I was called upon to start teaching. Some people relish the opportunity to teach, but I became quite apprehensive when faced with a class of people looking expectantly at me awaiting direction and maybe even (gasp!) advice as to how to they should improve. "I can hardly perform basics myself, how can I seriously teach others not that much less experienced than myself?"
This article is attempt to write down on a few things that perhaps would have made my life a bit easier back then.
Follow the pattern
In the beginning it is enough just to run the class. Follow the pattern, you're just a supervisor. Warm-ups, suburi, kihon, uchikomi, kakari, jigeiko: it's a time-honoured sequence that does not need much fiddling with. If my sensei asked beforehand to add in some time practicing some specific technique, I realised it was OK just to repeat sensei's teaching method even down to his exact phraseology. In a sense the junior instructor is a cypher for their sensei and is not expected to display any personal flair or skill. They are not expected to have an interpretation of waza based on their own experience.
As time goes on I was called upon to decide on the actual content of the class. This started with running beginners' classes and taking care of the lower kyu grades. This is where a junior instructor starts to bring their own take on how to perform basics. However in my opinion the gap between a junior instructor's actual grade and the level of the techniques on which they can instruct should be quite large. Here is my own personal metric (YMMV, etc): shodan should not express an opinion on any techniques but simply announce them and call "hajime/yame!"; nidan/sandan can instruct footwork and suburi, basics of kamae and wearing of dogu. Kihon and other waza should only be taught in depth by yondan/godan and above.
Issues of teaching
There are a number of reason for the gulf between technical proficiency and teaching ability:
  • it is one thing to be able to perform an action with one's own body, it's quite another to be able to explain it effectively
  • recognising that different people learn at different rates and often require completely different kinds of instructions to reach the same goal is a subtle skill that requires experience
  • teaching is about closely monitoring and diagnosing the needs of others, not displaying one's own skill for personal gratification
Japanese versus 'Western' teaching methods
As I gained the experience to be able to run an entire class unsupervised, I realised I needed to develop a teaching methodology. In kendo, two conflicting methodologies operate side-by-side in many dojo, very often without the conscious knowledge of the instructors. For argument's sake let's call them the "Japanese approach" and the "Western approach".  Typically the Japanese approach is to make the student perform repetitive drills with little or nothing in the way of advice. Historically, even high-level waza were not explained and it was left up to the individual to observe closely and imitate. The rationale for this approach was that once the student could see a waza, they would also be ready to do it.
The Western approach is frequently characterised as being more analytical. Students usually have the waza explained to them verbally first, then demonstrated, then more verbal explanations follow. Often the waza will be broken down into its component parts, and each one of those practiced, before reassembling them back into sequence. This is seen as being a more time-efficient and student-focused approach, as it allows students to question the instructor and get clarification on specifics of the waza that are pertinent to their individual needs.
Which path is best?
The big disadvantage with the Western analytical approach is that it encourages over-thinking. Students will often mistake a superficial grasp of the main concepts for real understanding. One indicator of this is the ability to perform the waza momentarily but not later on. On the other hand, few 'Westerners' have the patience for the old-school Japanese approach of "three years kirikaeshi, three years uchikomi". There's insufficient cultural conditioning to be able to stay with the apparent neglect of this teaching style. So a hybrid methodology is needed. How to combine these two approaches will differ according to individual instructors and their students.
Learning to observe
As the old saying goes, "God gave us two ears but only one mouth so that we should listen twice as much as we speak." As a guideline for teaching kendo I think this is hard to beat. When in doubt about what to tell my students, I found it was best to tell them nothing. Not being sure about what to say, was, I realised, a sign that I had nothing worth saying right now. So I learned to kept my mouth closed and my eyes and ears open. Actually, I'm still learning that...
I learnt to notice of my students, letting their actions tell me what I needed to do in order to teach them what they needed to know. Some sensei, Japanese in particular, are observing machines. They rarely feedback to their students but when they do, it is worth the wait. Their methodology is to observe intently over very long periods of time. Perhaps the amount of time you spend observing is directly proportional to the depth of the insights to be gained. Whatever the outcome of their advice, as a result, they become masters of observation as much as kendo.
The very best teachers avoid giving advice to themselves when speaking with their students. If you know what I mean then you know how hard that it is. If you don't know what I mean and you're an instructor then you could be doing it without realising.
Q&A
I do believe in being available for questions from students. However I am frequently struck by how technically unhelpful not only the questions are but more especially my own answers. It is rare that I feel that I ever get it so right that the student has a light-bulb moment. On the other hand the discussion can serve an important social function. Interaction between teacher and student is important and your demeanor as instructor, and the fact that you are open to questions can, in and of itself, be a valuable learning and motivation tool for your students.
Mohan 模範
Mohan means "a model performance of keiko in front of many beginners". This is a really tricky part for those of us who are instructors but whose own kendo is somewhat short of hanshi level. How can we perform an example of a particular waza for our students and do justice to it? How can we do that time and time again without mistakes? How can we avoid the nervousness that comes with being in front of an entire dojo? How can we avoid stuffing up?
Short answer is, we can't.  And we shouldn't. Every now and then you will fluff a seemingly basic men in front of all your adoring students. You will see them knot their eyebrows in puzzlement. You will feel nauseous as you realise you have just slipped a rung in their estimation. Best thing you can do is apologise and try again.
But the thing I have realised is that these moments are to be cherished. When you have the ego knocked out of you in front of your students, it is good for your kendo, and for you as an instructor. It has the following benefits:
  • shows you are human
  • shows that the techniques are difficult
  • shows you are striving to improve just like everyone else
  • shows that striving for improvement is a process that doesn't end
  • shows that you are a decent bloke/sheila because you don't take yourself too seriously
  • makes the technique look even better when you nail it next time
  • gives you instant feedback on what you did wrong – when you do it in front of a crowd, you know
  • forces you to perform under stress, like a grading or shiai
Eventually you will get used to it and these moments will no longer be stressful... at least not until the next time you have to demonstrate a technique that deep-down you know you can't do very well! But keep doing it, stuffing up now and again, and trying again. Your students are watching you for a whole lot more than just how you perform a technique. You were a mohan as soon as you entered the dojo.

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