Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Skillful Teacher

We've all heard the saying, "Those that can, do; those that can't, teach." There's no guarantee that someone who's highly proficient in their subject matter can teach their skill. In fact, quite often it's gifted people that have trouble understanding why others don't have the same knack they do. I certainly don't believe the opposite is true: that incompetent slobs make qualified teachers. Mario McKenna has an interesting article in this vein which in part discusses the surprisingly wide spectrum of talent and ability that exists in karate instructors. While I don't think one has to be an expert to teach at some level, a fair degree of proficiency should be expected. At the very least, a good teacher should be a decent technician in their art and be able to explain every nuance with clarity.

So how good is your teacher? I don't mean as a sensei but as a practitioner? Aside from her/his ability to present the martial arts, are you at least reasonably convinced this person could handle themselves if they were actually attacked? Does your teacher spar with you? There's a perception of the martial arts master as an invincible warrior, no matter how old or wizened he is. Aikido's Morihei Ueshiba would offer a kaiden (teaching license) to any student who could even so much as catch him off guard at any time. Nobody ever succeeded, even when attempts were made when the master was supposedly sound asleep or even on the toilet! Now there was a Kodak moment if there ever was one.

Most instructors are highly skilled in some area, whether it's sparring, kata, or even fitness. In this day and age an out-of-shape teacher isn't very marketable, regardless of their level of proficiency. The best instructors tend to be multi-faceted so students can make their own adjustments as to what works best for them.

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Blogger Unknown said...

To answer your questions about my main instructor (in case they weren't rhetorical questions), I know my teacher is good as she does practice herself. She is working towards her 5th degree belt, so she has to stay on her toes. She also still competes as well, and being the regional chief of tournaments, is really on top of what is looked for in competition, as well as stressed what others would be looking for in testing should you ever go elsewhere. I am very confident that she could take care of herself if attacked, and I've lightly sparred her, but she is known for having a wicked reverse hook kick that I really don't want to experience if I can help it. ;-)

Now, the interesting thing that she has taught me in learning how to instruct others is just the opposite of that saying you mentioned. The philosophy she has is that in teaching, not only do you help someone else improve, but you become a better martial artist yourself. You learn about your own mistakes when watching how someone else does it. You are forced to think about how to explain to someone the right way when it doesn't come naturally themselves. I was just working with a wheelchair bound classmate with nunchakas/ssang jeh bahng drills the other day, and I know she was trying her best and she understood the concepts, but it wasn't happening for her. One adjustment, which I had to learn the hard way, was keeping my elbows up at almost all times. Once I gave her that insight and correction, her technique improved immensely, and I think with some practice, it will become easier for her. So, if you want to be a better martial artist, the key is to teach. ;-)

10:36 PM  
Blogger frotoe said...

I feel very lucky. All of our sensei are 3rd degree and higher and they all have a deep understanding of what they are teaching and why. I have total confidence in them. There is no arrogance, no self promotion, etc. I have also seen all of them in action and there is no doubt why they have each earned their rank.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Savage Baptist said...

Hmmm. Kind of interesting. You know, I first began to suspect that something was "up" with the Korean system I was studying, that it might not quite be the "super-karate" that it is so often promoted as being (at least here in Tulsa) when, as a second kyu, I was sparring my sixth-dan Korean instructor in a private session, and I gradually became aware that it wasn't that he was taking it easy on me, that I really was giving him trouble, and that I really could have manhandled him if I'd wanted to.

As great a disparity as there was between us in rank and experience, I had to conclude that there was something deficient about the art itself, which led me to start looking at other things. Shortly after that, I joined the Marine Reserve, and just before getting out of boot camp, I read an article about a relatively obscure form of Okinawan karate that sounded interesting. And upon getting home to Tulsa after Infantry Training School, to my complete and utter shock, I found that there was a qualified instructor of the system here in Tulsa, teaching through the parks and recreation system. A pretty small guy, too. But pound for pound, the most dangerous guy I've ever met.

Eventually I drifted away--my marriage needed all the attention I could give it--and when some time ago I finally became able to be active in the arts again and found my instructor again, it turned out that he is dealing with a lifelong pulmonary problem and is on supplemental oxygen. He figures that in a violent situation, he's got about twenty seconds, max.

He can still put a stop to most people in one or two. So I figure he's still got plenty of "breathing room," so to speak.

It's just wild. You ought to see him teaching Naihanchi Shodan with that little canister of liquid oxygen strapped to his backside.

5:56 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...


I agree that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. Just watch out for that reverse hook kick! ; )


You should feel lucky. It's funny, I've heard of some of that "self-promotion" myself.


As great a disparity as there was between us in rank and experience, I had to conclude that there was something deficient about the art itself...

Not necessarily. If you were 2nd kyu (don't they use a different term in Korean styles?) in the same art as your 6th dan instructor, how could it be the style's fault? Unless you were previously trained in something else, but you didn't say that.

I finally became able to be active in the arts again and found my instructor again, it turned out that he is dealing with a lifelong pulmonary problem and is on supplemental oxygen. He figures that in a violent situation, he's got about twenty seconds, max.

Twenty seconds for a violent encounter sounds way too long regardless of who you are. Still, anyone who continues to teach and train with that kind of disability sounds like a bona fide warrior.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Mir said...

IT's difficult to be an Instructor.. not only must you be able to teach the topic that you are teaching with efficiency, be able to use the skills that you are showing others, but also you have to have some people managing skills to help the student in their struggles. A Skillful Teacher has to be able to instruct a crowd as easilly as instructing individually. It's a demanding position!

10:20 AM  
Blogger Silverstar said...

My instructor lives, breathes and sleeps martial arts and trains constantly. His passion for Ju Jutsu never fails to impress me and serves as a good inspiration. He always presses upon us that your only as good as you train and that goes double for instructors, who the students look up to as role models.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Savage Baptist said...

John, I was basically just muscling the guy around. The point I was trying to make was that if he couldn't handle my size and strength then, he probably never would be able to. At sixth dan, it's not like there was a whole lot left of the curriculum for him to master. There just wasn't enough "art" to what he was doing and teaching.

You're right, the Korean systems don't say "kyu" but for the life of me right now, I can't remember what they do say. Might be "gup." I'm not sure.

At any rate, contrast the one fellow with my current instructor, who is much smaller than I and also not nearly as strong. But his technique is far superior; he has no trouble kicking my tail. In his art, his technique, the old adage that size and strength don't matter is truly realized.

And yes, twenty seconds is too long. That was just mentioned to highlight the limitations his health places on him.

He's a fighter, alright. Although I don't mention the name of the system publicly (principally because I blog about all kinds of stuff and I don't want to place other people in the association in the position of having to answer questions about my politics, etc.) you might find it interesting. If you ever get a chance to come to the Tulsa area, say something, and I'll introduce you.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Perpetual Beginner said...

My first teacher was a police-officer for his day job (SWAT team). He fought with us every time we set foot in the dojo, usually spending more time sparring than anybody else there. His technical knowledge was vast, though he tended not to trot it out very often, being more fond of pragmatics. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that he could take down anybody he needed to, unless they got the drop on him, and possibly even then.

My current teacher is a lover of kata more than kumite, but he's no slouch as a fighter. At 5'6" he's not a fearsome presence in a fight, but he's quick and can pretty much tag most of us at will if he wants to. He also fights with all of us any time we fight - though we do so less often than my first dojo. I have some trouble imagining an instructor who didn't spar with his students. He's not an analytical sort by nature, but like many people who come by their knowledge the hard way, he's good at getting others to understand it.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

Teachers have such a big burden. Yet a very interesting and fullfilling burden.

I guess there's no way around it. If you have cheated your way there, it will immediately show. And everyone will see the teacher for what one is.

There's just so much that shows through one's teachings...


11:58 AM  
Blogger somaserious said...

My sensei is constantly sparring with us. There's some in every class we do, especially the upper belt classes. He also does this great thing with the kids: they "spar" but he lets them "throw" him around. It's so incredibly amazing to see this little child "fighting" with this very tall man. The kid's faces have such light when they do this. As for "those who can't, teach" I was thinking that saying doesn't apply so much with martial arts teachers. MA teachers "do" all the time (not "doh"). They need to be so proficient in their styles in order to teach it correctly. There needs to be such an incredible amount of understanding of the martial arts when you become a teacher. I'm learning this now as Sensei is putting me more into the teaching aspect of our style. It's not an easy thing to do, and you really do need to have the people skills in order to see how each person learns.


11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob Redmond had an interesting article (parable, really) on a related topic: The Master and the Champion

11:54 AM  

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