I think that in running a martial arts class, if you aim to improve the martial arts skills of your students, the most important thing to get right is not instruction, demonstration, or class planning; though these are important things.
The most important thing to get right is culture; the environment in which students learn. Tom Leoni’s recent post about running a class made me think about fostering effective class culture. Ideally all students work hard, focus, enjoy learning, and ask for help, which creates a feedback loop.
It is important for students to know what to expect before they arrive. This includes start and finish times, break times, usual warmups and drills (at a regular class), and equipment required. If they know what’s coming you don’t have to tell them which saves time, even more so if you are late or miss a class for any reason. The students will still have productive and useful things to do.
Everyone should swap partners after every pair drill. Working with the same partner isn’t fair on the people with disparate skill levels; the set of three put together to solve uneven numbers; or the pair where one person constantly tries to “win” the drill. Changing partners helps expose the students to as many versions of the correct actions as possible, as well as different permutations of reach, height, strength, and other variables. Everyone should understand the method to changing partners whatever that method is; whether it be forming two lines and stepping to the left, being allocated partners by the teacher, or everyone grabbing a person they haven’t worked with yet in the session.
The difference between a class and a practice session is that a class has a class leader or teacher. Someone is declared to be in charge; without declaring who is in charge class time is spent making decisions and building consensus instead of training. Being clear that you or someone else is the instructor helps you take ownership of your class and when you aren’t the instructor it is easier to focus on your own training.
Groups often have more than one instructor. Students who are instructors should be discouraged from interjecting in other teachers’ classes. If you can’t stop yourself from interjecting or disagreeing with the official instructor you should set a good example by leaving the class. Even if it were okay for you to make a comment doing so enables the rest of the class to start a discussion and derail training. If you have an issue with a teacher’s interpretation or think they have got something wrong you can let them know after class.
Students should know the purpose of the actions they perform in class. As the students learn drills and what the drills achieve they become more self-sufficient learners. When they notice a problem in their art they can recall a drill that improves that aspect of the art and practice it. Acknowledging the goal of an exercise helps keep you honest too. If the exercise isn’t achieving the goal it will be obvious that the exercise needs to be altered; if the goal isn’t explicit students and teachers are more likely to make up a goal that erroneously justifies the exercise.
Just as there should be a goal for a drill, there should be a goal for every class and the class should know what that goal is. At the end of the class you can test whether the goal was met and evaluate the benefits of different teaching approaches.
Allow for human dynamics
Students should keep going with an exercise until they are told to stop. Training time is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted. Humans are imitators, if the advanced student stops because they aren’t getting any more out of a drill the students who are still benefiting will stop too. This applies when you are being a student as well; because you are still a role model, even when you aren’t actively teaching.
The corollary is that students should be told to stop and move on to another exercise before they become bored and switch off. Going through the motions of an exercise is worse than doing nothing; standing still doesn’t teach bad habits. Paying attention to student’s needs and attention level in this way starts to become more about your skills as a teacher than having a good culture but it is still necessary in order to enable students to carry on with exercises until told otherwise. This sort of responsiveness is acquired partly through attention and partly through experience.
Everyone should plan to arrive 15 minutes before class starts. Students need time to sign in, chat, visit the loo, get changed, and perform any personal warmup they require. Classes that don’t allow this time start late, and then people who would be punctual, start planning to arrive when class actually starts instead of the formal start. For example, at the School of European Swordsmanship (Guy Windsor’s school) students are expected to do one pushup for every minute they are late to class as an incentive to be punctual. Any reasonable consequences, even informal ones like disapprobation, can work to correct this problem.
Classes should have clearly defined break times. When students don’t expect a group break they start taking breaks themselves students will find it easier to stay disciplined, if they know that a break is coming and they haven’t reached the end of their endurance. Break times can be as simple as telling the students to take a minute for water and as elaborate as scheduled tea breaks in a weekend seminar. I find being the instructor in a well run class much less tiring than being a student; so I often need reminders that students need breaks. If you take breaks irregularly as and when there are appropriate places to pause the class, it may be helpful to ask someone to remind you to take them, or to encourage students to ask for them when they need them.
Honesty, humility, and praise
Students will have varying previous experience, levels of athleticism, and difficulties in class. Praise and compliments should be directed towards the virtues you want to encourage like discipline, punctuality, and effort. The way to praise technique is to praise improvement: you encourage effort and you give students valuable feedback on their practise.
Encourage honesty, if a technique isn’t working you and the student need to know. Students who aren’t getting a technique don’t usually understand it and they look at the wrong things. Then when they practice they try to get the appearance of correct action. It can be tempting to fake the other end of technique so that the one who is supposed to be struck is. As a drill partner and as a teacher do the students the courtesy of honestly telling and showing them when they have it wrong and tell your students to do the same. If students know when they have got it right and when they have got it wrong they will know what to practice and what to correct. Being honest when you get it wrong, especially when doing a demonstration, will give the students an example to follow.
Be humble and foster humility. Students who are always trying to “win” a drill and who switch off when it is their turn to be struck disrupt learning. This mentality can create chain reactions that end in drills so warped they may as well be sparring, and poor sparring at that. Both sides of a drill have something to teach students need to know that they are practicing important skills even when they are not striking their partner. As an advanced student I learn more setting up my partner to hit me correctly than I do hitting them. Make the victory conditions clear and the students can feel success when they are learning.
My goal teaching classes is to produce great martial artists and I can’t do that if students stop training after six months or a year. What I have noticed is that people start a martial art through interest but continue for the social group. Fostering this group identity is therefore important for retention and classes are more fun if everyone genuinely enjoys one another’s company.
New students should feel included in the group from the moment they join the class. Doing activities as a group even a mixed skill group helps everyone to feel like they are working together at the same goal. At Fechtschule Victoria this is done particularly well. Everyone works on the same drill at higher or lower levels of complexity and the pairs are streamed so that students work with someone near their level. In my classes, generally do this by performing solo drills as a group and giving the beginners and intermediate students different pair drills. Optimally you would introduce all the beginner students at once in a beginners’ course, before entering them into regular classes.
Uniforms promote class cohesion. A change in clothing differentiates one activity from another, facilitating a change in mindset for martial arts. Many traditional eastern martial arts use uniforms in this way and to ensure their students wear appropriate clothing for the art they practice.
Holding regular social events outside of class promotes group cohesion. In the groups I run we often go to the pub after class. Social events reduce the urge to chat during class, which is another bonus.
Most of this advice comes down to choosing a goal and then setting up the culture of the group to reach that goal. There are two main ways of creating appropriate culture. One is to set expectations and the other is to exemplify those expectations. The more practical aspects of teaching can be discussed in a future post, but even if haven’t much practical teaching experience you can have a productive class when you have a productive culture.