Are You Good Enough to Teach?

Andrew posted about one of the classic sticky issues in the “martial arts industry”:

Random question: how important do you think it is for a teacher to be as good or better than his/her students when teaching them something? I don’t have any students per se, but I do try to help people out when I see them making the same mistakes I do. Sometimes I feel somewhat like a hypocrite telling someone to do something that I am not able to do myself.

On the flip side, I have a hard time taking instruction from someone who can’t do what they’re telling me to, or who does it really crappy (I’m not including older people of course). I am more than willing to concede that it is just my arrogance that produces this attitude and most of the time I try to glean whatever good advice is there to be had, but I honestly feel like I will always need someone better than me to instruct me. Now, this has not been a problem thus far since all the instructors I’ve had at Tech can rather effortlessly outdo me in pretty much anything they instruct me on – I like that, it keeps me humble and gives me something to work towards.

Let me ask the same thing a different way. How good do you have to be at doing taido in order to competently instruct it? Knowing the theory behind stuff is all good and needed, but theory did nothing for me last night trying to learn hangetsu ate – I didn’t really get it until I saw Bryan do it.

I know there’s no real measuring stick as to how “good” someone is at doing taido, but hopefully you get the idea of what I’m asking, even if I’m not expressing it as clearly as I would like.

I have reposted my reply as a comment below… – Andy.

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5 thoughts on “Are You Good Enough to Teach?”

  1. damn andrew – you don’t bother with the easy-to-answer questions, do you? you expressed it as clearly and succinctly as i’ve ever seen, and i’ve been a part of online forum discussions on this topic going on for over twenty pages of debate. i’m not sure i can give a wholly satisfying answer, but here’s my take:

    teachers need to be damn good… at teaching. i’ve known plenty of guys who were great competitors but awful instructors. i think teaching is a skill that some people develop and some don’t. i’ve also known plenty of ok teachers who were terrible technicians. i think it’s necessary to practice teaching/performing if one wants to get good at either one. wait a minute… that sounds suspiciously familiar.

    specific adaptation to imposed demands (said principle): practice is specific – doing a thousand punches in fudodachi makes you very good at doing insanely high repetitions of punches from fudodachi. only. teaching is a separate skill from “doing” taido. you have to teach to get good at teaching, and you have to move to get good at moving. but that’s kind of a wierd way to look at it too, because taido isn’t the same as other teachable skills like knitting – taido is multi-applicable. teaching taido is one way of doing taido (though some people teach in ways that are not very taido at all). my technical performance improves as i teach. obversely (i think “obverse” is correct here), my teaching improves when i practice taido movements.

    maybe that’s a little too “meta” to clear things up any. so let’s be basic and reduce taido to a skill set that includes fighting techniques and their applications. if we do that, then it’s easy to see how performance and instruction have virtually no skill overlap, with the possible exception of using attention to figure out the best way of relating to our partners (students or opponents). however, teaching a specific skill set is impossible without personal knowledge of how those skills work. so our ideal teacher should be a subject-matter expert in addition to a skilled instructor.

    confession time: i’ve never thought of myself as being very good at taido. i’ve never claimed to be good – it’s always other people who have said that. however, nobody’s ever told me that i have a great shajogeri or that i’m great at jissen or hokei or anything else specifically. so what am i so good at that makes me a “taido expert”? teaching. i’ve been a good teacher for a long time. i freely claim that i am a very good instructor of taido. my teaching skills far surpass my technical skills. when i started teaching taido, i was already pretty good at the techniques, so maybe that’s helped me to be good at teaching.

    wait. no. that can’t be it. come to think of it, i’ve taught things that i’m not very good at. i’ve taught musicians to play instruments i can’t play. i’ve taught people to cook dishes i had never even tasted. and i did pretty good job of both. a few days ago, i taught a taido student how to do sokuchu. my sokuchu sucks, but this guy made the transition from not-bad sokuten to pretty-clean sokuchu in about ten minutes because of my teaching.

    but is a taido expert the same as a taido champion? is it possible to have the equivalent of literary critics and sports commentators in taido? could a “taido analyst” theoretically watch your hokei and give you pointers? probably. could such a person watch your jissen performance and create a course of practice that would specifically address your weaknesses? probably not.

    and that’s one of the keys for me: application. on a base level, the old “those who can’t do teach” idea is a possibility. but when it comes to applying that knowledge to the real world, those who can’t do can’t help. only somebody who has “been there” will really be able to help you figure out the intangible aspects of using taido. and of course, being intangible, they are very difficult for me to explain in type. but i think you know what i mean here.

    one way to look at it is as you would view your college professors. some of them are clearly very knowledgable and capable instructors. they are able to show you the nuts and bolts and you can learn a lot from them. but you never love those professors. they never convert passionate students. the profs you love are the ones who have used their knowledge outside of the ivory tower. they can make the subject come alive in ways the analysts cannot. and that’s where my taido experience informs my teaching skill to make me a better taido instructor than a lot of people who, though intelligent and able communicators, have not experimented extra-theoretically with taido.

    so i guess if i had to deliver you with an “answer”, i would say that it’s only necessary that the teacher have two things: a greater understanding of the subject than the student, and a reasonable amount of skill in conveying that understanding to the student. it’s not important for the teacher to really be able to perform the skill. as an example, uchida sensei has helped me learn to do things he cannot and never could do himself. so, those two (understanding and teaching ability) are adequate. however, adequate is a sorry excuse for the state of the world. how good “should” a teacher be? as good as possible. though being good doesn’t mean you can teach, it does make it easier to inspire, and the power to inspire, combined with a modicum of teaching skill, can go a very long way.

    in a perfect world, it would be easy to find great teachers who are also skilled performers. as things are, they are a rare breed.

  2. I miss all’y’all in Atlanta, but I’m much happier in Oregon.

    Anyway, I’m now a high school chemistry teacher and I love it. I think there needs to be a balance as to the “teaching” versus “material” ideas. It’s one thing to know your stuff and be able to recite it in your sleep. However, if you can’t get it across to your students, you’re not a good teacher. If you can teach, but you don’t know how to answer students’ questions, it can be discouraging (or it could be a “learning opportunity”… eh).

    Personally, I like knowing more than my kids, mostly because I’m a control freak. Also, I want to be able to be a smart-ass when they ask, “why are we learning this?” It’s also easier for me to adapt my lessons because I am comfortable with the matieral, it interests me, and I “only” have to worry about how I’m trying to communicate it.

    For the questions that I didn’t know (or couldn’t make something up), I’d offer a couple of suggestions, and often the student would go and do a little research on their own time. Pretty cool. I’d also go look things up and let them know what I’d found during the next class.

    This past year, I had to teach five chemistry classes and a general science class (freshmen… ugh!) Chemistry went fine, and I had fun. I do not feel like I was an effective teacher for my freshmen. All of the material was basic to me (“This is a meter.” “Here’s how to write a lab report.”) but I didn’t know how to teach the stuff to the kids without being really boring. This summer, I’m scrapping most of my general science curriculum and trying to think of new stuff (so much for the myth of teachers having summers off).

    I think a good teacher is one who inspires and encourages, enough so that the students explore and think on their own.

  3. excellent comments, dana, and wonderful to hear that you’re doing well. i totally concur. my own classroom teaching experience has had a major impact on the way i view my role as a teacher, and i see this changing the way i teach taido for the better.

    it’s also true that teaching the basics can be frustrating. i think we assume that it takes a better teacher to teach advanced concepts, while anybody can teach basics. in my eye, the opposite is true.

    inspiring and encouraging are definite requisites. as is communication. technical knowledge is just data, but experience in applying it helps make it real for students. i think all of these things fit into the education equation.

  4. Although I am not a Taido practioner, I whole heartedly agree with Mr. Fossett’s statements. Mr. Fossett appears to be a capable practitioner as well as an excellent instructor. I certainly appreciate the honesty and forthrightness (is that a word?) that he expresses in his posts.

  5. thanks marc.

    i appreciate the comments. i also enjoyed the yoshukai’s demonstration at japanfest this year. good traditional, okinawan-style karate. your students were also very friendly to chat with while they were setting up.

    by the way, i just checked my OED, and “forthrightness” is listed as a derivative from forthright – safe!

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