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Sunday, July 19, 2009

The art of being a student, the art of being a teacher

".....Get clear about exactly what it is that you need to learn and exactly what you need to do to learn it. ....." - Miguel de Cervantes

"The art of teaching is clarity, the art learning is to listen."-Vanda Scaravelli


About 13 years ago, on my second day at a new martial arts class, I was inadvertently a few minutes late to class due to traffic. I quietly entered the Dojo, proceeded to the dressing room, and promptly changed into my Gi. Because I was late, I knew it would be rude for me to just walk onto the mat, so I knew to ask the Sensei's permission to join the class....however, I was never shown the proper protocol in doing so. I knelt in seiza near the "low" end of the mat, and waited for Sensei to wave me onto the mat. Sensei made eye contact with me, smiled and motioned me onto the mat. In the middle of a technique practice, I waited in seiza until the technique was over, Sensei taught a new technique, and only when he commanded us to practice did I approach another student to request to be his partner. "Onegaishimas", I said as I bowed. Practice went on enjoyably.

After class, another student (of 2 months) admonished me for waiting on the side until sensei taught another technique. "Don't you know that when Sensei brings you on the mat, you find a trio or a pair and wait to be asked by those students to practice with them? You don't wait on the side! You'd look lazy!"

"I didn't know that, I'm sorry. But, I did not want to to be rude and just walk amongst the students as they practiced." In my mind, I told myself "Gaah, this is only my 2nd lesson, I haven't been verbally taught any of the protocol other than the usual ettiquette of bowing on and off the Dojo floor!"

All I'd been exposed to up to that point, was Karate and Kajukenbo protocol....while much was similar, I knew Aikido's protocol might have slight variations....I just didn't know them yet.

The student saw me again as we retrieved our shoes near the entrance. He wouldn't let up....he said: "so I hear you've taught martial arts...I figured you'd have a clue, but I guess not..."

The primitive side of my brain screamed: "Helloooo! I teach a different art! Gimme a break here, and how about you teach me 'why' instead of telling me how stupid I am for not reading your 2 month student mind!"

I got into my car, and was a bit shocked and actually sort of angry that another student would berate me like that. I'm no stranger to hard discipline, but I was used to receiving such admonitions from much higher ranked members of a class, and usually, the corrections were accompanied with a reason for "why", so that I would not merely follow a rule without understanding it. Knowing that the student was probably just spewing things out to affirm that he's learned something, I shook off the irritated attitude and drove back to my own studio to teach classes.

In kids class that night, I thought about ways to clarify my instructions, to simplify them. I wanted to be sure that their progress was something they could be proud of understanding, not just imitating.

In martial arts classes, sometimes teachers will show you a technique, and have you practice it without fully showing all the applications.....the idea is, to get the student's bodies to become familiar with the technique, without the distraction of all their "how is this applied??" questions. The teacher will correct the movement and then introduce the applications and variations. When applied correctly, this teaching method works great, because students learn to fully understand the technique through their own practice, research, and experimenting.

This is where the "get clear about exactly what it is that you need to learn and exactly what you need to do to learn it" part of Cervantes' quote comes in. The martial arts teacher, in having you practice the technique only (without giving you a truckload of "and you can use this technique this way, that way, and that way" dialogue), gets you familiar with what (concept)you need to learn, and the tools (movement) to learn it.

A teacher's guidance and desire to nurture the student's evolvement of the technique, prevents a technique from being merely a physical movement, devoid of meaning. However, the student also, must learn to "listen" to the teachings instead of just following blindly. Academic knowledge itself, can still leave people ignorant.....I believe, that if one wants to gain a good education, that you have to delve into and explore the teachings, not just repeat or imitate things without trying to understand them.

I've forgotten the name of the student who loudly admonished me in that class years ago, but he taught me an all important lesson about being a teacher, instead of merely carrying the rank of a teacher.

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