Learning to Teach

A friend of mine felt that I could blog about subjects other than writing software, and suggested a blog entry or two about teaching. Most of my teaching lately has been karate. I am training for a black belt in Zen Bu Kan Kempo Karate, and a mandatory requirement is time spent teaching as a brown belt. What I didn’t expect was to enjoy it. So here is the first of a series of short articles about what I have learnt about teaching.

Beginner students, placed in the back ranks, often fail to to see that at the start and end of class, not only do the students bow to sensei, but that sensei also bows to the students. Respect flows both ways, or it isn’t respect. As teachers we must respect our students, respect their fears and foibles, their strengths and weaknesses, and most particularly respect the gift of their attention.

People, be they adults or children, dislike the feeling of not knowing, of looking stupid, of feeling unco. Even in a training or teaching session, where they expect to be learning new things, they still don’t like feeling stupid. To deal with this, we need to make sure that the material is consistent with the student’s ability; to challenge them but not be unreachable. You will usually know how children feel about things, but adults have the same feelings in the same situations, they just hide it better, they have had practice wearing their “social face” for years or decades longer. Also, some kids prefer to look naughty rather than stupid.

A large proportion of children in a karate class don’t know their left from their right. A surprising proportion of adults don’t, either. In both adults and children, being under pressure will make it harder for them to get left and right correct. If you need to correct them, they will already feel bad for getting it wrong, do not compound it by saying “no, Jimmy, your *other* left hand”. This isn’t funny, and it humiliates the student, who already felt bad to begin with. Instead, give them a way to remember that is tied to the activity; for example, in kata, cue them to their own position, “follow your elbow” or “use the opposite foot”. No left or right, just “same” and “opposite”.

Another common issue is yawning. A yawn is a natural physiological response to a sudden increase or decrease in heart rate and respiration. The commonest of these are waking up and falling asleep, but some people (adults and children) yawn during interval training, or when students are alternating doing with listening. Asking the student “are we boring you to sleep?” isn’t funny, and the student was already embarrassed about a physiological response he couldn’t control, don’t make it worse. Some people a yawners, and some people are not; just ignore it.

There are other ways to unintentionally insult or humiliate students. Be on the lookout, and avoid them once you become aware of them. Always remember that your students’ participation at karate is voluntary; if they feel humiliated or victimised they may choose not to return, and your own actions have lost you a student.

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