May 23, 2014

Challenges and Opportunities

Class last night got me thinking a lot about teaching and training, and the opportunities and challenges that come with that.  Every day I appreciate the group of students that I have.  They always come ready to work hard, and to have fun while doing it.  They’re curious and inquiring, but not disrespectful.  They appreciate the knowledge and experience of the instructors, but aren’t afraid to think for themselves and contribute ideas.  Perhaps most importantly, they all know that sometimes I’m experimenting with lessons and new ways of doing things (and they’re ok with that).  When I’m teaching, I don’t always know if the drill or the teaching method is going to work out exactly as planned.  But if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.  For me, that’s not good enough.  It’s my hope that I can do better – that we (in this partnership of teacher and student) can do better.  Trying something new may not work – if it doesn’t, then we either abandon it or tweak it and move on.  If it does work, the results can be pretty amazing. 

Other instructors can likely identify with the problems I see when brown belts start free sparring.  The tendencies they have are to stop before they attack (attack from a static position), throw a single attack at a time, not defend themselves in the process of attacking, and to stay in their position once their attack is complete (stay in the danger zone).  But can I really blame them?  At brown belt, they’ve typically had about two years of training, and it has been ingrained in them to do just those things.  Every type of sparring they’ve done to this point in time has them attacking from a static position, throwing a single attack, having a defender not able to hit them until they’re done, and requiring them to maintain their posture after attacking.  So then the next few months (or more likely years) of training are spent trying to break the habits that they didn’t have walking in the door, but the bad habits that they picked up due to the training progression and focus. 

So I’ve been playing around with ideas trying to find a better way.  I’ve been trying to teach students in tandem to move naturally and fluidly, and also to move in the strong, finite positions of basic techniques.  I had everyone at training last night (a group of yellow belts through sandans) doing free sparring and free sparring drills.  I regularly have all of my students run through many different kata, including advanced katas.  I have my students hit things, and we do it often (I’ve been known to have beginners hitting things on their first day).  All of my students are expected to think critically about kata applications.  And I am constantly amazed by my students... 

I am amazed at what they can do when I give them the opportunity and tell them that they can do it.  They can do some things that I never would have thought possible when I just remove the imaginary barriers (that I put there) to what they are capable of.  And it is incredibly inspiring to me as an instructor.  But it also constantly challenges me to come up with better ways to teach them.  I need to teach students and not just teach techniques.  What do they need at this moment?  What will challenge and inspire them?  What will motivate them?  What more are they capable of?  The sky seems to be the limit. 

I am learning from each of them every day, which is so exciting.  It keeps me inspired and motivates me to be better at what I do.  I want to do better for them.  I think what it boils down to for me is something that Rory Miller said in one of his blog posts, “In the dojo, there are no winners and losers.  There are teachers and learners and we are all both.”   

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan