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Decisions, Decisions (Part Two)

In a previous post, we discussed the various kinds of martial arts schools and the elements to consider when deciding where to train. Things such as the size of the school, the location, the class schedule, and the costs associated with training will all factor into that decision, of course. However, the most significant factor – and one that is difficult to assess by looking at a school’s website or even observing a class – is the type and quality of instruction offered. One can know the instructors’ ranks and how long they have been training in the martial arts, one can learn who they have trained under, one can note that (in a style with a competition element) the instructors are tournament champions, but that does not really give one a sense of how they teach or how invested they are in teaching. It is useful information, though. Rank in itself is not a always informative, as different styles have different timelines and requirements for rank. A third degree black belt in one style may be obtainable in six years, but take closer to fifteen years in another style. Therefore, it is important to understand how long an instructor has been training in their style. It is also helpful to know if they have attained significant rank in other martial arts, and who their teachers have been. And tournament wins and awards are impressive, but do not necessarily indicate that a particular practitioner is both invested in and skilled at teaching. So how can you get a sense of the quality of the instruction at a school you are considering joining? Start by observing a class and/or taking a trial class if offered. Take note of the ratio of teaching to practice – that is to say, how much time do students spend watching or listening to the instructor and how much time do they spend practicing doing what is being taught. There is no “ideal” balance. More technical arts may require more detailed and therefore lengthier explanations of techniques, and students at different levels will need different amounts of guidance. However, you want to get the sense that the instructor is working : thinking about what needs to be said and how to say it clearly, while at the same time refraining from indulging in lecturing.

Consider what form instruction takes. Is it pretty much all demonstration, with little explanation? That can work for those with a trained eye, but may be less effective for those who do not have a basic understanding of what they are seeing. On the other hand, it can be difficult for many people to implement purely verbal corrections of one’s movements. Look for instructors who use several modes of instruction – verbal, demonstration, showing the person how it should feel, and so forth – and who make an effort to reach each student through the style that works best for that student. Look at how the new beginners are taught. Are they left to their own devices to follow along and “figure it out”? Or are they standing around while someone shows them every single detail of a technique without giving them much time to actually try it? Or are they being encouraged to get the general shape of the thing through repetition and then given specific corrections to make it incrementally better? The last is what works best for most people learning a movement art.

If there are senior students in the class, notice how they are being taught. Are they mostly left to work it out on their own? That can be very useful for an advanced practitioner. However, you want to get the impression that even the senior students are expected to improve and are given corrections or suggestions to help them do so. Pay particular attention to intermediate level students (perhaps yellow or green belt level). Beginners come in all varieties – those with prior training, complete newbies, natural athletes, and so forth – so they will all look different. But after a couple of years of training, you should be able to see the style in the practitioner. They should look like they have all been training in the same school, and should all demonstrate the style’s basic movement patterns. And it should be evident that they are doing some things that they have practiced many times and are comfortable doing, and also being asked to do new things that challenge them.

Most importantly, notice how engaged the instructor seems, and how they make suggestions. Are they observant and attentive? Do they only offer general instructions to the whole class, or do they correct individual students as they work? Do they give extra attention to those who seem to be struggling, or only focus on the “stars”? Do they speak to students in an encouraging way? On the other hand, do they make sharp corrections when warranted? And most importantly, does the instructor seem happy to be there, interested in the work of teaching?

A good teacher can make a great difference in how one feels about one’s training, and therefore in one’s progress. There is no single “right” way to be a good instructor, and experienced instructors will develop their own teaching style. Some are more formal, some less so. Some yell a lot, while others are soft spoken. Some are more comfortable showing and others explaining. What matters is that they care about the work of teaching, and want each student to progress.

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