Monday, 21 December 2009

Black Belts and teaching - another perspective

Following on from all the recent posts on the subject I just thought I'd throw my two penny's worth in about whether new black belts should be expected to teach or not.

I'm not yet a black belt so you may or may not value my opinion on this but I have worked as a teacher in the past and so I know from experience that you really start to learn your subject once you start to teach it to others.

I have just been reading David Lowry's book - Moving Toward Stillness - and there is a chapter called 'Climbing the circular ladder'. In this chapter he recounts an occasion when he was a junior ranked judoka and was witnessing some fellow students receiving their black belts at a tournament that they had earned by virtue of demonstrating skill in competition (batsugun). The belts were awarded by the panel of tournament judges who each imparted words of encouragment to the five recipients of the black belts. The most revered judge was Nishimoto sensei, a Buddhist priest and 5th dan in judo. They all waited for his words of wisdom. He stood up and, addressing the new black belt students, said,"You have taken a bit step forward. Now I hope you will take a big step back." Then he sat down.

The point David Lowry was trying to make with this anecdote was that learning in martial arts is circular, not linear, and we all have to keep taking a step back and revisiting basic skills again, each time gaining new insights and improving our own proficiency.

Becoming a shodan is an ideal time to step back and revisit some skills learned long ago in earlier grades and the best way to do that is to teach them to someone else. I think this is an ideal way to consolidate on learning that has already taken place over the previous few years, check your own understanding of it and complete another loop in the spiral of learning. As long as students still receive instruction from the senior instructor and assistant instructors are properly supervised then everyone can benefit.

Ref: David Lowry - Moving towards stillness (2000). Tuttle publishing

Other posts on this subject:

Do Black Belts have to teach (Just a thought)

Black belts and teaching (State of My Arts)

Do Black Belts have to start their own class? (Martial Arts and Modern Life)

A Delicate Balance (Bushido Road)

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Indomitable Spirit said...

Hi Sue

A wee bit of a tricky one! I certainly agree with you about how much you learn when you start to teach subjects to others.

I guess the issue for me would be where a black belt (or senior student) didn't want to teach or was a poor teacher. I've certainly trained with senior grades who have made it very clear that they have no intention of ever teaching. Whilst I can certainly respect that, I can't help feeling that it's perhaps a little bit selfish as well.

That said, teaching of any kind is hard, and if your personality doesn't lend itself towards being front and centre then maybe there is no point in being forced into doing something you hate.

Martial arts have been such a very positive experience for me that I've always wanted to give something of that back to others. Even if it's only being the instructor's 'crash test dummy' (oh the joys of being senior student!) or just guiding a more junior grade, I enjoy contributing in some small way.

I guess what I'm trying to say - in a very longwinded way! - is that black belts and senior grades should always been encouraged to teach others. They have a great deal of knowledge and skill which they can pass onto to junior belts simply by training with them or mentoring them.


Sue C said...

Hi Avril

It clearly is a tricky subject for a lot of people. I agree that not everyone is cut out to be a 'class instructor' but I do think that every black belt should be able to offer something back to the class, even if it's just doing some basic technique with a white belt on a one-one basis for 5 minutes - how scary can that be! Just being prepared to show someone something or correct an error when they see it is better than nothing.

I think black belts should see it as part of their own development to do some low key teaching (or whole class teaching if they're up to it)rather than see it as 'time taken out' of their own learning.

Have a great Christmas!

Felicia said...

Hi, Sue,

At the risk of sounding selfish, I'm going to say here what I said on my own blog in reference to black belts being required to teach.

Although it is part of martial arts to share the knowledge (how else would the art continue, after all), I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to 1. expect every black belt or senior student to be able to pass on information in a way that is conducive to learning - especially if they never receive any instruction on how to teach and 2. have any student teaching more than they are receiving instruction. What I absolutely love most about martial arts is that there is always something new to learn. While that learning should include fine-tuning/honing your teaching skills, if that is ALL that you're doing, frustration can set in - especially if you want to balance the amount of instruction you're giving with the amount you're getting. Unfortunately, that's exactly where I am right now and as a result, I'm spending one less day at my home dojo and going elsewhere to train - because I know that if I don't I won't get to fine-tune/hone anything other than my teaching skills. It's sad that is has become an either-or situation, but in my school, it has...

I actually like teaching very much, but since I became a black belt earlier this year, it is pretty much all I'm expected to do, which is extremely frustrating; I heartily accept the challenge of stepping into the instructor's space because it does force me to think on my feet, give back - just like someone did for me - and get a different/deeper understanding of material by explaining/showing it to others, but I also want to continue the learning. I compare it to my high school graduation; I'm a journalist and I'm sure I could have instructed others on how to write a headline straight out of HS, but continuing on to college and grad school enabled me to teach that and more, like how to put together an entire news story - from finding sources to interviewing, constructing a solid lead (opening paragraph) and writing "tight." Had I stopped learning at HS, my ability to do that would have been extremely limited, see what I'm saying? For me, becoming a yudansha (black belt) is like flipping my tassel: there's still much more to learn. I can learn by teaching others, but I need instruction from my seniors as well.

Just my humble perspective :-)

Indomitable Spirit said...

Hi Sue & Felicia

Help! I agree with both of you!

I think it is important that black belts do give back to the class by teaching / coaching / mentoring. If nothing else, it should be seen as a means of repaying the same assistance that was given to them on their journey through the ranks.

I also agree with Felicia though. If you are going to take classes then your school or association needs to prepare you for that appropriately - in order to be effective, you must learn how to teach.

In my MMA club I'm in the same position as Felicia - I spend more time teaching than training. I love to teach and help others, but when you turn up wanting to train but find yourself teaching it can get just a little frustrating. Schools need to ensure that the training and development needs of their black belts are met whilst those people are giving their time and skills to teach others.

To sum up - black belts and senior grades should always be encouraged to become involved in teaching. Even working with a beginner for 5 minutes can let you see those skills and techniques you take for granted from a very different perspective. Being able to encapsulate those very physical skills verbally is such a great insight into the heart of your art. To do it in a way that supports others is a great feeling.

Have a great Christmas.


Sue C said...

Hi Felicia and Avril,

I am totally with you on the problem of being 'abused' by your instructor and expected to do more teaching than training. I can see that this would be frustrating. It is a shame it has come to this at your clubs - is it not possible to negotiate with your instructor to do sessions where you teach and sessions where you just train?
Every club seems to have a different standard on how much black belts should teach.

What a can of worms we've all opened with this subject!

Have a merry Christmas

Indomitable Spirit said...

Hi Sue

I can't say that I feel 'abused' by my MMA instructor in this situation, although I do know what you mean lol!

Basically we're a small club geared towards competition. Consequently we have a limited number of registered instructors, of which I'm one.

Because we are geared towards competition, our chief instructors is often focused on getting students ready for a fight. This means that he may not have the time for more junior or new students, which is when I get called upon. We also have that age-old challenge of not being able to predict who is going to turn up for class on any given night, making it difficult to plan effectively.

Also, since I'm currently working towards my a professional gym instructor qualification, I am often called upon to help with warmup and conditioning work.

Don't get me wrong - I don't grudge teaching at all. It's just sometimes I'd like to kick back and BE taught!


Indomitable Spirit said...

BTW - can open, worms everywhere lol


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