The Progression of Teacher Training in Swordschool
Teaching well is a skill that can be learned.
Some people teach because they have an internal need to teach.
Others teach because there is an external need for a teacher in the people around them.
People in the first group tend to be a pain in class to start with, because their internal need to learn-by-teaching has them constantly trying to teach the drill to their partner. They need to be shown that they are letting their internal need overwhelm the good of “their” student, and be given other outlets for their teaching needs.
Those in the second group need a compelling external reason to teach, and it should not be forced upon them. But they should be given the chance to experience teaching, as they may find it a good learning environment.
The key to teaching teachers is the same as for teaching everything else: create an environment in which progression is natural, and failure is not only survivable but expected.
Feedback is essential. As a rule of thumb, always find two things to praise, and one thing that could be worked on. E.g. “Thanks. I can see they’re getting it. Especially that tricky step, which you made really clear. Do you think you could get the same effect with less verbal instruction?”
It is worth noting that many students have relevant backgrounds that can accelerate this progression. Three months after founding my school I went to America to teach at the International Swordplay and Martial Arts Convention. I handed over the running of classes to a student who had been with me for those three months only- but had about 20 years of martial arts training, including teaching classes, and was also an instructor in the Finnish army. I could trust him to keep everyone safe, which is the only really serious requirement.
If you have a student who has expressed an interest in teaching, how can you empower them to become a good teacher? As I see it there are five general stages of a martial arts teacher’s development. There is some overlap between the stages, and this is not a prescriptive program.
Stage 1 gives the student basic familiarity with sharing skills- walking beginners through actions they don’t know, being a demo partner.
Stage 2 teaches the student to see the general state of the class, and gets them comfortable suggesting progressions for the class.
Stage 3 teaches the student how to plan a class, and how to adjust their plan according to the class’s needs, as the class progresses.
Stage 4 readies the student to run classes on their own.
Stage 5 expands the student’s skillset to include individual lessons, teaching for other clubs, and teaching at events.
Avoiding trainee burnout:
Once they start running classes alone it is quite common for teacher-trainees to get frustrated and discouraged if they have to teach too much. Your goal as their instructor is their development as martial artists and as teachers. The point here is the trainee’s wellbeing, and the long-term good of the Art. The point is absolutely not for you to get a night off.
As a general rule the student should be taking at least three classes as a student for every one that they are leading. It helps to have multiple candidates, but especially in a small club that can be impractical. One way round that is to have the student teach only a quarter or a third of each class. Unless the main thing they want to learn is to be a teacher (which is very unusual in a martial arts class), they need to get plenty of time studying the Art itself. Burnout is unlikely at a ratio of one hour teaching for every three spent being taught the Art.
Even with only two trainees in development, you can still have them tag-team within a class, and between classes.
It is also fair for students beginning to take on teaching roles to get priority access to you for private instruction.
A very common mistake is to leave the trainee teacher in charge of beginners all the time. This is absolutely wrong, for two main reasons.
- teaching beginners is the most difficult skill of all, because they are very varied, very unpredictable, and prone to remembering all the things you taught wrong. The rule of beginners is this: “show it to a beginner correctly a thousand times, and they will eventually copy it correctly. Show it to them wrong once, and they will copy it perfectly first time.” My instructors have usually been teaching normal classes for a while, and assisted me on several beginners’ courses, before they are left in charge of a beginners’ class.
- Until the trainee is deeply versed in the Art, teaching beginners can be very frustrating. It feels like being left in the kiddie pool (though really it’s more like being dropped into a shark tank). Make sure that they are given more time with established students. If you are dividing the class into two groups base on experience, take the more basic group yourself, most of the time.
Notes on giving feedback
The only feedback that really matters is the progression of the students. If they got through the class without injuries, got noticeably better at the material presented in class, and enjoyed themselves, then the class was a resounding success. That will only happen if the class was run safely, and if the material was well chosen and well presented. The best feedback for your trainee instructor comes from watching their class. However you can make the process much more efficient by giving them some timely feedback too.
As their instructor, your word carries far more weight than it should. You can destroy a student’s confidence with a single poorly-expressed comment. The fundamental rules are:
- Praise in public, criticise in private. Under no circumstances tell a student they are doing something wrong in front of other students. This goes double for giving feedback on their teaching. With practice they will learn to judge their teaching skills by the progression of the students they are teaching.
- Always start with praise. Find something nice to say about what they just did. If you can’t, then you’ve made a mistake putting them in that position, and that’s on you, not them. Say so.
If you have to pull them up on something, do so in private, but also with as much tact as you can muster, and offering an alternative course of action. If they are spending too much of class time talking, instead of telling them to talk less, suggest that they keep track of how much they are talking and remind them of the ideal ratio.
If the class is going wrong and you need to intervene for safety reasons, do so with the minimum necessary force. We have a culture in my school that anyone can call halt if they see an accident about to occur- e.g. the rubber blunt comes off a sword. So calling halt during your student’s class can be framed in the same way, and not actually be perceived as a criticism.
If the class is going wrong, but there are no safety concerns, have a quiet word with the trainee while the students are busy practising. “How do you think it’s going?” “Okay, do you think trying this other thing might work better?”.
Watch for the trainee getting frustrated with a class. It is very common for them to have grand dreams about this awesome class they are about to teach, but the students present aren’t ready for it yet. If they try to proceed regardless, they will get frustrated, and the class will get confused. Head that off ideally before class even starts by checking their class plan. If things have already gone that way, suggest alternative content.
It is vital that you remember at all times that the trainee is expected to make mistakes. That is how they will learn. Your job is to make sure that those mistakes are not damaging to any of the students present, including the trainee. You have to let them teach sub-optimally, and let them see the effects of their teaching on their class. That way they will learn why we do sword handling before pair drills and why it’s necessary to watch the class interacting with the material you just gave them.
Very often the single biggest barrier to the trainee learning to teach well is you: you want to interfere, you want to improve their classes by giving them the answers. Keep your mouth shut as much as possible, and only open it to say something encouraging or to give advice when asked.
Stage 1: basic familiarity with sharing skills
This takes place within a normal class under your direction. “The student” is your teacher-trainee. It is never too early to start students here. If someone missed the first class of a beginners’ course, and you have a student who wants to help out who’s only training so far is the first class of that beginners’ course, that’s fine. So long as they have a basic grasp of what they are demonstrating, and understand that the other students’ development is not their responsibility, and you keep an eye on them, it’s fine.
- Walk through a solo drill:Ask the student to take a small group of beginners (from one student to four or so) through the choreography of a basic action, eg a footwork drill. This is within a class, so they are not in charge of anything.
- Walk through a pair drill: Ask the student to teach the choreography of a basic pair drill to one other person.
- Be a demo partner: Demonstrate with the student in front of the class, often. This gets them used to being onstage. Adjust the demonstration so that even though you’re determining what’s happening, they are doing most of the actual demonstration. Give them the fun stuff to show off with.
I would do these first three activities with every student as far as is practicable, but the fourth, watching the class, only with those that have expressed an interest in teacher-training and have enough experience of being in class that they have a sense of how a class should go.
- See the class: Ask the student to watch the class in progress, and tell you what they see. Then ask them what they would teach next. Do we need to take a step back to something simpler, or push them ahead? I would usually start this kind of training when the student has at least six months of regular class attendance, or relevant experience from other activities.
Stage 2: getting comfortable in front of a class
This is still within a normal class. I get all students to do the first two options- leading a warm-up and demonstrating without me. It’s good for them, if it comes at the right time in their development. The stress of being up in front of a class is a useful tool for teaching them to perform under pressure. As with all such tools, readiness is highly individual, and depends a great deal on what the individual student finds scary.
- Lead the warm-up: Ask the student to lead the warm-up. Depending on the student, you can either give them time to prepare, or just drop it on them. However it goes, make sure you praise them afterwards, in front of the whole class. “Great job Maaret, that was fun!” Ask them afterwards how they felt it went, and give them the usual 2 positive responses, one suggestion for improvement. Encourage them to be creative in their warm-up leading. If they have some training in something else, let them draw on that. It is not about following exactly what you do, it’s about them finding their teaching voice.
- Lead a demonstration: Ask the student to demonstrate something you have chosen- they call out a demo partner, do the demo as requested. I use any time I’m injured or sick as an excuse to do lots of these first two options. That frames it as “helping out the instructor” not the much more scary “take control of the class”. Ask them afterwards how they felt it went, and give them the usual 2 positive responses, one suggestion for improvement.
- Carry on past the warm-up: When they are comfortable leading the warm-up, ask them what they would follow it with. Whatever they reply, so long as it is at least vaguely on topic, say “good idea. Carry on!” And let them demonstrate it, and have the class practice. This is really where having a familiar class structure is very helpful. They will know what normally comes next, and do something like that. Ask them afterwards how they felt it went, and give them the usual 2 positive responses, one suggestion for improvement.
- Choose the next step for the class: Teach them to see the class. Ask the student to watch the class as they’re training, and tell you what they see. Then ask them what they would teach next. Do we need to take a step back to something simpler, or push them ahead? Then have them stop the class, demonstrate the new thing, and have the class do it. Ask them afterwards how they felt it went, and give them the usual 2 positive responses, one suggestion for improvement.
- Safety protocols and first aid: Teach them the safety protocols around unsafe training, how to get rid of an unsafe student, how to treat emergencies (we have had an ambulance called to the salle once, because a student had an epileptic fit for the first time in her life. I wasn’t there, but the competent adults present did the right things, and all was well), basic first aid, etc.
Stage 3: Learn to structure and lead a class
Once the student is comfortable choosing what the class does next, demonstrating it, and getting the class to actually practise it, and they have a broad enough base in your syllabus to make informed choices, have the student plan a class from start to finish. Discuss their plan with them. Make it clear that their one true mission for the class is to enable safe training to occur.
Note that there are no specific class plans within our syllabus- every class should be constructed according to the needs of the students present. Also, there are no semesters, courses, or modules per se: we have a syllabus comprised of specific drills and concepts, but no prescriptive path through it. This is largely because the students are amateurs, and there is no way to predict who will be present at any given session. “Teach a class on basic joint locks” is a reasonable prompt: “teach the class on basic joint locks” is not.
Instructor-supervised teaching: Have them run their class plan, or a part of it, with you there holding the space for them. Feedback as usual from you, but also get their peers to give them feedback, with the usual format: everyone (starting from the lowest in the hierarchy, assuming there is a hierarchy) finds two nice things to say, and makes one suggestion for improvement.Expect and encourage them to make informed decisions about when to ease back, when to push forward, and to be paying complete attention to the class itself, and the needs of the students in it. “I was going to go on to this more advanced drill, but looking at what they’re doing now, I’ll have them do this more basic thing first”. “They are getting a bit bored, because this is probably a bit too easy for them. I’ll mix things up a bit and have them do this thing next”. Slavishly following a class plan is death to good teaching.
You might divide the class up into two or more time slots, with one student taking the first section, one the second, etc. Make sure that their plans are compatible though.
Stage 4: learn to take responsibility for the class.
When they are comfortable leading a whole class with you there, the next stage is to have them lead all or part of a class, without you there. Make sure they have a peer with them as backup, so they are not alone.
Make time in the schedule for student-lead classes. This is critical: if they don’t have the times to practice in, they really can’t learn. Accept beforehand that it is better for the long-term good of the Art that students get taught to become teachers, even if that means (as it certainly will) that there will be many classes taught that you could have done “better”, in that the students present would have maybe improved faster.
When the student is comfortable leading classes with just a peer for support, run an examination. The purpose of the examination is a rite of passage for the candidate: after passing it, they know that they have the authority to run classes on their own account. To be effective, it must be possible to fail, though if the candidate is properly prepared that should never happen. The exam is just a regular class, announced as an exam in advance so the students know what’s going on. The class leader creates their class plan (the sensible ones check it with me first but that’s not required), on whatever topic they like within the syllabus.
There are only four things that will fail a candidate in my Class Leader exams, ranked in order of importance. The candidate is fully aware of all of these, long in advance. No surprises.
- Allowing unsafe training to occur unchecked. An injury may occur in class even when training is properly conducted, so an injury occurring is not grounds for failing, unless a) the injury was caused by a poorly-supervised environment or b) the candidate fails to handle it. I usually get one or more students to sit out during the exam, and expect the candidate to notice, and find out what’s wrong.
- The candidate talks too much. I use a stopwatch to time everything. If they talk for more than 3 minutes in between exercises, it’s a fail. If they have a ratio of more than 1 minute talking for every two minutes training, they fail. So talk/demo for 2 minutes max, have the class practice for 5 minimum. Most candidates have a friend check this for them during their classes leading up to the exam.
- The candidate can’t admit when they are wrong or don’t know the answer. I will often ask them a question in front of the class, which I know they don’t have the answer to. I expect them to answer along the lines of “I don’t know, but here’s where I would go to find out”.
- Making shit up. We have a syllabus for a reason, and while there is a lot of room to play, the candidate at this level is not there to teach whatever ideas may pop into their head. The students have a right to expect that any content is within the general bounds of correct practice as we see it in the School. In higher-level exams the student may be presenting their own interpretation of a source, but that expectation must be explicitly set in advance to the students showing up for the class. Mis-remembering a drill is not on its own grounds for failing, but at this level the candidate is supposed to be competent to demonstrate the material in their class plan.
After the exam I go over my notes with the candidate in private, letting them know immediately whether they’ve passed or failed, and raising any concerns and talking it through, and praising whatever can be praised, before announcing their result to the class. If I have to fail someone, I’ll present that to the class as “there were one or two technical issues that we have to polish up, and we’ll run another exam for them in a few months”. Absolutely never discuss the candidate’s failings with the class, but invite them to give the usual 2 for 1 feedback to the candidate if they wish.
Stage 5: broadening their skills as teachers.
Some students want to become professional instructors, or simply keep improving as teachers. There are several further steps that can be taken, such as:
Training to give an individual lesson. In the individual lesson, the coach controls the fencing environment in real time, adjusting the level of difficulty so that the student improves in the target skill. This is trained for primarily by the general rule in all training, that all drills are practised according to the rule of c’s. So by the time the student is ready to learn to coach formally, they have already been doing it for years in a less formal way.
Learning to teach longer classes, such as a full day or full weekend seminar. This is primarily about planning, managing your energy, and applying the class instruction over a longer period.
Learning to create a training method for a system the student has developed from original research, and to teach that to students. This should also include a feedback mechanism whereby the students’ experiences with the material leads to improvements in the interpretation, syllabus construction, and presentation.
Learning to teach a seminar to an outside group, such as a different club, or at an event such as WMAW, or even one-offs like bachelor party groups. They all have slightly different needs and goals, but the overarching principle is the same: create a safe training space for that group. The key skill is to read the group, assess their actual needs and interests, and create the experience that works for them.