Physical Training Feb 2009
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From the Teacher's Corner:
What Makes a Good Teacher?

copyright © 2008 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

What makes a good teacher?

This question is constantly in my mind, being a schoolteacher. But in terms of martial arts, where we put our faith and decades of training in the hands of one person, how do we know if we have a good teacher or not?

Some people say, I know a good teacher when I see one. Ah! The approach based on intuition and feeling. We depend on our 6th sense to inform us if we have a good teacher. Or maybe it is about feeling, how I feel after a class, how I feel about this teacher. I may like the teacher and maybe this is all that counts. But I still haven’t answered the question: is he or she a good teacher?

Others believe that to depend on feelings alone would blind us, blind us to the teacher’s shortcomings. As they say, love is blind. Some teachers are very charismatic, even though they may know little. They can turn on the charm, and we are mesmerized. But what are we learning and what are they teaching us?

I talked to a student of mine recently who had studied at another school and when he asked the teacher what style of kenjutsu it was that he was learning, the teacher told him “Oh, don’t worry. It’s all good stuff.” But the teacher had nice cuts and showed one amazing technique where he threw the sword quickly from hand to hand. The explanation? It is a technique designed to confuse the opponent.

So what makes a good teacher? From the example above, obviously we would argue that knowledge of the art (expertise) would have to be a key criteria. But is this all that makes a good teacher? I am sure that we have all encountered in our lives an expert (be it a carpenter, an artist, a musician, etc…) who knew their art inside and out but for some reason or other were not able to teach it effectively to students. This happens particularly frequently in sports where gifted athletes in a sport do not make very good coaches. They can play the game well, know the game, and perform all the skills exquisitely, but when it comes to teaching it to a bunch of students, they have difficulties.

I have known teachers, who being very skilled and accomplished in their martial art, cannot grasp why others cannot learn it and get frustrated. They then belittle and berate the students, with the rationale that they are trying to spur the students on, to toughen them up, to push them to achieve. They shout, they scream, they make comments about how lousy their technique is. Some do it perhaps to egg the student on, to push them enough that hopefully out of their anger and frustration, they develop the will to strive to better themselves.

Well, the ends justify the means, they argue. If the student eventually achieves something and becomes skilled in the art, then the berating served a purpose. Some people say, that’s the old way of teaching. Somehow this justifies the bullying. But is this good teaching?

Other teachers may berate and belittle students as a means of retaining control of the class, of showing the students who is boss around here. Is this good teaching?

So what is a good teacher? This is a question that has concerned and continues to concern the educational profession. For you teachers of martial arts out there, this is a question of particular importance. Remember our question of expertise in the art and teaching competence? Most martial arts do not have separate streams of study in their art, one to develop expertise in the art and another to develop expertise in teaching it. The ability to teach it is also an art in itself. This is the art of teaching.

In many martial arts, there is an assumption that if you have a 4th dan or 5th dan or whatever is the threshold level of expertise in the art, that you are a good teacher. Is this so? What makes a good teacher? What is good teaching practice? What do responsible and dedicated teachers do?

Well, working as a teacher in Ontario, we are regularly appraised on our ability to teach. The Government of Ontario has outlined 16 key competencies that teachers should possess, divided into 5 domains or categories. A good, competent teacher demonstrates most, if not all, of these competencies:

Commitment to Pupils and Pupil Learning

1. Teachers demonstrate commitment to the well-being and development of all pupils.
2. Teachers are dedicated in their efforts to teach and support pupil learning and achievement.
3. Teachers treat all pupils equitably and with respect.
4. Teachers provide an environment for learning that encourages pupils to be problem solvers, decision makers, lifelong learners, and contributing members of a changing society.

Professional Knowledge

1. Teachers know their subject matter, the Ontario curriculum, and education-related legislation.
2. Teachers know a variety of effective teaching and assessment practices.
3. Teachers know a variety of effective classroom management strategies.
4. Teachers know how pupils learn and factors that influence pupil learning and achievement.

Professional Practice

1. Teachers use their professional knowledge and understanding of pupils, curriculum, legislation, teaching practices, and classroom management strategies to promote the learning and achievement of their pupils.
2. Teachers communicate effectively with pupils, parents, and colleagues.
3. Teachers conduct ongoing assessment of pupils' progress, evaluate their achievement, and report results to pupils.
4. Teachers adapt and refine their teaching practices through continuous learning and reflection, using a variety of sources and resources.
5. Teachers use appropriate technology in their teaching practices and related professional responsibilities.

Leadership in Learning Communities

1. Teachers collaborate with other teachers and school colleagues to create and sustain learning communities in their classrooms and in their schools .
2. Teachers work with professionals, parents, and members of the community to enhance pupil learning, pupil achievement, and school programs.

Ongoing Professional Learning

1. Teachers engage in ongoing professional learning and apply it to improve their teaching practices.


In this article, I thought it would be useful for teachers of martial arts to just see this set of competencies, to understand what the teaching profession defines as good, responsible, competent teaching. And hopefully this insight will help teachers who are teaching martial arts to reflect more deeply on their teaching practices and their teaching responsibilities.

Mr. Tong is a public schoolteacher in the province of Ontario.

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