Physical Training Oct 2011
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From the Teacher's Corner 17:
Setting the Tone

copyright © 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

There is a certain train of thinking which I have observed in some dojos where the teacher thinks that he (or she) must somehow be constantly teaching. They believe that if they are not actively on the floor teaching, that somehow they are cheating the students or at least not educating them. In other words, they feel that they are not doing their job.

Likewise, I have also seen situations where the students themselves believe that the teacher should be constantly teaching. If the teacher is not teaching me, I am being cheated somehow. Or the teacher doesn’t like me. Or other such nonsense. Particularly in private dojos where the students are paying a fair amount of money to receive instruction, they feel that they are not getting their money’s worth. They have to “see” the instruction to equate value to the learning experience.

It is sad that in such cases, the student can equate the experience of learning only with what they can outwardly “see”; in other words, only what they receive directly from the teacher. If the teacher instructs me directly, I have received my money’s worth. Learning somehow becomes equated with money.

Consequently, teachers know that some students feel this way and so that type of mentality is like a poison. The teacher starts to think that way too. And eventually some teachers will feel that they have to give the student their money’s worth. Lessons become more structured with objectives to demonstrate to the student that yes, indeed, learning has taken place. We have accomplished something each class, we have progressed somehow, something constructive and valuable has taken place.

When martial arts becomes entangled with business, this is what happens. Value must be justified, quantified. Like in the Western-style McDojos that are strewn across North America, particularly in and near the big cities.

When I was in Japan, learning was not as structured as it is here in North America. Time was not an issue. The teacher was not under some pressure to achieve objectives for each class. Classes did not have to be justified. Students did not question the teacher or complain that they were not getting their money’s worth.

Granted there are a lot of shady dojos in North America, taught by people with no business teaching and run by people with no other driving motive than to make a lot of money. And there are the McDojos which basically are martial arts health clubs/factories, no different from any other health club, fully equipped with fitness gym and saunas and the like. They have multiple branches which are all carbon copies of one another and operate on a franchise system, hence the name McDojo. Classes are structured, timeslots observed. One class ends, another begins. When time becomes a valued commodity like this, naturally instructional time and learning time become important issues in the students’ minds. They pay their money, they want something in return. In our accelerated era, students (i.e., customers) want instant results, quick results. Progress in martial arts however is a slow process unfortunately. It doesn’t happen overnight. But students do not necessarily see it this way and they will let you know this too. We pay a lot of money for these lessons, we expect a lot. I know because I have myself felt this kind of pressure. I have had students quit and complain to the administrator/owner that they did not feel that the instructor cared about them. I have also heard complaints that the instructor purposely ignored them, which basically is a variation of the “the teacher doesn’t like me” excuse. Of course, all these complaints had no basis in fact but were reactions to what the students perceived as “not getting their money’s worth.”

I would even venture to interpret these complaints as reactions of two types:

1) they are not progressing as fast as they had hoped (and usually this depends mostly on the student and their abilities, not on the teacher), or

2) they are not finding the class fun or entertaining (which in other words, means that they are not being catered to enough).

How to escape from this consumer-driven thinking?

Well, you have to establish right from the beginning the tone and rhythm of your class. You also have to set the expectations of the class. Let’s apply this to our 2 scenarios which we outlined above.

Not progressing fast enough

An interesting conundrum. Progress depends mostly on the student’s ability and readiness. Of course, they don’t see it this way. They think that they are ready. They came in hoping that they have some talent in this art. Once they discover that they do not have a special talent for it, it then becomes hard work. This is usually when I see them leave, and there are various possible explanations for this.

One, they are really struggling. This art is not as easy as it looked. Now I have to really work at it to learn it. When the tough work begins, some leave. It’s not fun anymore.

In some other cases, they are not progressing as fast as they had hoped and this has to do with their dreams and the consequent expectations that accompany such lofty ambitions. They find they are not as co-ordinated or dextrous or flexible or fast as they had thought. The bubble has burst and some people do not like to face the reality of their limitations. It’s a blow to their ego and their own self-image.

Set the atmosphere that everyone is there at the dojo to work. Set the tone that the progress will be slow but steady.

The class is not fun or entertaining

Well, with this one, the student thinks the class should be exciting and fresh all the time. If not, they get bored. As teachers, you have seen these student types before. They are impatient and if left to their own devices, will find time to fool around and try to get others to fool around with them. The trap however is that if you try to cater to their need, you will end up trapped. If it is entertaining all the time, you will have to keep up this act all the time.

In both of these cases, the teacher consequently feels the need to somehow deal with these types. To keep the “not progressing fast enough” students, the inexperienced teacher will try to appease them by giving them more, even though they are not ready for it. Or the teacher will feel the compulsion to work specially with this student more, maybe on details, thus giving them more one-on-one time. To keep the “this is not entertaining” student satisfied, the teacher will try to plan a succession of different activities or drills to keep it upbeat and lively.

This is the worst methodology. When you try to cater to their whims, you are losing that sense of yourself. What is it that you want the class to learn?

Set the atmosphere that everyone is there at the dojo to work, calmly and purposefully. Set the tone that the progress will be slow but steady, with lots of work on detail and lots of repetition.

It is important to set the tone of the class and the atmosphere and expectations of how students will behave in the class and how they will learn as well. For example, if you set the tone of the class as a slow class with lots of work on details, the students will understand that and expect it after a while. If you set the tone of the class as collegial with everyone helping each other, you will get that too.

Now, what about what I started this article talking about, namely that you don’t have to be teaching all the time? Basically, if you are catering to the students, you are teaching all the time, trying to appease them and entertain them. Forget about it.

Some will argue: “But I don’t want my students to struggle.” In other words, because struggling students will leave, so you will lose income. Well, you can cater to them but you will lose in the end.

The students need time to experiment, to sort it out, to struggle with the material and themselves. They need to work with their partners to work through it and to eventually discover the answers themselves. You can’t hold their hand forever.

I remember when I was studying at Sugino Dojo in Japan. Old Sugino Sensei rarely intervened. He would sit quietly watching. If something was dangerous or very wrong, he would shout out some instructions immediately. Other than that, he would wait until you were finished and then ask you over. Then he would give you some advice quietly. Not much. Just a few words about technique. Things like:

“Remember that when the opponent’s sword is like this, you must…”

“You have to watch your balance…”

He wouldn’t say too much. Just one thing or two. That’s all. And then he’d leave you to think about it. A nugget of gold. I always wrote them down in my notebook after class.

Sugino Sensei keenly watching the practitioners

Or occasionally, he would ask you to do kata with him. That was a treat because it wasn’t too often. It was a special thing. So when it happened, you paid attention. In effect, setting the tone and the expectation that most of the time, you will be working with each other or with the various sempai.

It was also expected that you were there to work. Some students do expect to be catered to. But at Sugino Dojo, you were either there to work or you could go home. Floor time is valuable. When you got the chance to get on the floor, you made the most out of it, because others were waiting for their chance. Of course, you could not monopolize the floor. You had to be polite and considerate of others. But you never knew when you might get on that floor again that day, so any chance you got, you made the most out of it. So there was this unwritten understanding that the expectation of students was that they should be working and practicing all the time, either physically on the floor or mentally as they observed others from the sidelines. And that applied to everyone, regardless of talent level. That’s what I mean when I talk about setting the tone of the class.

I’ll go back to what I mentioned at the start of this article:

There is a certain train of thinking which I have observed in some dojos where the teacher thinks that he (or she) must somehow be constantly teaching. They believe that if they are not actively on the floor teaching, that somehow they are cheating the students or at least not educating them. In other words, they feel that they are not doing their job.

Was he actively on the floor? No.

Was he constantly teaching all the time? No.

Was he cheating the students? No.

Was he educating them? Yes.

Was he doing his job? Yes.

Was he catering to their every whim? No.

Old Sugino Sensei didn’t say much but when he did, you had better be listening. Or you would miss that nugget of wisdom.

So what can we learn from this old teacher? You don’t need to say much. You don’t need to do much (i.e., micro-manage the learning process). You do however need to set the tone.

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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