I would like to take an opportunity to dwell on the topic of teaching the tournament arts. Indeed a great deal of this blog is focused on the discussion of teaching and learning. It is in some ways an attempt to give my readers access to what traditionally would have been passed on in face-to-face situations. We use the tools we have available to make information and ideas commonly available to all who can be bothered to look for it.
So in a world so awash with free information, how can we be sure of the usefulness of what we are looking at? Can I take this a step further and suggest that it is sometimes difficult to establish the credentials and ability of a person running a class or showing you how to make that offside strike.
We live in a place where many ‘teaching’ roles are subject to various levels of accreditation and training. A student will attend a class with the expectation that the teacher has a minimum level of training and is working from an approved curriculum. It is expected that the instructor has a level of attained knowledge in the thing they are teaching and in the act of teaching itself.
There is an important point here. I must stress that the ability and skills of teaching and the skills and knowledge of the thing being taught are two separate and distinct things.
In the tournament arts we have no such accreditation system. In the SCA we give titles to our better combatants and make the assumption that possessing an ability to use weapons is the same as being able to teach it. While the HEMA community has no formal system of titles, I suspect there is a similar group of assumptions.
How then do we determine if a particular person is knowledgeable in the tournament arts? Good question. It is not that difficult to pick up enough information to be able to talk the talk so to speak. I am probably at that level when it comes to many of the historical fechtbooks. I know what they are talking about, probably; understand it to a level that I could impart it in a class situation; only at a very basic level; develop a series of instruction to explore the material in depth, not at all. Yet to a new person I could probably blather on with enough German terms and demonstrate enough moves to appear an expert…
The more formal martial arts have a history of being very careful about whom they allow to teach and you can only open a school if you have permission to do so from your sensei. Sometimes there is even a form of licensing system. This is to ensure that what is being taught is correct. A particular teacher will often give you their martial arts ‘lineage’ as a way of establishing their credentials.
We do not have any such systems or indeed a culture of accrediting teachers. This, of course, leads to all sorts of people trying to teach stuff. Some of them know what they are doing, some of them do not.
It is important that students of the tournament arts be very aware of who they are taking instruction from. The person who has won multiple Crowns may not always be the best person to learn from. Does the instructor have a good understanding of fundamental techniques? Do they know how to work with students of different body types/physique? Can they explain things in a way you can comprehend? The list can be a long one but will mainly be shaped by what your individual needs and aspirations are.
Unfortunately we often do not have the luxury of being able to choose our teacher as there may not be many options in your local group. This can be worked around to an extent. YouTube, Skype and Facebook as augmenters can only go so far.
Another issue is what is actually being taught. I have watched (and had to walk away from) some folk teaching very poor technique that would expose their students to joint injuries or making strikes with the flat of the sword (a particular pet hate of mine). In short, there is some awful stuff being taught out there but I am sure these people are very passionate about what they are doing.
I think, as a teacher, one must be sure you have the right ideas and techniques. A teacher has the ultimate responsibility to get it right. This is not always easy and it takes a lot of work. It is not just repeating a few cool moves you saw on YouTube or in a manual.
I have the greatest respect for those who have progresses to develop their own style or schools. Here are the individuals who have spent countless hours at researching and accumulating experience and knowledge, before they go to the effort of creating a system or school. This doesn’t mean listing a bunch of techniques and then trying to teach it to people. There is great thought into the structure, the hierarchy of techniques, of aspects that go beyond what you see in a technique, and how all this is delivered in a way that MULTIPLE people will make sense of it and make it work for them. There’s psychology of teaching to consider too, not just physiology (which is still complex enough, people do four year degrees to do this).
I think it is always important to acknowledge this sort of effort. It is critical that we have a firm understanding of what we are doing before wanting to repeat what we have learnt. It is one thing to attend a class with someone who has done years of training, researched the crap out the subject, designed teaching plans and curriculums to teach twenty very different students and the person who has only seen the class on YouTube…
I do not want this to sound like I am against people teaching others -far from it. We all, in some ways, are teachers to the people around us and we all have to start some were. I shudder at some of my own initial forays into trying to show people how to swing a sword.
Understanding our own level of skill as teachers of the techniques we are imparting is part of the gift we give to our students – an honest assessment of ourselves and our abilities.
Ultimately what I ask is that we are all aware of our own lineage and limitations. Be humble in what we both know and are yet to learn. Let us give credit to those that showed us the way and make sure we pass on those lessons well.