By Sensei Guy Hagen, October 8, 2016

Learning As Teacher

When I first was given the responsibility of teaching and managing an Aikido school, I saw it as a burden and responsibility – time necessarily taken away from “real” training.  It took a while but eventually I discovered that there was the potential for real value in teaching for the benefit of improving my own performance and understanding of the art. I found most of the benefits did not come automatically but took extra effort and focus on my part to create, but were benefits I wouldn’t have probably acquired training the normal way – through keiko as a student in a dojo.  I probably could have gotten to the same place eventually, but it probably would have been a longer and harder path.  These are some of the benefits I observed as I grew being a teacher, while simultaneously trying to increase my own skill at the same pace I had grown accustomed to.

  1. Articulation.  Einstein is quoted as saying something like “If you cannot explain something simply, you never truly understood it.”  While you may have built a performance level of understanding regarding a technique or concept, it’s not until you have to explain it in a way that others can quickly grasp and demonstrate that same principle or technique that you truly have made it “your own.”  Explaining things out loud quickly demonstrates the flaws in your unspoken assumptions and ideas about why things work the way they do, and challenges to your assertions (in the form of questions, confusion among students, or outright attempts to test the merits of what you are teaching through resistance or other uke response) force you to re-examine, re-organize, and simplify how you think about technique and principle.  That in turn, can give new insight into your training.As an extension to this principle, I have often found myself responding to a question by a student with an answer that surprises me – as if I was channeling somebody who knew what they were talking about.  Internally, I would find myself asking “where did that answer come from?  Do I really think about this, this way, on some subconscious level?”  When the answer comes from the intuitive (not the logical/analytical) mind, it can be surprising and provide a lot of “food for thought” and avenues of self-exploration to integrate the ideas on new levels.
  2. Faith.  New, junior instructors often attest “but I can’t teach!  Nobody wants to hear what I have to say!” This is a hurdle that has to be overcome.  I often tell new teachers to “put on the Sensei hat” and just demonstrate what they are working on right now in their personal studies, or show what they love about Aikido.  Eventually when this lack of self-belief is overcome, the teacher starts to grow into the expectations and belief that students have in that teacher’s ability. That begins a transition in keiko wherein the Aikidoka no longer constantly self checks “is this working?” and instead just does technique with every faith and expectation that it simply will work.  Much of Aikido and other martial arts operate on a non-analytical level of communication, and embodying a level of certainty in all training has a huge impact on performance and success.  “Putting your stuff out there” is probably the only way to build the self-certainty required for higher level performance; it’s always safer and easier to just be a student and never be tested or responsible for nurturing amazing students.
  3. Experimentation Multiplication. True learning requires not just repetition (for incremental improvement) but experimentation and failure (to discover qualitatively different solutions to desired goals).  On one’s own, a student has only one lifetime (or one hour per class) to train and experiment, and of course overcome idiosyncratic patterns that constantly try to assert themselves and prevent the formation of new, more interesting patterns.  Eventually, a teacher can treat a classroom as a laboratory wherein each student represents a different variation of him- or herself.  Then, when a technique or idea or explanation is given to the room of students, the teacher can look at six, a dozen, eighteen variations of that technique being tested.  If the teaching as explained seems to be working for most of the room, great; discover the “core” part which is successful among the successes, try to discard the part that everyone is not succeeding with, and start the experiment over.  Look for “mutations” – individual misunderstandings or expressions of technique – that seem to be working surprisingly well, and instead of automatically dismissing or correcting them try to discover the element of value and include it in the next round of experiments for everyone to try.  If a teacher can look to the students as a valid source of inspiration and correction of instruction, then instead of one hour of training, the teacher is receiving the benefits of a dozen hours of training (or multiplied by however many students are actively participating in the class).  The greatest obstacle to this benefit (and the greatest pitfall of teaching in general) is of course “ego”, and not having the discipline to look for ways to correct one’s own technique based on what the students are doing successfully or unsuccessfully (I avoid using “right” or “wrong” to encourage experimentation versus adherence to doctrine).
  4. Accessing the Intuitive Mind.  There’s something we locally call “sensei radio”, and many martial artists have experienced it.  This is the phenomena wherein different teachers, who haven’t communicated in any way (and in fact may be separated by distance or organization), seem to all have gotten together and decided to teach the same technique, in the same progression.  One teacher seems to “pick up” where the previous night’s teacher left off, or even where the seminar shihan in another city or state concluded their seminar even though the dojo teacher wasn’t there.  There are a lot of explanations for this, but it can be pretty uncanny at times. This is just one example where just trying to be the best teacher possible and giving the students what they need to get better right now can allow teachers to tap into their intuitive minds and subconscious.I will give another example.  Science is increasingly discovering that much of innovation and comprehension occurs not through analytical problem solving, but through intuitive leaps that happen discontinuously with the learning event.  So, there is a lot of value to staying on the mat and trying to work through a technique until “you get it,” but you probably won’t really integrate that skill until you’ve slept on it and it has had time to ferment and mature in your subconscious.  By the time one starts becoming a sensei, one has probably trained ten to fifteen years (or more) – and one’s subconscious is packed with training moments, concepts, and feelings.  While you are a student, you are still packing more things into that subconscious.  But when one becomes a teacher, you eventually start relaxing the “absorbing” aspect of the mind, and start to allow the “expression and integration” phenomena to occur.  In my own career, I have found an increase in “where did that come from?” moments, or moments suddenly demonstrating elements of technique and finesse that I never quite mastered during my time as a dojo student.  Indeed, there were years where I would visit my peers, teachers and seniors at seminars and they would comment on how much I had improved over the year, and their comments would be a mystery to me since primarily all I did was teach since last time I trained with them.  I have come to explore and rely upon the intuitive mind’s role in learning new performance abilities, and “teaching time” is the best time to channel the subconscious and let it express what it has discovered.
  5. Defining Skill Hierarchies and the Art of Bootstrapping.  In many Aikido and other martial art schools, status and seniority is defined largely through age instead of objective performance.  Rank is issued to people who hang around the longest, instead of those who can articulate and demonstrate higher levels of performed technique.  This creates environments where politics and favoritism are allowed to grow, and students become confused as to what is required to excel and attain the deeper aspects of the Art.  But as teachers become responsible for bringing students up through the ranks, they have the opportunity to stop teaching to the syllabus requirements and instead be thoughtful and clear about what attributes and performance metrics need to be demonstrated and achieved at each level (especially each black belt rank).  Then, by extension the teacher can benefit by having to themselves be able to clearly demonstrate the levels of increased performance ability for each rank – shodan skills and shodan, sandan skills at sandan etc. – in a way that all the students can clearly see the difference in levels.When I started building up a university club, there weren’t really any really senior white belt students and no black belt students.  Eventually we had a cohort of students who were getting ready for shodan, and I had to think long and hard about how I was going to get a bunch of white belts to prepare some students to be excellent black candidates.  Of course there were other dojos in the area, and that helped, but I found it critical to define for myself what I considered to be a good shodan test and what skills and attributes had to be demonstrated in one – and then very clearly work hard to demonstrate those skills and get all the dojo members pull together and train them with me.  Thus, everyone put in a lot of energy and the dojo “bootstrapped” to be of the collective skill level to produce good shodan students.  Eventually, the same issue arrived as some students approached nidan, although of course the problem was even harder – how can a dojo full of white belts and shodans produce good nidan tests?  Again, I had to define for myself what “defines” a good nidan test, clarify that into teaching, and demonstrate and exemplify those attributes myself as a teacher.  Repeat this again for sandan, collectively “bootstrapping” a dojo’s collective talent level. By clarifying and articulating the differences in skill and performance expected at every rank level for students, and striving to instill those attributes among all the members at a level they can see and understand – the teacher forces themselves to catalog and demonstrate where their own skills fall along the hierarchy of performance. If a teacher cannot clearly demonstrate and explain the difference in performance expectations for shodan, nidan, sandan, he or she may not have actually acquired higher level skills than they had at lower ranks.
  6. Challenging From Below.  I have been a member of schools where it was forbidden, or at least an arrogant breach of etiquette, for a student uke to try to challenge the teacher when the teacher was demonstrating a technique.  Unfortunately this reinforces a myth of infallibility of the instructors, and encourages an environment where students are afraid to ask questions, experiment, fail, or vary from perceived normative behavior.  It encourages the growth of “dogma” – wherein students do things for years without knowing why, simply because “that’s how everyone else did it.” Unfortunately, it also fosters an ego trap for the teachers, wherein they can “rest on their accomplishments” and not have to improve their abilities.  But, if the teacher encourages students to test them through the power of their attacks, through follow-up responses (e.g. a one-two punch or evasion and escape responses), or even reversals, the teacher must become ever alert and make certain that their abilities are up to being challenged.  As the student base achieves higher rank levels, the teacher should always feel the uncomfortable pressure to themselves train harder and get better! It helps to not “punish” (e.g. throw hard, hit, or chastise) students when they attempt this, and helps even more to have a sense of humor and a willingness to own up to mistakes as a teacher.  The students don’t expect the teachers to be superhuman, and in fact how teachers deal with mistakes can be an important source of guidance for the students’ own training.  If a teacher takes being challenged with a good attitude, the students will challenge each other more – and of course, most of every student’s growth comes from their training with other students.  A good balance is to let a student challenge once or twice during demonstration, but then gently remind them (if necessary) that the teacher now has a responsibility to demonstrate something they want the class to understand, and the last few demonstrations should have honest attacks but no intent to stop, reverse, or escape.  With this practice, as students get better, they force the teachers to keep getting better too.
  7. Redefining Reasons For Training.  “Why do I do Aikido?”  The answer to that question has changed many times in the course of my Aikido career, but never so much as it did when I started being fully aware of my responsibility and impact on the lives of my students.  What I did, what I said not only could affect the lifetime potential for a student to advance in Aikido, but my role as teacher affected lives.  I have students that married each other and had children; I have had students fail tests and quit; I have had many instants on the mat that could have resulted in death or maiming if I had been less focused; I have had students have to deal with life-threatening situations that made me reconsider if I was preparing them enough; I have seen the growth of a wonderful community of friends that I have come to cherish; I have seen my words change how students think of themselves and structure their own self-respect and identities; I have had students suicide, or die tragic deaths that rocked that community I had come to value so much. Realizing that my words and smallest of actions can impact entire lives, I had to come to terms with a huge level of responsibility and redefine what integrity and discipline mean to me and how they manifest in my art.  But with those changes came a sense of reward, of value and respect, of truly becoming a part of a lineage and mission of something huge and meaningful, of making positive change, of dedicating my life to something not for selfish or personal reasons but in service of others.
  8. Exemplifying Uke. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, are the benefits that are created by avoiding the temptation to become the “Wandering Sage” sensei – demonstrating the technique a few times, and then strolling around the classroom dispensing wisdom and corrections. It is hard to shape students by simply correcting them, the most effective way is by celebrating positive examples and by having the teacher inspire the students by being an exemplary uke.  The students want to train with the sensei, and skills and responsiveness that the sensei can demonstrate while being an uke partner inspire students to themselves cultivate those skills – ukemi, quality of attack, responsiveness, sensitivity, attitude, etc.  In some traditional koryu (traditional Japanese Samurai arts) the teacher was always uke! One benefit of this is that it helps shape the entire dojo, and brings up the energy level of training.  It helps the teachers avoid getting fat and lazy!  As the teachers get older, it forces them to evolve and revise their expectations of uke and nage.  It reinforces personal relationships and loyalty between teachers and students.  I find that in classes where I train and sweat alot alongside my students, my instruction also improves.  According to Saotome Sensei, Aikido is change through leadership, and the best way to inspire attainment among students is to have them do as you do and not do as you say.  In short, once you get good at being a teacher, you get to practice being a good student again!

 

So here’s my question to all of you Aikido and martial arts Sensei: Have you experienced these benefits to your training?  Are there other categories where you have seen real improvements to your performance and understanding of the art through our teaching?

2 comments on “Learning As Teacher

  1. Very eloquent. Thank you. I particularly like #6. I expect them to challenge me – either with technique or questions – within the confines you describe. If I teach a technique and do not have the student off balance they do not fall down for me. That improves my Aikido. We have quite a few students who are Dan ranks in other arts, some even Senseis themselves. It gives us a good chance to learn from each other.
    I often joke about the things that they don’t teach you in “Sensei school”. Like if a student’s relative passes, it’s almost expected for you to attend the wake. One might not realize it but as a Sensei you are now an example.

    In gassho, Mark

    Reply
    • Thanks, Mark Sensei. You make a very good point about “sensei school” and unexpected impacts and responsibilities. On a very important level, the gift that O Sensei gave us is a structure for learning how to deal with stress and relationships and people and lives, and as Sensei we have to (should strive to) exemplify the values we teach in all aspects of our lives. More than any other art I’ve practiced, students expect me to “walk the walk” and show them how to as example (as you stated). The unexpected part is that even if you aren’t paying attention, you can become important to the lives of many students.

      Reply

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