Engaging a class
One of the skills that is very important to an instructor is engaging a class. It won’t matter how well structured a class is, how much research went into it, or how technically correct the material is if the students are not kept engaged with the class in some way. If they lose interest, then they are not going to be able to pick up the lessons effectively.
There are many ways to engage a class; just as there many ways to mismanage the engagement of a class and to lose their interest, or to let the attempts to engage them distract them from the actual technical material that is being taught.
Humour is one of the most obvious ways of engaging a class, and can be one of the easiest. Simply telling a joke or two is a quick way to make the atmosphere seem friendlier and a little less serious. Some care needs to be taken with humour though: a joke may seem like it will be funny, but then fall flat, which will not help with engaging the class, and could even do the opposite. One example comes to mind of a seminar I once took part in where the instructor came across as quite strict and serious, but out of the blue made one or two very bad jokes. This simply came across as jarring. Other instructors might include too many jokes, to the point where it becomes hard to take them seriously. It is also worth bearing in mind that everyone might not share your sense of humour, and telling a joke during class time that people might find either offensive or cringe-worthy will also not help.
The occasional well-timed, well-told joke can definitely help engage a class, although jokes that are badly timed, badly told or that are simply inappropriate, or making too many jokes can damage how you are perceived in your student’s eyes.
Humour can be more subtle than telling obvious jokes as well: I can think of some instructors who’ve done well from using a certain kind of dry humour for instance. Many of the treatises we study include phrases such as “…and then you may do as you like to him…” or “…this blow he will not soon forget”. Phrases like this, when delivered during a technique demonstration with an under-stated voice, a wink and a smile can go a long way towards this sort of humour.
On a similar vein, an anecdote or a story can fulfil the same purpose as a joke, and luckily HEMA lends itself to such anecdotes. If talking about Fiore, why not tell the students about the duels he won, if talking about Paulus Hector Mair, why not tell them about the unfortunate circumstances that led to his hanging, or if teaching Scottish broadsword, why not tell a story from Scottish military history? Anecdotes can also be taken from modern HEMA practice as well. When teaching a technique, why not give an anecdote about a particularly memorable example you’ve seen of that technique being used in a tournament, or in cutting practice?
If telling an anecdote though, it is absolutely essential you check if your anecdote is in fact true before you tell it. Relatively recently I attended a course where the teacher began by telling us a few “facts” about the history of pugilism and boxing, which were of course completely wrong. Instead of engaging me with the class, this only served to damage his credibility in my eyes and take me out of the moment. I’ve written more about using incorrect anecdotes in HEMA Myths and Fact-Checking.
When it comes to the technical material you teach, make sure to include enough variety. If the students feel like they’re always doing the same thing, then they’re likely to become bored. Teaching students new techniques is a good way to keep them entertained, although of course you need to be careful that students still have enough time to practice techniques they already know, and that introducing new techniques doesn’t get in the way of this.
A student that is being pushed will be more engaged than students who are not. A student that is practicing just on the edge of what they’re comfortable with will progress faster and will be more engaged. This challenge could be mental, or physical, or ideally both. Give your students drills where they have to think, or encourage them to drill at a more intense level. Students will often want to be lazy, and while sometimes a laid-backs session is what they need, forcing them to engage with the class will normally be the better choice. Challenge them to perform at their best rather than let them merely go through the class on auto-pilot.
Students should never be entirely passive when it comes to learning, an active student will simply be more engaged with a class, and will therefore be more likely to take the lessons onboard.
While most of the drills I would use in a class are pre-set, I also try to include some active drills towards the end. What I mean by this is drills that allow the students a much greater degree of choice about their actions. One of my favourite drills is something I call the “make-up-a-drill drill”. This is simple in execution, whereby one fencer will attack their partner, using any attack they wish. The fencer who has been attacked will then counter and attack back in any way they wish. The original attacker then takes their turn to counter this new attack and attack back in any they wish, and so on, with the drill continuing until the fencers decide to stop.
At the end, I like to get all the pairs together and ask them to demonstrate, and then explain, the sequences that they have generated. I encourage the students to be creative and to try things out¸ and by doing this, I normally see the students attempt to apply the lessons and techniques I covered earlier that day, though often in new and novel situations.
Similarly, you can get students to engage in class just by asking them questions. Sometimes, you should give the students information, and other times you should give them a question and ask them to answer it. This could be something as simple as asking people to recap what techniques you covered earlier, or in the class the week before, or it could be a slightly more in-depth, like asking people what techniques would be good to use in a given situation or why.
Checking in with students
On a slightly more simple note, make sure to check in with every one of your students in your classes. Spend some time watching them drill, give corrections or tips if there are any to be given, and, more importantly, tell them what they’re doing well. Encourage your students to check in and encourage each other as well.
Students need to feel like they’re progressing, and sometimes they need to be reminded of this. They also need to feel connected to the class, and these two things together will help keep students engaged.
Justifications and explanations
For students to be engaged in whatever it is they’re doing, they need to know why they’re doing it. With most techniques, this is fairly obvious, but sometimes you might need to drill slightly more abstract skills, and those drills might not have a purpose that is as immediately obvious. Other drills may develop important skills but also come across as a little dull. Explaining to students why these drills are important, and how they will benefit from them will definitely help to keep them engaged.
Even with less abstract drills, you still may want to occasionally justify that drill by pointing out its use in sparring or in tournaments, again to justify to them why they should engage with that drill, and give them a reason to want to engage with it.
Engaging a class is a means to an end, not the end itself
As mentioned earlier, one of the more obvious ways of trying to engage a class is by humour; however this is often mishandled. I have seen and taken part in many classes where things like jokes, or anecdotes, or asides served only to distract from what was meant to be taught. No matter how amusing a joke is, if is not actually relevant to the technical taught material of the class, then it doesn’t serve the purpose of the class.
I’ve walked away from some classes remembering that I had fun, but not actually remembering what the instructor tried to teach me. I’ve walked away from other classes having been frustrated by the continual asides that took time away from learning, but that probably came across as amusing in the instructor’s mind.
The main job of the instructor is to instruct, not to entertain. Ideally, you should do both, but entertaining and engaging the class must not come at the expense of teaching and coaching.
Engaging a class is essential, and there are many ways of doing it, the ways listed above being only some of the possible examples. If students are not engaged, they will not learn effectively so teachers must engage them. On the other hand, they must also be careful that their attempts to engage the student do not have the opposite effect. Careful and considered attempts to engage the class will only help your students keep entertained and interested, and will help your abilities as an instructor.