Running short classes
As an instructor, being versatile is key, and one way to develop and improve versatility is to teach classes of different lengths. It is not much use only being able to teach classes of one specific length, but this is a problem I see very often. If you give a less experienced instructor a longer class time than they are used to, they will often rush through their material far too quickly, and run out of things to teach in the end of their class. Another interesting problem is that of short classes: can an instructor still deliver a worth-while class in 30 minutes?
I think that being able to deliver a 30 minute class that students still feel gave them good value for money is an excellent test of an instructor’s versatility. Giving classes of this length will require an instructor to be efficient, to not take up more time than necessary, and to pack as much value into every second as possible. All these skills will transfer over into longer classes as well, so the skills needed to teach a half an hour class will also be useful when teaching a three hour class.
With a short class, you can’t afford to waste time, so you need to look critically at every other element of the class, and ruthlessly cut out anything that isn’t necessary in order to run your class more efficiently.
For example, is your warm-up taking 10 or 15 minutes? If this is the case, then you’ve already lost a third or half of the class. The primary purpose of a warm-up is to warm-up the student’s muscles to help prevent injury, so if your warm-up includes lots of stretching for example, is this actually necessary, or does it simply take up time? In a longer class, you may want to include more stretching as you can afford to spend more time (although you should still be careful not to spend time unnecessarily), but this is not true in a shorter class.
Similarly, if your warm-up does nothing other than warm-up your students, then it is also not as efficient as it could be. What I mean by this is that drills that double as a warm-up and are also instructive are more efficient than warm-ups that do not teach or reinforce any skills.
For example, some limited wrestling or active footwork drills can be used, as they will teach new skills or reinforce old skills, such as balance, remaining mobile etc. As an example, here are two drills I like to use: the first is where two students grasp each other by the arms, and by pushing and pulling, they will try to move their partner around, while at the same time they will try not to be moved by their partner. This gives people an easy introduction to wrestling, helping to cement things like balanced footwork so they can’t be moved as easily, as well as teaching how to use pushing and pulling actions together to off-balance a partner. The second drill is simply where the partners are told to try to touch each other on the outside of the shoulder while avoiding being touched in return, forcing them to use active footwork and to gauge their opponent’s reach. If you wanted, you could add extra target areas, such as the outside of the knee. By doing this, you can also start teaching students how to use skills like feinting, as they naturally end up feinting towards one target to make it easier to touch another.
Warm-ups like these are simply far more efficient than a standard warm-up, and can serve to get everyone fully warm and ready for a class within 5 minutes.
In terms of teaching, you also need to have a hard look at your explanations of drills and techniques. You should speak slowly, and clearly so as to be understood, and you should repeat yourself to reinforce your point, but your must also be aware every second you spend talking is a second the students don’t spend practicing. Can you explain your point more simply, or more quickly?
In a short class, you don’t have time to teach a student everything you might want to teach them, so rather than teach them everything you think they need to know, simply pick one technique which will be the focus of the class, and gear absolutely everything in the class towards that one technique.
Alternatively, you might select a few highly related techniques that all come from the same set-up, e.g. from a given wrestling position, you might cover two or three throws that can be used from that position.
Learning how to do this will also benefit your longer classes. Even in a two or three hour class, you can’t teach the students everything that you want them to learn, and any attempt to teach them everything would end in failure anyway. Whether the class is half an hour or three hours, a focused class will always be better than an unfocused one which covers several unrelated techniques. A short class simply makes this need for focus even more apparent.
If there are new people in the class who absolutely must cover some basics, then cover these efficiently in a few minutes, and then spend the rest of the class on the one chosen technique for the class.
Students are not going to feel like they got value out of a short class from the breadth of techniques covered, but a more intense class will help overcome this. If a class is intense enough that the students do not think they could maintain another half an hour at that intensity, then they will feel like they have gotten value from that class.
For example, we run kettlebell classes in support of our HEMA classes, and these classes used to be an hour long. This meant though the classes couldn’t be too intense and I couldn’t push the students too hard; if they were exhausted after the first half an hour, then they wouldn’t be able to complete the second half an hour. By dropping the time but increasing the intensity, the students end up still putting in the same amount of work, but in a much tighter, more focused class.
Are your students standing around doing nothing for long periods of time? This could be when they’re watching you explain a technique, watching someone else perform a technique, or talking with their partner. All of these things are the enemies of intensity. Keep giving them things to do, don’t let them stop moving.
“But I don’t run half an hour classes, this isn’t relevant”
Most HEMA clubs are never going to run a half an hour class by itself, so it could be easy to think this doesn’t apply to you. However; as noted above, teaching short classes helps to develop some important skills that also help with and apply to longer classes. Additionally, many clubs may end up running a class within a class. For example, you might run an hour and a half or a two hour longsword class, but you also want your students to develop some wrestling skills. Why not devote the first half an hour to a short, intense class within a class?
Perhaps you have an assistant instructor and you want them to take on some responsibility for teaching, but you don’t want to give them an entire class in one go? Then why not ask them to run half an hour of the class, but run the rest of it yourself?
Perhaps you want to run a sparring night but you don’t want the students to not have any drilling time? Why not give them a half an hour mini-class before sparring begins? This could also serve to give them something to think about during sparring, rather than have it to completely aimless.
Perhaps the person bringing the club kit is going to be unavoidably late, and now you need to run an impromptu short class until the club kit arrives?
There are a lot of scenarios in which being able to run a short class will be incredibly useful, and the fact remains that running short classes will help to develop a lot of important teaching skills which will benefit your longer classes too.
Running a short class can be quite difficult, especially if you are only used to longer classes, but the ability to run a short class, and for it to still feel valuable to your students will be very valuable, both to you and your students.