A question that came to my mind recently, after watching a fairly cringeworthy piece on historical fencing by the BBC, was this: is it better to do HEMA badly, or not to do it at all? Phrased differently: is it better just not to do HEMA if you cannot do it well?
My current answer is that it is still worth doing HEMA even if it is not being done well, and we should be encouraging more people to start doing HEMA and to keep doing HEMA, even if the performance is not great in the beginning.
In my last post, I talked about Running Short Classes. I talked about the challenges that can be involved in running a short class, and I gave advice on how to run a short class. Potentially equally challenging can be running a long class.
As mentioned briefly in my last post, time management is often an issue for beginning instructors, and I gave the most common noticeable example of this, which is newer instructors getting through all their material too quickly. This would normally lead to the instructor desperately trying to fill the rest of the class.
It is also worth mentioning that what exactly constitutes a long class will vary a lot from person to person. Someone who is new to instructing may think that an hour long class sounds like a very long time, while a more experienced instructor may consider a long class to be a several hour long seminar.
Pace yourself, and let things take time
The first, and simplest, piece of advice is simply to pace yourself. There’s no need to race to the end of the material, or to hurry the students through all the drills and techniques you want to cover. While you shouldn’t have students perform the same drill or technique for so long they get bored, you also need to make sure they get plenty of practice, and giving them lots of time before you introduce the next drill or technique will ensure that they have the time they need, and that you don’t run out of drills and techniques too quickly.
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.
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.
Image of Kendo c.1920. The fencer on the right is in chudan-no-kamae. Image taken from Wikipedia.
Is it useful to take a similar position or technique from another martial art, adopt into our HEMA practice?
This is a question that does come up every so often when someone with non-HEMA experience discusses the idea of setting up a HEMA club. Of course it seems like quite a reasonable idea to continue teaching the non-HEMA material with which you are familiar, and there are probably techniques from your previous training that would be useful in various situations in HEMA sparring.
I worked through this process myself, several years ago, when I started looking at HEMA after spending around fourteen years studying karate. I had achieved my 3rd dan black belt in karate, and I thought that importing some karate techniques and concepts would help to shore up any of the many deficiencies I perceived in the HEMA systems I was trying to learn.
However, with more experience of HEMA now, I can see quite clearly that the biggest and most important deficiency was my own lack of skill at the systems I was trying to learn! Now I know that these systems can deal with almost any problem (within the appropriate context) if I apply the techniques and concepts properly – and if I need to solve a problem in a different context, I just use a different (and more appropriate) system.
Keith demonstrating a technique with John during a training session.
One of the ideas that causes problems for a lot of people across the world is the idea that whatever you want to do has to be right, or perfect, before you begin.
People delay opening a business until the “perfect” moment, and then never quite manage to open up. People keep planning their novel, adding more and more detail to their world, but never quite end up writing the story. People decide that they don’t want to put themselves forward as an instructor of HEMA until they understand it properly – and so clubs never quite take off.
The padded cap by Skulltec is a wonderful little garment to wear on your head beneath your fencing mask. The cap was developed to help athletes reduce their risk of concussions during sports, and for this precise reason it has significant value for practitioners of historical fencing.
One of the skills that is quite important for people who often help their instructors with the delivery of a lesson is being a good assistant instructor. An assistant instructor should be there to assist the instructor, as the name implies. However, I have noticed that many assistant instructors are not always good at being assistants. Many of them seem to want to compete with the main instructor for attention from the students. Some are desperate to tell the students how they would do things, while others simply want to add asides they think the students might find interesting.
Students can be left unclear as to who is the actual instructor, and they are often left trying to work out two slightly different sets of instruction from two different instructors, unsure which they should be listening to. Alternatively, if both the instructor and the assistant instructor are talking to the group, this can lead to unnecessary repetition. So with this in mind, I’ve written four rules for assistant instructors.
Back in 2013 I wrote a post called Teaching Skills, and Presenting a Class, in which I presented seven rules for instructors. This post then inspired several other posts on the same subject  . However, as I said in my original article, we should all be trying to improve our skills at instructing, and as quite some time has passed since I wrote the article, I thought it would be worth revisiting and updating it.
I think the original rules are still good rules, however some are slightly redundant, and others too specific. We should always be trying to convey information to our students as effectively as we can, and this includes not giving them redundant information, and focusing on teaching them general principles they can apply to a wide variety of situations, rather than focusing on very specific applications of technique that they can only use in specific situations. Rules for how to instruct therefore should cover a principle of teaching that can applied to many situations, rather than being a specific rule that only applies in some situations.
There are many skills that are important to a good teacher. Obviously, a teacher should have various teaching skills, and there are a lot of articles on this blog that talk about this. However, today I would like to briefly think about research. Research is traditionally seen as a being separate from instructing. Obviously, most HEMA instructors will (hopefully) at least have read some manuscripts or books relevant to what they’re teaching, but not all instructors will do much (or anything) in the way of serious research, which I believe is a problem.
It is true that researching and instructing are separate skill sets, and that being good at one does not make you good at the other, in much the same way that simply being a good fighter does not make you into a good instructor. Someone who is good at research would still need to spend lots of time developing their teaching skills through both theory and practice to be a good teacher.
In most martial arts, not being a good researcher is not as problematic, because there isn’t as great a need to follow any one particular method of doing things, nor do they need to research any contextual issues (although there still are research topics they would benefit from like physiology or teaching theory). For HEMA however, it is a greater problem, because an instructor who does no research at all can either only teach what they have been taught, or they can teach things that may or may not be in the manuals, and they risk stagnating and moving further away from the H in HEMA. If an instructor does research, they are better equipped to check and recheck their own interpretations or to uncover new information that may help them or their students better understand the techniques they know, principles or mechanics behind those techniques, or contextual and historical contexts behind those techniques. Additionally, moving further into research is an excellent reason to challenge yourself. By doing research, you also help other instructors and researchers, as they can build on or use the research you produce, furthering the entire discipline. On a different level, doing research will let you present new techniques to keep your students interested. For example, if you frequently teach the same workshop, then by doing research, you can find new techniques to teach, or new areas to focus on, giving people who’ve been to that workshop before a reason to stay interested.