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.
The “Mutieren” technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.
One of the common problems faced by many practitioners of historical fencing is that while we know and have learned many cool techniques from our source materials, we may not be able to apply these techniques in the heat of sparring. How can we work towards being able to apply all of our techniques at will, even when under pressure? It requires a little bit of thought and effort, and perhaps needs a change in your typical sparring and training habits.
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.
Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Getting Used to Protective Gear. One of the reasons that it is important to get used to protective gear is so that we can wear the appropriate protection and thereby reduce our risk of injury. It is important that we do what we can to reduce the risk of injury, whether that is through wearing high quality protective gear, restricting target areas, deliberately controlling the intensity of the fight or any combination of the above.
Sometimes HEMAists dismiss the risk of injury, but there are several reasons why we should take injuries seriously, and make attempts to prevent them if our practices are unsafe.
It is worth bearing in mind that HEMA is a contact sport, and so of course, injuries will happen, and that when they do, we should simply move on with life. If we couldn’t accept any risk of injury at all, then we would never leave the house. I have had several patellar dislocations, and every time after I recovered, I went straight back to HEMA, but I’ve also done everything I can to prevent that happening to me in future. Fundamentally I believe that all HEMAist must make concerted actions to prevent injuries, for yourself, your training partners, and your students.
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.
Earlier this year, Mike Smith from the Macdonald Academy of Arms in Edinburgh posted a message to the group’s Facebook page that I found to be rather thought provoking:
“Remember what the Academy is famed for, its control and composure. Don’t let these standards slip.”
I would be very happy if my school and my students were famed for their control and composure. This started me thinking about what I would like my students to be famed for, in an ideal world, and gave me the inspiration to write this article and propose this question for other instructors to consider:
If your school and students were to be famed for one or two characteristics, what would you want them to be?
This article has been written and submitted by Daria Izdebska, one of the instructors within the Academy of Historical Arts.
I am not only a martial arts instructor, but also a language tutor and an academic teacher. This variety of experiences has helped me realise that some aspects of teaching are universal, no matter what subject you teach, what kind of students you have or how often you instruct. At the same time, each and every teaching situation is unique. It is therefore at once a very easy task to come up with seven rules for instructors, and a very difficult one, because I could come up with much more than just seven pieces of advice. Many aspects of teaching are interrelated and make sense only when discussed in conjunction with each other.
The advice I lay out below is the result of my own experiences as a teacher and instructor, but also as a student who is looking for the best teacher I can have. Some of it may be difficult to put fully into practice, depending on the particular teaching situations and environments, but I believe this this is the ideal we should all be striving for.
Keith Farrell teaching "halfswording" for 15th century German armoured combat (kampffechten) at the Vanguard 2012 event held at the University of Glasgow.
This article follows on from a previous article by Alex Bourdas, expanding upon his original concept and providing an alternative point of view. Alex’s article can be read here:
Instructing martial arts can be a difficult task. It is very much a skill that needs to be developed. In the previous article, Alex put forward 7 fundamental rules that he believes instructors must practice and work to improve. He has asked me to write about the 7 fundamental rules that I believe instructors need to work on, so here they are: