Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Student Handbook?

I remember hearing a story on the radio about how they have started teaching children at low performing schools how to behave in class, what is expected of them, what is appropriate, how to ask questions, when to talk, explaining about what school is, and making them pledge to abide by the rules.

I don't remember ever having been told any of this stuff back when I was at school, it was just assumed that you knew. But I know that certain stuff that seems absolutely obvious might not be if you have never had to contemplate it.
A while back, a teacher friend of mine taught 10/11 year olds in an under-funded school (they did not have enough paper or chairs to go around) in a low income neighborhood. There were many kids in her class that had no idea about punctuality, and though she originally dismissing it as just disrespectful, she came to realize that the kids that were perennially late lived on streets and in families where pretty much everyone was unemployed. She realized that none of these kids understood about 'being on time', why it would be important, or even necessary, because they'd rarely, if ever, seen anyone else have to do so.

It seems that there has been various discussions going on recently regarding the teacher's role in martial arts, alongside what is expected of a student.
Training environments have evolved, at least in certain areas ... moving away from the 'teacher as supreme being' model, a.k.a 'do as I say and shut up', to taking more responsibility for oneself, asking questions and class becoming more interactive.
This is a great step I feel, but one not without it's own difficulties.

I personally thrived most when given independence, and this started with my Eskrima teacher, who's style was to give every student as much rope as they needed to hang themselves if they decided to! He had a small eraser board leaned on a shelf that outlined the behavior he was looking for if anyone cared to look, so really there was no excuse to 'fail'.
Even if a student screwed up, he was patient to an extent, but if the behavior carried on, he asked them to train elsewhere for a while. Interestingly enough, the student asked to leave would often have no idea as to what they had done, and it would take other students to explain later what had gone on.
(I have heard that other South East Asian arts have a similar concept, one that does not explain explicitly about manners and behavior, and this is used as a filter to screen out unsuitable students - those that behave themselves appropriately get to stay, those that screw up get asked to leave.)

This overtly free approach makes sense to me, and though it tends to be a great way to find out about the character of a student, it can be hard from the teaching side. The attrition rate is high ... which may be as it should be when connected to play with edged weapons .... and it can be quite irritating ..... but could that be improved?

It got me thinking .... If I was to write a handbook for those not given the tools as kids to 'play well with others' and how to not piss off the teacher, alongside a few signs about when it's time to exit stage left .... what would I put in it ...?

A few thoughts to start things off -

Chapter one would be on general manners:

- When you go to an Eskrimador's house, DO NOT TOUCH THE WEAPONS. In fact, don't even ask to, not for a few visits at least. Admire, but keep your hands to yourself.

- If a sheathed weapon gets handed to you to touch, ASK if it's OK before drawing it. Don't touch the blade, and if you do, wipe it off.

- If you get permission to draw a live weapon in company, don't wave it around in a hazardous manner. Do not cut yourself with it.

- Don't ask your teacher if he has killed anybody. 

- Be on time, in fact, be early.

- Pay attention. Listen.

- Don't talk when your teacher is talking.

- Do what you are told. If you don't understand, attempt to do what you think is correct and ask if it is.

- Do not expect to be fed information without showing what you can do.

- Don't argue with your teacher. Ask questions and be curious, but be respectful.

- Don't believe everything that you hear, but keep an open mind and reserve judgement until you know enough to make an educated evaluation. (Note: 'Educated evaluation' can mean 'Gut Feeling' also. Trust your gut)

- Don't just stand there waiting for something to happen.

- Do not assume your teacher is your friend. They are your teacher, it is not the same thing.

- Do not fawn or flatter to gain favor, words are cheap. It is easy to tell authentic behavior from that which has no substance.

- Think. Engage in your training. Try.

- If you do not know how to behave, or are unsure as to the etiquette of a situation, watch those that seem to be doing well, and are familiar with the environment. Copy them.


Then there would be another chapter about partner practice with some particular advice for women:

- Work with everybody in the class at least once.

- Have the attitude that you can learn something from everyone, and that your partner is there to help you to learn, not to look good. Note - people have a tendency to pick partners that will make them look good in front of the teacher. This is especially true with guys. As a woman, please note, that they may not want to work with you because there is a deep unconscious understanding that there is no status to be gained from it. Also note that this is often not a gender based issue - big guys look for big guys and ignore small guys just like they ignore you. It is your job to corner them into working with you. It is good for both parties.

- There is no need to impress your partner - who the hell cares if they think you have skills. Don't cheat or sucker punch your partner. Don't lose your temper and hurt someone just to prove a point. If you are a woman, you don't need to prove yourself by hitting harder than your partner.

- Know that some people are just too difficult to learn from, but do not discount those that are tricky, big, or unorthodox. However, do not work with people that have no control or when your safety is at risk.

- If your partner is a dick, ask the teacher how to handle a situation where what you are doing is not working. If your teacher is good .... they will have a solution for you. If your teacher is not good, they may not. (This is a good moment to assess your teacher and their relevance to your training.)

- Communicate with your partner. Part of martial arts is psychology, and partner practice is your place to start practicing making your partner work with you in a way that is constructive. This may involve asking if the level you are working at is cool. This may also involve you flattering them, making them feel comfortable, putting them in their place, asserting authority, or whatever you need to do. Some stuff you do and say may work, some stuff will not, but it is all useful feedback.

- Understand that it is a common human failing to escalate. This can apply to speed and force. It is especially true if egos become involved and one partner feels as though they are 'losing'. You can control this using words, taking a break or slowing things down. But again ... if your partner has no control, or your safety is at risk, stop.

- Try to do what your teacher is telling you to do as well as you can. If it's boring, add accuracy, timing, speed, power, movement or whatever, so you can explore, but ask your partner first if it's OK with them. Do not surprise them, unless that's part of the game, otherwise, you are a dick.

- It's OK to suck. If you could already do everything you would not need to be learning it.

- It's OK to fail.

- No one cares what you look like, only you. Get over it.


Lastly, probably something about the teacher student relationship:

- When you start something new, you have no reference from which to judge whether a teacher is good or not, so it is worth setting a period of time to finding out. You can be respectful and keep your skepticism at the same time, be polite, yet watchful.

- Notice the group dynamic and the injuries present when you join a new school. I would personally avoid a school full of injured students.

- Notice who gets attention, and what kind of attention. Especially notice how skilled the senior students are. Also notice their attitudes, how they treat the teacher, each other, and how they treat you. If they are obnoxious and treat you like an idiot, especially if they hurt you. Leave.

- Above all else, think of your teacher as an honorable enemy. Enemies can be highly skilled and as their student, you are in the enviable position of being able to steal their skills. However, do not mistake them for your friend, or that you will gain any skills by being 'liked'. You will also get no skills by having your picture taken, or by standing next to, skilled people.

- If the information you are getting seems small in comparison to the time spent watching the teacher look good, or other wasted time, leave.


Anyone else want to add ...?


Jake said...

That's a really nice list. Most of it can apply to unarmed combat, I think (except for the stuff about drawing weapons, obviously).

"Do what you are told. If you don't understand, attempt to do what you think is correct and ask if it is."

I might reverse this. Ask, and then attempt it. I've nearly been injured on several occasions because students threw a strike at me without knowing what they were supposed to do.

Oh, and all the advice for women is stuff guys need to hear too.

Unknown said...

Ok Maija, I finally signed up to follow your blog (even though I read it all the time) to comment how much I like this post. It is almost verbatim what I tell my students when encouraging them to check out other teachers and schools, plus a bunch of stuff that I missed - particularly the gender and size stuff.
One of the big things that has changed in the modern training scenario is the fact that students now "shop around," and lack the sense of commitment and discipline that was assumed in more traditional contexts. It ends up looking like a service/customer relationship instead of a teacher/student relationship. This inverts the power dynamic often, with the teachers looking to prove or ingratiate themselves to the students in order to retain them. With so many competing arts (and other activities!) available, its easy for prospective students to superficially surf different things, staying long enough to get their egos puffed up, and moving on when things get more challenging.
Thanks for the summary! I may crib it directly next time I get to this lesson :)

Jaana Wessman said...

"If you are a woman, you don't need to prove yourself by hitting harder than your partner." As opposed to, if you are a man, you do? ;)

In all seriousness, good read.

Maija said...

Thanks Joe!

@Janka - You are right of course, this does apply to all ... Funnily enough though, I do think there is something about being perceived as 'weaker' from the get go, that makes women have a tendency to over compensate.
Their ability to calibrate seems less 'tuned' than most guys I know .... perhaps because guys tend to scrap more as young kids and generally get the smack down early if they over reach, say with a bigger brother or whatever?
I don't know ... But I do know that I will often avoid drilling painful stuff with a female partner as they often hit much harder than the guys :-)

Jake said...

I have a very clear memory of a woman in the advanced Muay Thai class many years ago DRILLING me with a leg kick because she felt I was "taking it easy" on her. I wasn't...I just thought we were supposed to be playing lighter. She took it as an insult (and one based on her gender).

I can think of several times that I've had to stop women and explain that they were throwing a lot more leather than they realized. I've even run into one or two who seemed to think that it was "okay" because "you're so much bigger and tougher.. you can take it, right?" That conversation rarely went well.

I still think your whole list is pretty gender neutral though :-). Or at least, can apply to both.

Maija said...

Jake - I think the ability to calibrate to your partner is a hugely underrated skill, and completely different to one's ability to make hits 'count'.
The usefulness of this 'calibration ability' is perhaps not obvious, but ranges from sensitivity in physical grappling skills (to cause the opponent to over reach or react in some way) to pre contact psychological stuff. It requires a real ability to precisely control one's own body .... and has the bonus effect of making and keeping friendly training partners ... :-)

Jake said...

It does indeed. Has some utility for striking as well---being able to mess with tempo and power can really confuse people.

There's also an emotional component to calibration that I think is valuable. To be able to keep yourself in check and decide not to throw hard, even when you might want to, has a lot of utility in life.