Ei Mei Kan - December - 2008

The Challanges of Teaching

by Iona Ellis

The most recent challenge I am facing in my Aikido career is teaching a beginner's class.

I know the theory of what makes a good teacher. I have seen several examples of good teachers. A good teacher communicates well, has a deep understanding of what he is teaching, is able to see what each student requires and can deliver it, generates enthusiasm, knows what is required for the students to learn the skills being taught, demonstrates patience, manages the dynamics of a Dojo, as a development plan for each and every student and know each one's progress in relation to it (etc, etc).

How to do it myself is a wholly different question. Set aside managing a dojo, my current challenge is to learn how to teach a class of students ranging from complete beginners to say 5th kyu.

Good communication is key. There are three forms: visual, audio and kinaesthetic. Different people have different preferences, so in order to get to everyone, all three need to be covered.

Firstly visual: demonstrate clearly. Sounds simple, especially as I have been doing these basic tai-sabaki movements for years. But then slow it down, break it down. Here's the interesting part: look to see exactly what happens! Do I take three steps where one will do? Do I expose myself? Do I get to the blind spot? Or have I been relying on speed and obliging ukes all these years?!

I have to trust that I have been trained well and I have learnt the movement well. My study now is to clean up/polish the movement and to fully understand why I do what I do?

The students are my mirrors. Sometimes I look at them and wonder why they do certain things. I then look at myself. Either I need to polish an aspect of my movement or find a way to get them to see what I am really doing. My responsibility is to make clear movements, their responsibility is to sharpen their eyes.

Secondly audio: give clear verbal instruction. Traditionally in the teaching of Aikido, there was no verbal communication. However, in current society I think a certain amount of verbal communication can be helpful.

Verbal communication is a hard one for me, as I prefer not to talk on class, as I find that sometimes engaging my brain in words triggers a thinking process which ultimately gets in the way of responding in the moment of a movement. However, I recognise that this is how some people assimilate information, so I try.

I find there is really a balance to be struck between correcting movements/postures and leaving students practice the wrong thing. Too much correction can lead to demotivation, whereas leaving students practice in bad habits can also be detrimental in the long run.

Again, this is largely instinctive as I can see fundamental flaws which need to be stopped and so I try to address them. Sometimes 'errors' can be trained out through repetition, students just need to repeat and repeat, so I just leave them get on with it (they will soon get tired of using their shoulder muscles, for example).

Sometimes the right word at the right time can have such a profound impact. (I always remember only two months into my training the teacher saying to me 'turn your hips', I did and uke went flying.)

Thirdly kinaesthetic: physical embodiment of the movement (as opposed to just looking like it!) This is the primary focus. This communication is directly between tori and uke, and it cannot lie. Does my uke respond how I want them to? It relies on me having a true understanding of where I am in relation to uke and how I use my body and energy to connect with them and to move. It also relies on uke to feel and respond, without anticipation, stiffness or looseness.

Again I rely on my training to be able to find uke's centre and move it. How do I teach uke to feel? From a kinaesthetic level the answer to me is just practice. Allow them to feel, repeat, repeat, repeat. This I find is the most immediate, direct and effective way to teach/communicate.

It is obvious: the teacher/student relationship is the key. It is only possible to communicate though the body with one student at a time. So I try to practice with all students at some point during a class, so that they can feel it. Then they just need to practice. Student to student. Body to body. Just practice and feel.

The 5 pillars of Aikido which TK Chiba Sensei has described of centeredness, connectedness, wholeness, liveliness and openness are a useful tool during class, as this is ultimately what we are all learning.

Aikido movement/technique is such a complex thing with so many factors: ma-ai, timing, commitment, connection, response as well as the 5 pillars, with many different techniques and opponents... and each time it is different!

If we embody the 5 pillars, then we are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing (be it stable and solid or moving and free).

How can I help beginner-students to get to this point? I am starting with the feet, hands, elbows, eyes... Do they know where they are? I am starting with conditioning, strengthening, opening their bodies so that they can physically stand the rigours of training. And in partner practice, start with just feeling. Then comes technique: clear demonstration, concise relevant verbal communication, and clear, focused one on one practice. 5 pillars, repeat, repeat, repeat and move!

Starting to teach a regular class, especially to raw beginners, has allowed me (and necessitated me) to deepen my study and polish my Aikido. I am grateful to have such a committed, open and hungry group of students to work with. I am very much still a student.


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