Musing: Teaching

“I want you to know that it is a beautiful mystery to know how to teach people well, more than to just play; for a man, if he knows how to play well and does not know how to teach, is not good (he is single): but one that knows how to teach well, is good for many people; and know that when he knows the one and the other, he is of double virtue and is a double master.”
-Achille Marozzo

 

I get the sense that the majority of the fencing community, especially the blue scarves, don’t think they are in a position to teach other fencers.  Either they feel they lack the experience, or the gravitas, or the proper scarf color to be an effective teacher.  That is, of course, stupid.

 

If I Can do It, So Can You!

I authorized at Pennsic one year, started my marshallate, and by the next spring I was running a practice and teaching.  If ever there was somebody lacking experience, gravitas, and a scarf of a certain color, it was Wistric “Which End’s the Pointy End?” Oftun.  But I was what was available.  Alejandro every six months or so would forget that he’d already told me that he was teaching the second time he went to practice, and would tell me again that “The second time I showed up to practice, Duncan told me to go teach the new people what I’d just learned the week before.”  And you know, that’s exactly what should be happening.  Having to repeat to others what you’ve learned makes you think about what you’ve learned, rather than capturing just the large, sticky bits without careful self-examination.

Nothing helps you internalize the thought processes of fencing like teaching somebody else how to do it.  Nothing reinforces good habits and highlights your bad habits like being in a position of teaching somebody to fence.  As ways of becoming a better fencer go, it’s a pretty good one.

 

When:

There is, of course, a right way and a wrong way to teach, a good time and a bad time.

The bad time: On the tourney field.  Especially if you’ve just lost (i.e. “I know you just beat me in two straight passes, but you were dropping your guard in range.”).  Any “teachings” in that setting are tainted.  Even when you’re fighting at practice, sometimes people just want to fight and they don’t want your opinions.  Take your cue from your opponent.

The good time: At practice, or during pickups.  Start with “Hey, so, are you looking for advice?” or “I have some thoughts, that may or may not be helpful, if you’d like to hear them.”  And be ready for them to say “No thanks.”  Don’t start sharing your thoughts and advice until they say “Yes.”  If you want to be a really suave motherfucker, do what Connor does: Ask your opponent for advice, and then ask if they care to hear your advice for them.

Also a good time: When you’re the one responsible for teaching a new fencer to fence.  It’s your job then.

 

What:

If you want it laid out in a straight how to manual, look to Marozzo.  He lays out his whole teaching system, though some of it is less applicable to the SCA.  It boils down to “Show your student the basics.  Fight with your student regularly.  Watch your student fight others.”

You can only teach what you know, but if you’ve been to one practice you should know good stance and footwork and how to hold a sword.  If you’ve been to two practices you should probably know how to parry in good form.  Everything after that is just ornamentation and spandrels.  So demonstrate what you know, examine what your student does, and tweak it.  Break it down to individual motions and individual concepts.  Repeat as often as necessary.

 

Er… whatever:

Does this get boring?  Yep, for you and for your student.  You have to balance the need for improvement with the acknowledgment that most people are here because they just want to stab somebody.  Work on small things a little at a time.

Over the longterm, you’ll need to balance the amount of instruction you give to the amount of instruction they’re willing to take.  Don’t invest more in your students than your students invest in themselves, and wait for the day when they say “I’m tired of getting pwned, teach me to fence.”  Then the fun starts.

Teaching , like fencing, takes practice.  You don’t know how teach?  You didn’t know how to fence, either.  The same thing that fixed one situation fixes the other.  Practice teaching.  Get somebody to teach you teaching.

 

And Remember:

This is a volunteer organization.  If you’re willing to step up and teach, sacrificing a bit of fighting time for the improvement of somebody else, what or how you teach becomes a secondary concern.  You’re already doing more than most fencers, and if they have a problem with how you do it, they can stop bitching from the cheap seats, cowboy up, and take a student.  Until then, you’re a better teacher than they are.

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