Thoughts on Teaching (and Learning) Pt. 2   7 comments

Greetings, gentles, Dreya/Caelia here again. Thanks for returning for the second installment on teaching and learning. Last week I proposed some ideas on how to go about approaching brand-new fencers with an emphasis on creating a comfortable space for those who may be feeling particularly self-conscious or unsure (sadly, this tends to be new female fencers).  The same techniques can be applied to more experienced fencers, of course; I highly recommend carrying over the courtesy parts if nothing else, because it doesn’t hurt any of us to be more aware of how we enter another person’s personal/mental space.

Which leads me to part two: how to approach a student/teacher situation if you are neither student nor teacher. My ideas on this are far less concrete. I don’t often find myself in this situation – I’m either one or the other, and if I’m just watching I generally don’t see something I need to go over and discuss right at that moment. I’m more likely to wait til afterward and ask about it, but that’s probably my natural lack of observation laziness shyness. I believe that the urge to interrupt someone else’s teaching session generally springs from one of several places: 1) noticing a flaw in the student’s technique that the teacher missed; 2) noticing a way to improve/elucidate what the teacher has just taught; 3) noticing that the material being taught is actually incorrect and likely to hamper the student’s ability in the short or long term.

Let’s deal with these one at a time.

Situation 1: The teacher has been teaching correct technique, but has missed a flaw in the student’s technique and not corrected it.

This one happens frequently with relatively inexperienced fencers teaching new fencers. Or at least it happens frequently with me.


Me: Let’s see your footwork.

New Student does footwork.

Me: Hey, pretty good! You did X well, but try to keep your Y more Z. This will help you A.

Percy the Provost: Good. And what else?

Me: What else?

Percy: Yeah, what else?

Me: Uh….

Percy: Look at his B.

Me: His B… what about his B…?

Percy: Looooooook at it.

Me: OH! Doh. He needs to C.

In the case illustrated above, Percy and Wistric had both been hanging out nearby expressly for the purpose of watching me teach and the new guy learn. I dunno how the new guy felt, but I was definitely a little unnerved. What made Percy’s interruption okay was that I knew he was there and that he was watching me with the intent to help both me and the student do better. I actually expected him to correct me.

Now imagine that Percy and Wistric had been hanging out nearby just because it was the cool place to be, and they happened to notice that I was missing something with the new guy. In this case, the polite thing to do would be to wander closer and ask permission to discuss this thing: “Hi there. I don’t mean to interrupt, but I noticed something about your B that will help you do your X more correctly.  May I explain?” Hopefully the student and teacher will welcome this chance to improve and allow you to enlighten them. There’s always the chance you’ll get stiffed, of course, but then you can just mentally file the faults you saw and feel justifiably satisfied when you exploit them on the field.

Situation 2: The teacher is teaching the correct technique, but for some reason, the student just isn’t getting it, or you know of a way to make said technique more ‘complete.’

People learn in different ways and people teach in different ways, and when the teacher’s method and the student’s learning method don’t match up, it’s like they’re speaking completely different languages. This can be the most frustrating thing in the world to witness, especially if you know that they’re both trying to say the exact same thing but just can’t seem to get it. When you see this happening, go ahead and ask to step in: “I think I know of another way to explain this that might make more sense to you. May I?” Make sure that there’s definite a miscommunication first,  however;  give the teacher a chance to work it out before you play middleman. Then instead of interrupting a lesson, you’re saving the day. This is a slightly trickier situation than just noticing something about the student, because it’s much easier for the teacher to feel like it’s some personal failing of theirs that the student isn’t learning. Sometimes it might actually be the teacher’s failing, but there’s no reason to rub that in their face. The important thing is that the student gets the lesson and that the teacher keeps wanting to teach. Hopefully the teacher will also absorb the lesson and remember it for next time.

Less threatening is the offer to expand the technique just taught. You can reinforce the teacher’s lesson and then enlarge the vocabulary of both parties: “Hey, that’s a great technique. I would love to teach you a good follow-up to it, if I may?” The difficulty in this situation is to make certain you’re not introducing something that’s going to go over everybody’s head.  If the student is struggling to grasp the more basic technique, they are not likely to be able to learn and remember your addendum. If, however, the student seems to be quick on the uptake, they and the teacher may both benefit from your knowledge sharing. A caveat: Don’t just stop to show off the cool thing that you know. Make sure you’re actually teaching it to them.

For these first two instances,  the most important thing to do is make certain your intrusion is welcome. Remember these two simple points:

1. The more than one teacher rule: It can be extremely confusing for a student to be ‘taught’ by two or more people at once. Especially if they don’t all agree on what the answer is. I recall having a lesson with Wistric once in which he and two other fencers actually had a huge discussion about what was the right way to be doing what I was supposed to be doing. I can’t for the life of me remember what technique they were talking about, or if they even managed to come to a conclusion, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the interruption. Clearly not an effective lesson.

2. The corollary: It can be very counterproductive to ‘teach’ someone without asking their permission and their teacher’s permission. You wish to share your knowledge. This is good, this is fantastic, please do it. But don’t co-opt someone else’s lesson time in order to do so. It’s disruptive to have someone casually pop into your teaching or learning session, drop some bit of knowledge offhandedly, and pop off again. For me, personally, this really goes back to the ‘more than one teacher’ rule: when I’m learning from someone, I am focused on them. I can’t just pick up my focus and put it on you, especially if you just wander in and start talking. If it is possible to leave what you have to say until after the lesson, please do. If it’s something directly related to what is being taught at that moment, it makes more sense to deal with it at that moment, but please be polite and ask. Please, please, please ask.

If you tell me you have something to teach me if I am interested, I will probably squee in delight and beg you to share (unless my brain is full). Then I will tell everyone who will listen how awesome you are. If you walk up to me and just start talking, I will stand there and look like I’m listening, but in my head I am thinking, “Who does this so-and-so think they are?!” I’m working up to the point where I can actually say, “Hey, I don’t feel very comfortable learning from you right now.” It’s a long road. This is why I am concerned with creating a respectful environment – if I feel this way, chances are someone else might, too.

Whatever you do, please don’t interrupt lesson time to tell stories. That’s just rude, no matter how good your story is.

Situation 3: The teacher is teaching incorrect technique that will hamper the student’s ability in the short or long term.

As you might have observed, I have some pretty strong feelings about unnecessary lesson interruptions. However, I imagine there are times when someone is watching me teach or learn and thinks, “Man, that is ALL WRONG. I better go fix it right now before it gets worse.”  This is a laudable sentiment.  But how do you do that in a tactful manner than will be well-received by both parties?

I actually don’t have an answer for that exact situation, as I have never been in it. I’m hoping my dear readers will be able to help me out. What do you consider absolutely lesson-stopping? Is it ever okay to hijack a teaching session?

Part of me thinks it’s better to allow a lesson to reach its conclusion, unless it really is all wrong, so that the student can still absorb what was right. Less interruption = better retention. But another part of me argues that it’s best to nip bad technique in the bud as quickly as possible so the student doesn’t have to go through the torturous unlearning process later on.

Most of you are more experienced at both fencing and teaching than I am, so I would appreciate your input here. I need to learn what to do in an All Wrong situation.

And as always, feel free to comment on/disagree with/correct any of my cogitations. Despite my preoccupation with courtesy, the only thing bleeding-heart about me is the desire to rip out your heart and watch it bleed.

Then take a big bite out of it.

Maybe toss a little tabasco on top.

Posted February 7, 2010 by Dreya in Musings

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