The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.
- Pete Seeger, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"
I may not know much about the martial arts, but I do know a little something about teaching.
In order to teach material, a teacher must first know the material. He must be able to lead students through it, answer questions about it, and find a way to make it relevant to different students with different points of view. A teacher who doesn't know his material simply can't teach.
There is something worse, though, than a teacher who doesn't know his material: a teacher who doesn't know his material and yet insists on moving forward as if he does. These are the teachers students alternatively laugh and grumble about, and peers whisper about behind their backs. These teachers don't just make fools of themselves, they drag their students down with them.
We've all had these teachers at one time or another, and I've always wondered at their motivations. Can the prospect of owning our ignorance really be so daunting that we're willing to humiliate ourselves and inconvenience others instead? In my own experience as an educator, I've found it's much easier and much less painful for everyone (including myself) if I just say, "I guess I need to do a little more work on this before we can move on. Let's do something else for now."
Yesterday at the dojo, the club's most junior instructor tried to lead us in some exercises with the bokken (wooden sword). This began with partners matching each other in an alternating sequence of blocks and strikes. For the next step, our instructor brought up the other yudansha (black belt) present to be his partner in demonstration.
The first exercise, said our instructor, was preparation for the second, in which the sequence was offset so that one partner was striking while the other was blocking. In verbal form, this idea made plenty of sense, but it became clear as he attempted to demonstrate that it simply didn't work. Try as he might, our instructor just couldn't make this particular block work for this particular strike, at least not in a way that allowed the sequence to continue.
His demonstration partner, an aikidoka of the same rank but with longer and broader experience in the art, did his best to help out, trying out little tweaks to see if he could make the sequence work. He couldn't. Our instructor was missing something, something important enough that the entire sequence ground to a halt without it. It quickly became obvious to all of us--except, apparently, our instructor--that this wasn't going anywhere.
For several minutes we sat, watching our instructor try to figure out this exercise so that he could teach it to us. Most of us got tired of holding the seiza position after the first minute or two and shifted to sitting cross-legged as we waited, bored and increasingly frustrated. We began to cast sidelong glances at each other, wondering when he would give up and move on to something else so that we could get back to training. He pressed on, though, trying to work it out with his polite but increasingly exasperated partner.
After every conceivable option had been exhausted, our instructor finally stopped. There was a collective sigh of relief as we all anticipated moving on to something more pertinent, perhaps the kumitachi (paired sword kata) that would be in our upcoming tests. Instead, the instructor turned to us, smiling, and said, "Let's try it. See if you can figure it out together."
I was dumbfounded. There were no words for it.
My training partner and I would find the words a few moments into the most confused and clueless training session in either of our martial arts lives. They were quiet words, grumbled to each other under our breaths. I won't repeat them here.
I don't say this very often about training, because I think almost everything we do in the dojo serves a purpose, but it was a complete waste of our time. We wasted time watching our instructor try to figure something out for himself rather than teaching, and then we wasted more time trying to practice something we hadn't been taught.
This is the first time in this blog I have made so bold as to openly criticize an instructor. I want to make clear, though, that it is not his forgetfulness I am criticizing. There is little shame in ignorance in and of itself. The shame comes when we, in our pride, cling to our ignorance and try (always futilely) to row upriver against the current of reality.
That's why we train. Hard, honest training is the best cure I know of for ego and ignorance. If you can't admit you're out of shape, if you think you're better than you are, if you're in denial of an injury, hard training is a surefire cure. Every martial artist knows what I'm talking about; they all can remember a moment when their pride and delusions were dashed (perhaps painfully) by training.
For me, it was when a common nikkyo lock sprained my wrist. Until then, I'd thought I was ready to play with the black belts. Delusion cured.
What I did take away from yesterday's class is that, years from now, when my time comes to teach, I don't want to be the one clinging to my ignorance, the big fool pushing on as the water rises. And that means more training. The more pride and delusion I can get beaten out of me before students are depending on me, the better.
See you on the mat.