Teaching Martial Arts: A Positive Classroom

We all have to be mindful of our interactions with our students. As I have said in the past, it is easy to catch people, kids especially, doing things wrong. There is no special skill or training needed to do this. The real challenge lies in catching them doing things right, and finding ways to give them feedback on this, and use what they are doing right as a framework for giving critical feedback to help them perform even better. Training in the martial arts needs to be taught as a process of growth, not natural skill. Some people will be more talented than others, or achieve skills more quickly than others, but that is just life.

So, how can we do this?

For a start, we must understand that properly responding to our students is a combination of what we say (critical feedback), how we say it (tone of voice), and our presentation (body language). These three things must be parts of a whole and must convey a single message. If you tell a student they are doing something right, but you roll your eyes when you say it or your body language shows disgust or frustration, or gives a signal that you do not mean it, the student will become confused, as will the rest of the class.

What we do as martial arts instructors is in large part about building relationships, we have to stay mindful of what we are communicating to our students at all times. We must be mindful of both our verbal and non-verbal communication.

We have to correct what is being done incorrectly. As the instructor, if we are letting sloppy techniques slide on the thought of oh, I’ll clean that up later we are doing a disservice to the student making the error, and we are reinforcing an incorrect standard for the rest of the students in the class. It is not always fun to tell a good student they are doing it wrong, but depending on how we frame it, it may be more unpleasant for us than for them, at least we should hope it is.

I have mentioned the Compliment Sandwich before; the simple method of: compliment – correct – praise. It is an easy tool to use, but can seem gimmicky or forced to students, especially older students so it is best used with the tiny kids. There is the higher method of creating a positive class setting.

In a positive class, feedback is delivered in dynamic, uplifting way.

Think of the following situation:

Jimmy has motivation issues in karate. He is, oddly enough, actually trying to perform a round kick correctly today, but his lack of practice is really showing. Seeing this his instructor said,

A.)  You idiot. You will never get any better at this unless you try. Right now you suck.

B.)   Great round kick Jimmy!

C.)   Let’s just try a different kick Jimmy.

D.)  Hey Jimmy, you are making some progress but let’s keep at it. Everything in martial arts takes effort and consistent practice, and practice is why we are here. Let’s do a few more!

Obviously, if you are trying to create a positive classroom you are going to choose D. The problem with A is quite clear; the instructor is being a jerk. There is simply no excuse for a teacher in any discipline to speak to a student that way. The problem with response B is that the instructor is reinforcing a false standard. Some people have no issue with response C, but I have to take issue with it as well. The mindset that tells us well, some people just don’t get a round kick is a cop out. It also allows the student to think that their learning ability is fixed, incapable of growth.

Anyone can learn anything if they put in the time and effort, but they do need a teacher who believes that they can learn. When the teacher says, “I can’t teach that person.” I have to ask; then who can? A teacher in any subject you care to name is only going to be effective with the students that they personally believe can learn what they are teaching. It is essential that the teacher believe all of the students can learn.

In addition to what is said is the issue of how it is said. In the context of an article it is difficult to convey tone of voice, but your tone of voice carries a message that can change the meaning of the words. Be mindful of the tone of voice.

Finally there is body language. Martial arts instructors need to learn to smile a genuine smile and share it more often. Most of us work with kids and kids get enough stress from adults without us adding to it. Smiles, high fives, fist bumps, a pat on the back of the shoulder; all of these can let a person know that you are there to help and are willing to work with them.

While I am on the subject, I want to touch on what is probably the worst bit of advice given to new teachers. Anyone who has ever worked in a public school has been told at some point to not smile until Christmas. The whole don’t smile until Christmas bit is terrible! It creates a distance (and it is a phony distance) between us and our students. This advice causes many new teachers to ignore the hard work and progress of students in that critical early stage when the initial bonds are being formed.

Creating and maintaining a positive setting in your martial arts school is a lot of work, but well worth it. The rewards in student achievement, word of mouth advertising, and your own peace of mind make it worth the effort. Be nice to people.

One Comment

  1. sue omar says:

    Well said!


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