Teaching beyond the details – April 20, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Very occasionally (like when a 6dan test is coming up) I find it necessary to make a special effort with a student to let them know just how good they are. This seems like it should never be a problem, who doesn’t know how good they are, but a dedicated student will never be happy with their own level, and will tend to think they’re terrible. This is not the attitude to take into a senior grading.

In iaido, I will try to pull senior students up a notch by facing them and doing alternate kata. In this case I don’t move my technique down to allow them to follow (that’s “teaching mode” where all points in the kata are demonstrated cleanly and simply), but rather I crank it up as far as I can and force them to chase me. It’s not really about the technique but about the energy that moves back and forth between us as we trade kata. It’s very clear that I expect the students to keep up and try to beat me, but nevertheless it’s a training tool.

In non-contact arts where it’s see/do the usual practice during class would be to keep it simple and clean, but when trying to encourage the student to another level, you crank it up more toward “competition” levels and make them chase you. Not coming down to meet them but moving away to force them to follow.

In a more contact-oriented kata practice like jodo, you can vary the energy and even the contact level with students to stay just a little ahead of them, encouraging them to keep up. A senior can often control the junior’s level just by the energy blasted out by their kiai. This makes for a continuous, incremental improvement which often means the students will progress faster than in solo arts like iai. What I mean is that in iai, if the instructor isn’t paying constant attention and making correct suggestions to a student, it’s easy for that student to stay at the same level of practice for years. After all, what feedback do you get from waving a sword in the air? As long as they figure they’re hitting all the points in the book, what further effort will they make?

Do these methods work? In my case, yes. Students beat me all the time, and that pleases me to no end. If they weren’t occasionally better than I am I’d be worrying about my teaching ability. As they get more experienced, they do it more and more often.

It’s very difficult to tell, with non-competitive arts, who is “winning” at any particular time in a class and so I’m not sure they even know that they’re better than I am. The exercise I mentioned above is actually to get them to understand when they’re “there”.

It’s important for students to get the idea that they can move past sensei, one of the toughest barriers to the advancement of the art is the idea that sensei will always be better. Sensei will always be sensei but at some point, if only due to age, the student will be better.

In kendo the glimpses you get when you know you’ve put one in on sensei help you to understand that. In iai it’s difficult.

In Aikido (in my experience) and other arts that are “non-competitive” it’s pretty easy for sensei to fool himself and the students into believing he’s unbeatable. You do it by arranging the instruction to your own strengths and if you’re really ego-driven, you manage to conceal even the glimpses of weakness by simply telling the students they didn’t understand what you were trying to teach.

In Jodo or the paired-kata sword koryu the techniques are defined and so it’s harder to change the rules on the fly. There students can, over the years, get to know when they’re getting a step on sensei. At first it’s on days when he’s a bit slow, maybe hurting, but later it becomes apparent that the gap is narrowing and the “wins” show up when the student finds himself easing up so sensei can keep up. Of course, one of the things that make me angry in class is a junior student who is easing up when they shouldn’t be… I’m not dead yet.

Now, it’s one thing for a student to go past you physically, age takes its toll after all. But what we want is for a student to go past on “spirit”, on “energy”. There are various forms of energy in a class, and one of those forms can be stolen. Ever had the feeling a student was stealing your energy and getting in on you? I have some ideas there. Are you competing in tournament when the lower grades do this or are you in class? In class a hell of a lot of the energy comes from sensei, and sensei is in “teaching mode”, even when practice is pretty intense. In other words, you really don’t (despite fears of ego) care if he gets one in on you. But the student is trying his best, after all you are sensei and he’s going to go full out if he’s good.

On the other hand, when a higher rank is in the room you’re not the top of the energy chain any more, not responsible for the rest of the room so that frees you up to concentrate on your own practice. You’re also concentrating so as not to disappoint your instructors.

Think about energy the next time you’re in class as a student and then as a sensei. Pay attention to whether you’re giving or stealing. Most importantly, teacher or student, aim to beat sensei on his best day, don’t wait for him to become feeble and beat him at his worst. Anything less is disrespectful.

May Seminar is coming up! http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html Get yourself out to steal some energy.

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