Teaching HEMA

I suppose it’s natural that we want our passion to be seen as important, but I wont apologise for thinking there’s a part of HEMA that is consistently underplayed: teaching. Teaching, instructing or however you term it (and, yes, one can differentiate the terms) seems to be an end result rather than a goal. Don’t know what to do with a senior student? Make them an assistant instructor. Want to practice with the seniors and fed up with teaching newbies? Promote a senior student.  Want to make your own way? Form your own club and make yourself the senior instructor. Rarely do we train the instructors and rarely do we ask if some should be teaching at all. Yes, I’m being fatuous up to a point, but it does seem that there is less joy in teaching than in competing or research. Which is strange, really, as it’s a corner stone of HEMA. Where does all that research go to? How did you get to your gold?

A very great HEMA teacher took me aside some years ago and told me I should start my own club. I was flattered and a little smug until he told me that I needed to ask a key question: what environment did I want to create for other people? Previously, any thoughts about starting a new club had been to ego. I was unhappy where I was and I thought I could do it better. I do think one needs a bit of that arrogance if wanting to strike out alone. However, what my friend was telling me I had to do was put the students first.

Obvious, right? Well, I’m not so sure. We talk a lot about what should be taught and in what way technically, but I don’t think (or at least I rarely see) people talking about enthusing the students, developing them, getting them better for them and not for the standing of the club. We can be quite callous in dismissing individuals as ‘crap’ or there to make up the numbers. ‘They help to pay for the hall’. In doing so, we discard the passion and emotion that they have in coming to train.

What we do is a passion, but for those of us who are ‘senior fencers’, we face the danger of hubris through our depth of knowledge. We are not great warriors or wise Jedi, but nonetheless we can be liable to consider ourselves superior to those we claim to teach. Those students have some into fencing from all sorts of backgrounds and while they will hold misconceptions or dreams, those misconceptions and dreams are dear to them. They have come with a desire to learn and, in many cases, to act out the sword fighting fantasies that colour their imagination. We would not, I hope, crush an excited child in their enthusiasm, and yet we often treat an adult’s enthusiasm as a child’s, reeling off lists as to how they are wrong. In many cases, students have not only discovered that this pastime exists (by accident or research), but they have gotten the nerve to walk into a group of strangers and profess their ignorance, plus their lack of fitness and basic coordination. They are waiting on us and, at this point, it’s time to teach, which is not the same as a display of knowledge.

There are various methodologies to teaching and this article is not to suggest a particular one. What I do want to promote is enthusiasm and passion. This is hard work, but if you want to teach, you are essentially saying that you want to guide people to knowledge and understanding. And guiding is a shared experience, not mechanically receiving or copying. Those truisms of a good teacher being also a good student didn’t just appear. My aim is that my students are one day to become my peers; I train them to beat me. More importantly, I want them to understand. This is important as they will go out and learn and in so doing I will learn from them. In this way, I grow; I’m teaching myself, albeit indirectly.

It requires structure and continuity. Two great ‘sins’ which many (including myself) have fallen into are as follows, each one a paving on the road to well-intentioned hell. They are based on the desire to remain fresh and interesting.

  1. The first is death by a thousand examples, or drowning the students in techniques. I see techniques as illustrations of the real learning, principles. Students must understand the principle of what they do. I find techniques can be dangerous as the student can obsess about getting that one thing right and never understand the application. In this first sin, to make the lesson really fun, we stuff it with as many different techniques as possible, moving the student on quickly so they can try the next thing. In this way we teach the student how to do a number of things devoid of context, many of which they probably may not remember anyway.
  2. The second sin is when we mix it up by changing the lessons week on week. Yes, new stuff is fun and we cover sexy techniques, but students need a thread, a story, to follow so they build every session.

Teaching is hard, but so, I feel, should be learning. The more palatable word we use these days is ‘challenging’. Of course, we need to teach the physical form of what we consider to be correct, and that, naturally, involves a degree of copying and form correction. However, students should not be simply told this, nor should they be simply told why. They have to think. We often fall into the trap of parroting what we are taught without questioning. I ask students to tell me why they are doing what they do. This is enlightening for me, as I hope my thoughts are for them: frequently I am fortunate to receive a thought or observation that adds to what I’m trying to impart. I don’t think it can be overstated how wonderful this is: the student is considering their actions and working it through. Conversely, when I receive responses that are, in my opinion, wrong, I take care how to respond: ‘no’ with a smile is a long way different to ‘no’ and turning away.

Am I treating my students too delicately? No, as if they don’t try, I will shout. But punishing someone for trying to answer is a reflection of bad teaching, not a bad student. At any rate, I expect students to think, and for that I have to engage. Naturally I can take this too far, and small steps should be taken onto the learning curve. However, ‘do what I do: it’s correct’ is a statement of stagnation, that the teacher themselves has no enthusiasm for their role.

Teaching should be a vocational desire to share passion with others.  I don’t believe it is a way to facilitate status, or that it is the dead end that awaits the senior student or the retired competitor. It is, and must be, the desire to enthuse, to inspire and to share that drives the teacher. If you think this is too flowery, ask yourself some simple questions: what do you want from a teacher? How do you want to feel in class? And what should you demand from them? Students come to us with their enthusiasm and the least we can do is reward them with ours.

Comments 3

  1. “My aim is that my students are one day to become my peers; I train them to beat me. More importantly, I want them to understand. This is important as they will go out and learn and in so doing I will learn from them. In this way, I grow; I’m teaching myself, albeit indirectly.” This is exactly my philosophy and why I branched out to start my own group.

  2. This is a fantastic and insightful article! Thank you for sharing it, as it has helped me crystallise my own approach to teaching, which has been by instinct but never put into words! I encourage ALL who teach to consider this approach seriously!

  3. Wise words. I’ve recently taken on a new club and while trying to keep the interest of everyone, I sometimes fell I’m losing others. Focus is the key, and relax the syllabus every so often with a bit of fun technique from other sources. As you say, Principles are more important than techniques. (Although some tech must be demonstrated in order for the students to develop and feel like they are getting somewhere. ) I will keep an eye out for future posts !

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