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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lessons in Seattle

I expected that over the course of this project, I would learn a lot of physical skills and a few nonphysical ones.  I still hope to do exactly that.  Certainly there is a lot to be learned in martial arts besides movement, so maybe I should not have been surprised that most of the lessons here were not physical in nature.

I told Kris Wilder what I have told every instructor I've ever trained under:  "I am happy to try to learn whatever you try to teach me."  He took that more literally than most and spent that training time teaching me about teaching.  He is perhaps better known for teaching physical skills, but if you have read Sensei Mentor Teacher Coach, you will understand why I did not feel cheated by this at all.  (And if you have not read it, you may want to fix that sooner rather than later.)

It seems that after watching me teach on the first day, he got it in his head (correctly) that I would want to teach martial arts for a living someday.  Since he was happy with how I ran class, he focused on the meta-skills of teaching.

Seven Basic Actions instead of kicking for this class.

First he showed me his method for planning a class.  He keeps notes for each class in a subtle file on the wall.  The template is split into three sections, warm ups, basics, and skill drills.  He has pencil markings over a week's worth of pages for what he plans to cover. His lower level classes are just reductions of the main lesson plan.  Even though he stressed the importance of planning, he also highlighted the need to stay flexible.

He also talked about how important it is to "read outside of your industry."  He said that he learns things outside of martial arts that help him with his martial arts every day, because he has made a habit of exploring other fields.  He told stories of making connections overseas as an accidental byproduct of investigating cinematography, and at worst it has been "a neat little dead end," as when he learned the neurology of how the eyes focus while studying magicians' tricks.  He cited Malcolm Gladwell as a perfect example of success through exploring other industries, as his books tend to illustrate broad concepts by in-depth excursions into a wide range of fields.

If you have not read Outliers, you should fix that immediately.
Seriously.  Stop reading this blog and go do it.

But most of the instruction came through stories and examples.  He told me about how he motivated a young student with severe attention difficulties by making sure the kid knew he wasn't in trouble when he heard his name called again and again, but instead it meant that he was about to hear something important that would help him learn and excel.  He told me about his rules for managing disruptive behavior.  Kids who need a time-out sit at the edge of the mat, but if they leave the mat they have to go home.  It draws a concrete line between being in class and not.  He even told stories about how to deal with upset parents and how to kick a student out of the school if a severe problem can't be solved any other way.

He also told a story about how he helped an adult student overcome a drug problem and clean up his life after getting out of jail.  When I suggested telling this story in detail on the blog, he seemed to think the story was not unique enough to be interesting.  While I have to respectfully disagree on that point, what he said next was plenty interesting by itself. He said, "That's not what teaching is about."

Kris Wilder, between classes.

He went on to explain that the goal is not to help people change, but to help them find something inside of them that was already there.  This launched us into a discussion about why people sign up for martial arts classes.  If you ask them, they will often say they want to learn self defense.  But why do they want to learn self defense?  Most of them do not face violence on a regular basis, so most new students' desire to learn self defense doesn't come from a fear of what will happen if they don't have those skills.  Instead, they often hope that this will be a solution to something that is missing in their lives.  For example, everyone has an innate need to feel competence.  Someone who does not feel competent at work or feels unappreciated there might seek to fulfill that need through martial arts.  In other words, students are already looking for something inside themselves.  The instructor's job is just to help them find it.

With kids it's different, of course, since sometimes they join because of the parents' interest and not their own.  He suggested a scenario where a kid's parents are "the Charlie Brown teacher," where it becomes the instructor's job to reach the students in a way the parents can't.

But he also pointed out that even though the objective of teaching is to reach students and help them find what is already inside them, reaching more students doesn't necessarily make you a better teacher.  Sensei Kris puts his money where his mouth is on this one.  He runs a small school, both in square footage and number of students.  By keeping it small he hopes to reach his students more deeply.  It's also worth pointing out that I never once heard him boast of his students' skill, but he was happy to tell stories of their achievements outside of martial arts.  There are no trophies or other tokens of students' karate accomplishments on display, but he does celebrate the students who have left him to go to college by displaying their schools' pennants.

The accomplishments of West Seattle Karate students.

In the end I interviewed Sophal and told his story instead of the one about getting out of jail.  It turned out to be another story about finding something within that was always there.  That was clever on Sensei Kris's part, but then he went all Mr. Miagi on me.  At one point in an unrelated conversation, I told him a story from when I was a kid.  One summer I taught a girl in Special Ed how to read, not knowing that everyone else had given up on her.  My point was that she obviously didn't deserve to be given up on, if a grade-schooler like myself could help her.  Sensei Kris suddenly took a serious tone and reinterpreted the story as evidence that I have always been a good teacher.

Now, please bear with me while I recap:

1.  Sensei Kris knew that I was not terribly confident about teaching his students.
2.  Sensei Kris was trying to teach me about teaching.
3.  Sensei Kris asserts that teaching is really about helping people find something they've always had.
4.  After hours of instruction on teaching, Sensei Kris finds a way to suggest that this is a skill I've always had.

I see what you did there, sir.

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