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Active Teaching, Active Learning

Photo by G. Hoover

Most of my kendo life I've been happy and content being a student.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still very much a student and I don't think that will ever change.  That's part of the beauty of kendo; there's always more to learn and more to improve.  Three yeas ago, though, I started teaching the beginning class as their main instructor.  That mantle has only recently been (mostly) passed onto another member.  Here and there I would lead the other classes, as well, including our main class, where the bulk of our members come to train.  I never thought much of it, though, and would either follow a set plan or I would run basic drills and our basic format.  Most of the time I tried to follow a coherent plan of drills that would build on top of each other, i.e. kote, kote-men, then using kote-men as a counter to kote.  I also liked to build drills around a theme, such as kote drills, or counters effective for men, or other things of that nature.

Lately I've been running the main class a lot.  We have a monthly focus that we work on, but other than that it's been pretty wide open for me to run drills that are appropriate.  This has given me room to play with and one thing that keeps coming to mind are "What would benefit me?  What would benefit the group?"  From there I've been formulating classes and drills to try and answer those questions.  It's not perfect, not by far, but I feel like I'm able to incorporate some drills that we've done before that might be new for newer members, and fresh looks or a new focus on drills that we do regularly.

One thing I have been working on, and I've incorporated into drills lately, is a focus on constant readiness.  I have a habit of sometimes getting into someone's striking distance without having a real plan of action. This is dangerous for me as I find I can be taken by surprise in those situations, and surprise is one of the four sicknesses (shikai) that you will hear about at some point in your kendo journey, if you haven't already.  To combat this I've been working on being ready way before I enter, and having a plan of attack.  I've also been working on making this "plan" organic and dynamic, so I can work to adapt to how my opponent moves and reacts as I move in.  And since I've been focusing on that as one of my areas of improvement, I've become more sensitive to it when I see it in others.  With people that I train with regularly, I can see when they step in and aren't ready, and I'm able to take advantage of that most of the time.  So one of the points that I've been harping on during drills is to be ready BEFORE stepping into your hitting distance.  This can be done with just about any basic drill that we do, so it's easy to throw that extra layer in for people to think about.

Something I've noticed a lot of our members doing, but I don't necessarily do myself, is gyaku do.  Maybe I don't do it often because I'm not good at it, or maybe because I can't find or create a good opening for it.  Or, rather, a combination of both is probably closer to the truth.  I've been on the receiving end of a lot of missed gyaku do, though, but instead of shutting it down and telling them to stop doing it, I've incorporated a bit of time to practice it in a controlled environment in the hopes that they will improve.  I've given some basics on how to approach, strike, and follow through, and over the past few practices I've actually seen a lot of improvement.  I feel like having the attitude of "Let's improve this together," instead of "Don't do that" will hopefully encourage growth rather than discourage and cause stagnation in their techniques.

All of this has been peppered with a healthy does of advice from the teachings of our dojo.  One of our regular points to consider has always been, "Only do a technique as fast as you can do it correctly," and I've done my best to try and pass this on when I can.  Speed can be built later, but proper technique and movement should always be more important, in my opinion.

This is only one example among many examples of thoughts about teaching, but it's working for me for now.  I not only get to present my ideas and thoughts and share what I've learned as it relates to different drills and techniques and areas of improvement, but I also get the benefit of growing along with the members, both as a student and as a teacher. 


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