Another Note on Pedagogy - How Not To Be a Bad Martial Arts Student

In my previous blog post, I talked about what it means to be a good martial arts teacher. This time, I will talk about what it takes to not be a bad student. This is more appropriate than discussing how to be a good student, because being a good student is really simple. Not being a bad one is very hard, and there are things we are all naturally inclined to do that make us bad students. These are things that you want to pay close attention to, because if you keep them in check, you will improve and get the most of out of the time and money you invest in your art. You will also help your fellow students, and that's important. We are all in this together, and we have to help each other.  

There are many aspects to not being a bad student, and I can't cover them all. Most of them are simple:

  • Take your classes seriously, don't fool around or cause distractions, listen to what you're told to do, and do it. 
  • Come to class on time, but if you can't, that's okay, so long as you join quietly without causing disruptions and accept that you may not be able to fully participate because you missed critical information. And also accept that that's your fault. 
  • Respect your teachers, seniors and other fellow students. Don't do things that make their lives harder.
  • Don't expect things that you don't deserve or haven't earned. 
  • Ask questions, but don't keep asking them if you don't understand. Class time isn't just for you. Approach the instructor after class.
  • Don't be adversarial in drills...don't try to win the drill. Play your role.
  • Don't stand around chatting when a break hasn't been called. Keep working, or ask for a break if you can't. 
  • Do your part. 

That last bit, that's what the rest of the post is about, and it's the most important. As I mentioned in the previous post, the best martial arts teacher I know has a saying, "The teacher gives 10%, the other 90% is up to the student." As you may have noticed, the lion's share of that ratio falls on you, the student. Let's try to put this into perspective. If I am the teacher and you are the student, and we are painting a room together, you have to paint all the walls. I only have to paint the small areas near the edge of the floors and ceiling. If we are cooking a pizza together, I just find the recipe and you do all the cooking. Let's take a look at what that means for you as martial arts student. 

For starters, it is your responsibility to not demand too much time from your instructors. If there are 10 people in a class and the instructor has 20 minutes of in-class time to devote to all of your individual needs, you get 2 minutes. Sometimes you get more, because other people don't need theirs. And sometimes you get less. A lot less. Because one person in the group is monopolizing that time. Such a person is asking for more than is their due, and in doing so, hurting you. One of your primary responsibilities as a student is to not do this. Learn to work with the time you are given. If you need more, approach the instructor after class and ask for help. 

Your greatest responsibility as a student is to do what your instructor tells you to do as it relates to improving your skills. Let's say that you have a problem with a particular aspect of footwork. Your instructor, in those two minutes that he or she can allocate to you in a given class, sees that you have this problem and gives you some homework. "I want you to spend 15 minutes every day doing this thing(shows you quick drill)." Your job is to understand what this thing is and how to do it, and to communicate this understanding or lack thereof immediately, and then to do the thing. Every day, for 15 minutes, until the next time that particular footwork comes up and your instructor signs off on the fact that you now know how to do the thing. If you don't understand it, the instructor's job is either to help you understand it in the time available, or simplify it until you do (break it up into even smaller skill drills that are easier). But these things that you are told to do are almost always very simple things that everyone understands. The only hard part is actually doing them. 

Now let's say that you did the thing for the first couple of days, but then life happened, or you got lazy, or you forgot, or whatever. You didn't do the thing again and then suddenly it's the day of class and you're there and you can't make the drill work because you didn't do the thing and you still don't get the footwork. Your instructor will sigh and try to make spot corrections, but here's the important part. You do not deserve a moment of that person's time. Not one. He or she will be fixing the drill for the sake of your training partner, whose progress you have compromised because you didn't do what you were told to do. Until you do the thing you were told to do and fixed the problem you were having, you have no rights to your instructor's attention You were given a simple task, you failed to perform that task, and until you do, you need to shut up and accept it. That's part of your 90%. 

I've been a student longer than I've been a teacher, because we are, all of us, always students. So I know how this works. I have often been given things to do that I didn't do (hi Sang!). And if my teacher paid any attention to me after he realized that I hadn't done the things, then I was immensely grateful, because I didn't deserve it. In the real world, your instructors will not flunk you the moment you fail to do a thing. They will give you many chances, but if you keep failing them, you will be ignored. And that will be your fault, not theirs. Ultimately you may be asked to no longer attend their class. That will be your fault as well, and you will deserve it (provided that the instructors did their part). 

One of the biggest obstacles that people face is our capacity as human beings to fool ourselves and rationalize our actions. "I have to work 28 hours a day and then I have to cook and take care of my 89 kids and 32 cats and 1 really fat dog and so I don't have time to do the thing, but I'm not unique, right? Everyone else has these issues...I bet that no one else did their thing either. And I'm paying for this, right? They owe me! I will do the thing in class. It's pretty simple, I thought about it all day, and that's as good as doing it right? And oh, I just remembered, I kinda did it for 30 seconds yesterday and that's enough, that 70 seconds that I did. Yeah! Those five minutes were totally fine. I mean, that's what he asked for right? Fifteen minutes, and I totally did." We all do this to some extent. Recognize it and stop doing it. You did not do the thing, it wasn't even 30 seconds, let alone 15 minutes. Thinking about it doesn't count. Paying for class doesn't mean anyone owes you anything, it means you are sharing the cost of the school's existence because you want to learn. Do your part!

Another thing that some people do is use crutches, and that is one of the biggest causes of failure. What is a crutch? A crutch is something you use to justify your failures. For example, say I have a bad leg and I use a crutch to walk and someone says, "Hurry up! You're holding us up! You are so slow." My response will be, "But...I have a crutch! My leg is messed up!" And they will say, "Oh, yeah, sorry, I didn't see that. It's okay then, we'll work with you."

In the above example, I had a real crutch. But not all crutches are real, and not all real crutches are still needed. Let's say that my leg heals, but I am so used to special treatment that I keep walking around with the crutch even though I no longer need it. Maybe I've even convinced myself that I do need it, because my leg hurts sometimes. That's when a crutch becomes a problem. Have you ever caught yourself saying, "Well, I didn't do the thing, because I can't, because I'm [something, whatever]" but deep down inside, in some dark corner that you are only dimly aware of, you know that you are making an excuse? Yeah, you know you have. We all do it sometimes. The trick is to admit it to yourself, realize that your bullshit is hurting not only yourself but your fellow students, and to cut it out. We all have obstacles to overcome, and overcoming them is our job, not our instructor's. The instructor's job is to identify the real crutches and slow the group down to walk as the same speed as the person with the messed up leg. It is also to speed up until the fakers either drop their crutch or are left behind to be torn apart by wolves. 

This can all be summed up as follows. Do your part. Don't think you deserve more than you do, and don't ask for more than you deserve. Watch yourself carefully for signs of self deception and rationalization, and cut that shit out. Think of others, not just yourself. For the ninety thousandth time, we are all in this together. Take the 10% your instructors owe you and give your 90, and we will all grow together. Do any less, and you are part of the reason why we won't. It's never too late, but knowing is only half the battle.