How to become a good HEMA instructor

Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell
Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell fencing on the banks of Loch Lomond. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2012.

A question I am asked quite regularly is how to become a good (or better) HEMA instructor? Of course, everyone’s situation is a bit different, but here is a simple set of guidelines for becoming a better instructor. I’m afraid this is quite blunt in places, but as an instructor you cannot hide behind delusions, and you need to be honest with yourself and your students.

Needless to say, to become an instructor (rather than aiming high to become a good instructor), the approach can be much more relaxed. The same general principles apply, though: meet people, practise as much as you can, read a lot, try to understand the material as deeply as you can, and learn how to present it to other people.

Find nearby clubs and attend them

If you are not already a member of a club, then find out what your nearest club is and make the effort to attend. If the nearest club is two hours away, then go as often as you can: maybe every fortnight instead of weekly, if you just can’t bring yourself to make the trip every week.

You don’t need to do this if you just want to learn HEMA (although it is still very much advisable), but it is really important to do this and start receiving lessons from other people if you have the goal of becoming an instructor.

Decide what discipline you want to learn

You won’t get anywhere if you take a very scattered approach, with a little bit of sabre, a little bit of longsword, a hint of rapier, a sprinkle of dagger, and a pinch of quarterstaff. Focus. Pick one system, probably the discipline that is practised at the club you attend (although, quite feasibly, something new that interests you, that is not already practised at the club). Focus on that discipline and stick to it.

Read what you can

You need to read a lot in order to understand all the various contexts of why things happen the way they do in the practice of HEMA. There are several publishing companies in the HEMA community, and there are some tremendous books available. Acquire some (buy them, or ask to borrow them from your local library) and start reading, making notes as you go along!

Read your source material. Read it again. Read it until you can quote it. You need to understand your source material and know what it says. If you can’t remember if cut 1 comes from the left or the right, then what chance do you have of teaching it?

There are also several blogs in the HEMA community. The quality can be variable, to be honest, but it is worth finding out (from community figures you respect) which blogs are worth following.

There are also plenty of YouTube channels, but again, the quality is incredibly variable. There are a few good channels with reliably good videos, several channels that sometimes produce something interesting, and lots of channels that are really just noise. Focus on the best channels that produce the best videos, ignore the dross and the memes, and spend time learning from knowledgeable people.

Practise! (start a club if needs be)

At the same time as all this, keep practising. That should be in your garden or your living room if you are really stuck for options, but it should be with a club if at all possible. If there is not a club near you, then start one. It is simple to do this: just get some friends together to do some sword handling exercises and see where it goes.

You cannot become good at HEMA without practice and without practising with other people, so make this happen. You need to have at least a certain competence at performing HEMA before you can teach it well.

Attend events

There are so many weekend events (and long weekends, and single day seminars) that happen around the world that you could attend an event almost every single weekend except perhaps for Christmas. You don’t need to attend all of them, just pick some and go to them.

Events are immensely important. Yes, they can be expensive. Yes, they may require holidays from work. Yes, they may require travelling and hassle. Nonetheless, they are one of the most important elements in becoming good at HEMA, and in learning things to teach.

It is all too easy to become insular and continue to foster bad ideas and weak interpretations if you only ever stay within your club and never venture out to meet other people at national or international events. One of the best things that can ever happen to you is to go to an event, spar with everyone you meet, get beaten by everyone you meet, realise that you need to improve your practice, and then to go home and improve your practice.

Take private tuition where possible

If possible, approach another instructor and ask for private tuition. Yes, it may cost a lot. But you will learn so much, so quickly, and it will let you avoid months (if not years) worth of errors and problems (and perhaps joint pains and health issues). Make these arrangements if at all possible.

Think about how you would teach a technique or concept

By this stage, you should be well read, and you should have seen many interpretations of techniques on YouTube and at events. You should have been practising with lots of different people and you should be testing your interpretations and skills not only in your club but at other clubs or other events around the country.

Now that you have taken in all this information, start thinking about how you would explain a technique to another person. Take the basic attack in your system and think about how to explain it. What examples would you give? What demonstrations? How would you phrase your description? What exercises would you give to students to help them learn it?

Something that you can perform quite naturally may turn out to be quite difficult to explain and to teach! So it is better to start thinking about it in advance, and pay attention to how other instructors explain it. What words and phrases do they use? What exercises work well in other clubs?

Practise making lesson plans

Experienced instructors can walk into a room and teach a lesson off the top of their heads. Without their experience, however, this is recipe for disaster. Practise making lesson plans. Think about how to structure a lesson so that it makes sense and gives people a useful practice.

Practise teaching at your own club

If you are not yet doing this, perhaps because you have been a member of a club for a while and haven’t had to start a club yourself, approach the club instructor and ask if you can teach some lessons. Take responsibility for scheduling some sessions, preparing the lessons and the curriculum, and practise teaching. Ask your instructor (or more advanced students) for feedback.

Learn to speak clearly

It is no use trying to teach if your students cannot understand you. Learn to speak loudly, and clearly. Learn to enunciate better. Learn to make your voice carry across a noisy hall. Learn to speak from the diaphragm, not from the throat. Notice and observe your filler words and sounds, and train yourself to cut them out. Learn to take control of every part of your voice and speech, don’t allow habits to rule the way you speak.

The whole purpose of teaching is that the other person understands you and learns something new; if your voice and manner of speech is getting in the way of that, then you are the problem, so find a solution. There is always room for improvement.

Take a certification course if possible

Once you have had plenty of practice at teaching, and are feeling comfortable with it, approach an organisation that offers instructor training and certification. For example, the BFHS offers this in the UK, HEMA Ireland offers this in Ireland, and the HEMA Alliance offers this for the USA. Challenge yourself to teach well enough to pass one of these exams and gain yourself a certificate to say that you are a safe and competent instructor.

Bonus points!

If you manage to achieve all of that, then you are probably teaching quite happily already, or at least will be well prepared to start doing so. However, if you want to aim higher, and perhaps you dream of fame, celebrity, wealth and riches… Well, you probably won’t achieve wealth and riches, but there are some additional things you can do if you want to become better known as an instructor.

Network with other instructors

Get in touch with other instructors in your local, regional, and national areas. Find out what they are working on, and if there are any overlaps in your interests. Go along and meet them in person, take some lessons if possible, or spend some time chatting with them at an event.

Offer to teach a lesson for another club

Contact other clubs and offer to teach a lesson for them. It is probably best not to do this out of the blue; contact the instructors you already know and have talked/fenced with before, and see if there would be an opportunity to teach something for them.

Don’t expect any large payment for the service, especially at first. It may be reasonable to ask for a little something towards your travelling expenses, but treat this as part of your apprenticeship. Going to teach at other clubs is simply something you need to do to build up your name enough that people start inviting you to teach.

Write blog articles to get your name “out there”

A good way to establish yourself as a knowledgeable person is to write some blog articles on relevant topics. If you are not good with websites or don’t think you could manage a full time blog yourself, offer some guest articles to someone else who runs a HEMA blog. This will be an opportunity for you to examine your own thoughts a little more deeply, to provide a useful resource for the community, and also to get your name “out there” in front of more people.

It is crucially important that you write good articles. If you write something that is rubbish, people won’t care, and may even remember you as someone who talks nonsense. That will not help you in the long run. Take the time, make something that is good and that is relevant, and put it out into the world for the community.

Similarly, if you want to make a video, don’t make a half-arsed YouTube channel that has enthusiasm but very little expertise. Stick to what you know and what you are good at. If that means all you have in you is a single good video, then make a single good video, and leave it at that. Again, don’t make poor quality things, because people will either not care or they will remember you as someone who talks nonsense.

Offer to teach at an event

Once you have been teaching at different clubs, perhaps put your name forward for an event like FightCamp or HEMAC Dijon. Gain the experience of teaching to a large and international group of people. It may feel quite intimidating, but you need to learn to deal with your nerves and take your teaching to the next level, which is the ability to present competently for a large group of people you do not know at an international event.

Conclusions

If it sounds like it is tough to become a good HEMA instructor, then you are right: it is. It takes time, effort, and dedication. It requires physical practice, it requires travelling, it requires book learning. You need to become familiar with your source material, and you need to learn to pass on that knowledge to other people.

However, do not become disheartened. Start the process, and do what you can. Improve gradually. Get better. Feel more confident. Do better again. Learn to handle more situations. Learn to express yourself better. Improve further.

It is a path of constant self-improvement, and it is one of the most rewarding things you can do for yourself, even if you don’t find world-renown and riches!

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.