I am sometimes asked about what I think makes a good HEMA instructor. Sometimes students ask me, because they are thinking about becoming an instructor, and wonder what skills and characteristics I think are important. Sometimes I am asked by people who are already instructors, who want to improve how they deliver their instruction or how they run their classes.
It is quite a reasonable question and is worth discussion. In this article, I shall offer my current thoughts, and I would certainly welcome discussion if you have different ideas.
The first thing to mention should be safety. Everyone probably imagines safety first (hence the saying “safety first”!), but I think it is worth thinking about it a little further.
Of course, running safe classes involves not doing stupid things. Of course it involves making sure everyone wears proper protective kit. Of course it involves making sure that all the equipment is appropriate and that people act in an appropriate fashion.
However, how well do you know the symptoms of concussion? Are you prepared to tell a student that they have to sit out the rest of the class because they may have a concussion, and that they need to see a doctor about it?
How well do you understand mental illnesses or disabilities, and how well can you help people who have some kind of hidden problems integrate safely and healthily into your class?
How well do you understand the different needs of different kinds of students (men or women, young or old, able or disabled, tired or energetic), and can you offer a safe class environment to people who are normally one kind of student but for whatever reason are a different kind of student from time to time?
How well do you understand group dynamics and group culture, and how well do you understand how to go about creating the kind of dynamics and culture that will be inclusive and safe and healthy for the people in your club?
I highly recommend picking up a copy of the book Fear is the Mind Killer by Kaja Sadowski. She writes about several of these issues and offers a lot of valuable advice that just about anyone can use to improve what they are currently doing in their club.
I believe that communication is the art of making yourself understood. If you are speaking, and people are not understanding you, then you are not really communicating, you are just broadcasting some nonsense or gibberish. Instructors need to be understood – otherwise, what is the point? If your students cannot understand you then you are not doing very well as an instructor.
This might mean learning to speak slower. It might mean learning to enunciate better. It might mean learning to modify your accent a little so that people from other places are able to understand what you are saying.
I am not trying to suggest that having an accent is bad. Far from it! But if you cannot make yourself understood, then you are not doing a very good job of communicating with your students. You need to learn how to speak slightly more effectively, so that people understand you and receive your message.
It may also involve learning to speak louder. Can you fill a sports hall with your voice? Can you be heard over the sound of traffic outside? Can you be heard over the sound of swords clashing in the hall? It is not difficult to learn to speak louder, there are all kinds of YouTube videos on the subject, and it is well worth spending some time developing this skill.
One of my proudest moments in terms of communicating effectively was when I was teaching a broadsword seminar in Birmingham, in a very large sports hall, of which we had half and a badminton club had the other half. Badminton is not usually considered a very loud sport, but for whatever reason, they had a live DJ with them that weekend. The young lad kept turning up the volume of his music, even when asked to turn it down by the event organisers and by the venue’s staff. I decided that since he was just being a rubbish person and kept cranking up the volume, I was going to teach a lesson that everyone would learn in the hall, regardless of the DJ. I taught my lesson. All the fencers learned the lesson. I’m pretty sure all the badminton players learned the lesson as well. In a large, echoing hall, with a DJ playing loudly.
It is a physical skill to speak loudly and clearly, and it comes with practice, as long as you pay attention and do your best to communicate more effectively.
You have to have self-confidence to stand up in front of people and try to teach them something. This is quite off-putting for many people, but again, it is a skill that you can practise and develop.
When I was going through school, I hated all the public speaking exercises, and really disliked giving talks on whatever subjects the teachers made us present about in class. However, to be a good martial arts instructor, I had to get over that, and become comfortable with standing in front of a group of people and talking to them.
It is important to be confident with your instructions as well. Rather than asking your students “can you please maybe do this thing, if you feel like it?”, tell them that “the exercise is as follows, and I would like to see you perform it as well as you possibly can!” Students don’t dislike it when they are given precise instructions. In fact, I find they often appreciate it!
One of the things I would love to see in my own club where I am the chief instructor is that the other members of the instructing team, at whatever level of skill or experience, should feel comfortable and able to give me coaching and feedback when they see something that I could be doing better. It takes a certain amount of courage and self-confidence to question your chief instructor, even more so to say that there is something that could be improved in his or her training, and I think it is important that everyone on the instructing team develops this confidence and feels able to correct me if they have something helpful to offer.
Instructors need to be able to turn up on time to teach the class, at the right place, with the right equipment. Otherwise the class doesn’t run! You need to have a handle on the paperwork and the attendance register, you need to know what the information is about fees, membership, and suchlike, so that you can answer questions from your students or from potential students.
I have been involved with clubs and events in the past where not everyone on the instructing team ticked all these boxes. Sometimes they failed to turn up at the right time and quite simply missed their class. Sometimes they were simply unaware of the basic information about their own club and gave misleading information to students. This is quite unforgivable for the chief instructor of any club, but it’s also not really good for anyone involved in giving any type of instruction, or who might otherwise be seen as someone responsible for the club.
Furthermore, a good HEMA instructor should aspire to building a good mental representation of the sources they study and how their system fits together. The material in the lessons should be well-structured and should lead towards achieving a well-defined goal at the end of the lesson. The better you plan and run your lessons, the better those lessons are likely to be (with the caveat that really good and well-experienced instructors can of course teach lessons on the fly, but lessons still tend to work best when they are organised in some fashion).
Becoming more organised doesn’t have to be a chore, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. It just requires adopting a few useful habits and practising them – very much like what you expect your students to do in their training!
Becoming a good HEMA instructor is definitely a step beyond starting to teach HEMA. When you start teaching HEMA, it is good to have something to aspire towards, so that you keep developing and improving yourself and your instructing skills.
That is not to say that you are a bad instructor until you become a good instructor. Far from it! You might be able to give some real and meaningful help to the people in your club, even if it is just your first month or so of teaching. Having goals for further improvement is then quite healthy, and both you and your students should notice your lessons becoming more and more effective as you improve your teaching skills.
My question (and challenge) to you today, if you are involved in any form of instruction at all, is this: thinking about these four areas of safety, communication, confidence, and organisation, where are you strongest and where are you weakest? What can you do to improve at any one of these areas? What improvements do you think would have the greatest effect on your students and the people around you?
If you are interested in having me come to teach a seminar for your club, please do send me an email and I will be more than happy to discuss it. I can also help people in your club improve their instructing skills if that is something you would find useful as an organisation.
If you would like to support my writing efforts, please consider donating a little something towards my coffee fund!
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 teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.