The longer I teach, the more I realise that teaching and reteaching the basics is essential for most students, even though most students (especially the ones with aptitude) will get bored with these fundamentals before realising how important they are. It is also tempting to simplify the material to make it more accessible to a larger number of students, but, in general, this should be resisted, as it does nothing for the art and, in the long run, cheats the students of the potential of this great discipline. However, it is essential to realise that in teaching the principles and methods to your students, less is more—the larger the curriculum (especially for beginners), the less time there is for them to develop skills at any one thing in one or two hours a week of class time, not to mention the few fitful moments of practice that most of them will do on their own.
In the good old days students often studied with their teacher every day before going to work or in the evening after work; nowadays most students—even the better ones—will feel herculean in their dedication if they come to class three times a week for about an hour.
It is not easy to predict how quickly a particular student will make progress. Some students can come to class obsessively and still make little progress while others make the most of one or two hours of class time per week. Progress is always an individual matter.
It is important to structure your classes, as most beginners want to feel that they are being supervised and led, not left to practise on their own. I have often been told that there is a great deal of structure to my classes compared to other kung-fu classes that the beginner may have done elsewhere, and those making the comments are usually pleased with this difference.
In this light, whether you are a novice or experienced instructor, remember that the people in your classes are supposed to be there to take your advice if only for the hour or so you teach them. Unfortunately, there is a common hidden agenda with Western students who expect that paying you will entitle them to have a say in the way they are taught! This applies particularly to private students who are able to afford the extra cost and are probably used to manipulating those around with their greater buying power.
Don't bend over backwards to be accommodating to them, or to humour their idle chitchat, or the tendency to stand around when not being supervised as it often happens in group classes. As long as it is done with courtesy and common sense, the majority of adult students respond best to structure and gentle discipline. In fact, structure is not a dirty word unless you become too rigid in how you run your classes—aside from the basics, which need a lot of attention, a little variety in how the classes are run from month to month can be a good thing.
It is important to "show off" to the students once in a while to remind them that you still have some "value added" and to provide the visual stimulus some students on the edge of a big breakthrough will need to suddenly "get it." As with any peak performance, some who have those breakthroughs will hang onto the experience and use it to transform their performance from then on. With others, the breakthrough will fade almost immediately, providing only proof that it is possible for them to fa-jing or do a leaping kick. (You never know when you will be attacked by someone on horseback!)
Few in any group of beginners will bother to practise what little they learn—let alone make the effort necessary to advance to the deeper aspects of the art—outside of the formal class times. It is not easy to decide whether or not a student should learn in stages or "thrown into the water." It is true that the occasional exceptional student will be best served by being taught in detail right from the beginning. However, it is equally true that the majority of students have to learn to crawl before they walk—much less run!
Of course, this also means that the teacher must remember the basic ways of doing the various forms and not just move on to whatever level he or she is ready for and forget the material that is no longer relevant to their level of expertise. In some ways, life is simpler for those who don't teach, as they can move from one level of form practice to another without having to remember or practise the difference between the form they do now, after five or ten years, and the form they were taught as a beginners.
Sometimes, watching your students flounder is a powerful reminder that you may not have "got it" quite as much as you think. It is also true that some talented practitioners are useless as instructors through lack of teaching or verbal skills, and some who are less talented as practitioners are very good at coaching others to excellence. In particular, the language issue helps to explain why the level of bagua practice in the first few decades of it being introduced to non-Chinese in North America and Europe was relatively low. The teachers spoke poor or indifferent English and were unable to easily explain the subtleties of the art to those who were not Chinese.
In terms of physical teaching style, it is important to get to know your students before you start "laying on hands" to reposition them manually when trying to teach abdominal breathing or how to use their bodies properly. Many people are uncomfortable with any touching; conversely, some will enjoy it a little too much.
There are always groupies in any teaching relationship, and it is important to discourage such emotional dependence, which can leave the client open to emotional or physical abuse (i.e., I don't think it is ever appropriate to date or be intimate with your students). You even have to think twice about socialising with them too much, in case they misinterpret or try to use the relationship to their advantage.
I use a lot of humour while teaching, and it is usually well-received, although I have been criticised for it on occasion—some beginners want and expect their instructor to be solemn. You can't please every potential student, and I no longer try!
It is essential, in the long run, to develop your own style of teaching. Any good approach should be transmittable to at least a few people, and not be the sole property of the instructor who may be relying on his personal genius and experience to make dubious material work. In fact, one way of judging the quality of the teacher is observing their bagua group training—if none of the long-term students have any real skill despite the teacher having desirable qualities, you can assume that something is wrong with the curriculum.
Some of the old-time relationship between teacher and student was feudal and abusive. There should be no need to be a Master to get the respect of the students that you want to keep; on the other hand, it is also easy to allow those you teach to treat you too casually. Don't forget that they need you more than you need them. Oh, and don't get discouraged or take it personally if you have almost no one left after the first few weeks you start a class. There is very little demand for quality internal arts of any kind.
On the positive side, teaching what you know is one of the best ways of improving your understanding of the material and deepening it—so it is worth the effort and frustration for a few years at the very least. The real reward comes from those times when you watch a group of your students and notice magic in their movements, or see smiles and hear laughter even though they are working hard.
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