Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Good students are rare. They may not even exist by themselves. The good student is really a matter of "fit" between student and instructor. Dave, my sensei in jujutsu, was an extraordinary martial artist and an outstanding teacher... for me. Years after he retired I ran across another of Dave's old students who felt Dave was a terrible teacher: "I never understood a word he said."

Some of that was what made him such a great teacher for me. He never told me everything, just enough. He always left things for me to discover. He always set the bar right at the edge of my ability. Despite the fact that the other student felt Dave wasn't a great teacher, the student developed a lot of skill, which says something. Which may be a subtler distinction, that teaching students and teaching subjects are different and it is possible to be good at only one of those... except with some students.

Some instructors are extraordinary and can form a connection with almost any student. A small number of students are extraordinarily adaptable and can learn from many different styles of teacher. In that sense, being a good student might be a skill.

Poor students have a struggle. There are some students who have trouble in any study. Maybe uncoordinated in a physical skill or their brain doesn't process information the way the teacher transmits it. They may have difficulty learning by seeing, or hearing or touch. Maybe poor memory or poor cognition... they have a rough road. But occassionally you get a poor student who sticks with it and that long, slow road can produce a deep and durable practitioner. Moreover, the best teachers were often poor students: the extra practice, the extra explanations and ways to envision add up, and often leave someone who knows more ways to explain than anyone who struggled less. I, for one, most value the skills I learned in the subjects that didn't come easily.

The gifted student has a talent- speed or coordination or the right attitude for the study. They rarely last long. It's a cliche but what comes too easily is valued too lightly. If a student is too successful early, they often quit or decide that they know more than they do. It's a natural thing, people want to be 'good enough'. Training after all is tedious and hard work. It takes great inner discipline to try to improve and refine when you are already winning. Some confuse victory with skill. They may be successful for awhile and may even convince others- but all these talents fade, some with age, some with injury. When the talent fades the skill is shallow.

'Promising' is almost always a euphemism for lazy. The promising student has the coordination or the intelligence or the (insert attribute here) to be GOOD... if they would only get off their asses and practice. You shouldn't get these if you only teach people who want to be there.

If you teach martial arts, you will run into damaged students. Some are victims of violent crime or early abuse, and for them what goes on in class has extra inner dimensions. It is challenging and requires, from the teacher, discipline, compassion and insight. It is really not a job for amateurs. Other damaged students have been damaged by previous training. Sometimes it is physical- old injuries. Sometimes tactical, as in the student has been taught that a style based on dueling is exactly the same as self-defense. Sometimes it is more sinister. I've had instructors in other styles give a conspiratorial smile and say, "The secret is to hurt them the first day, dominate them early so that they never get up the balls to challenge you." Teaching the students to lose in a bullshit dominance game. More subtly, the student who can't stand to lose or can't stand to lose to a woman is a particularly dangerous form of damaged.

Bad students are thankfully rare. In the business world they are called "poisonous personalities". These are the ones that aren't satisfied to be unhappy themselves but must spread it. The ones who hurt other students or complain rather than train or try to set a personal agenda. Again, very rare unless they are attending unwillingly.

There are another category, too- the special students. Sometimes they fall into one of the other categories. One of my friends has alway had a "project student" a completely hopeless case that he would spend years and unlimited energy trying to bring up to an acceptable skill level. I assumed he was doing it for penance, but in retrospect he was probably simply paying back the instructors who never gave up on him when he felt hopeless. My special student was the Friday Student- who taught me about teaching.


aaron said...

Thank you for that.

Steve Perry said...

I consider myself a good student of martial arts, having been one for more than forty years, but the only thing I have going for me is attitude. I'm not quick -- physically or mentally -- to learn. I'm not fast, and at sixty, my strength isn't tremendous, nor apt to grow.

In the silat style I study, there are a handful of us who have been training for a dozen years or more. I dunno how good any of us might be, but we are persistent.

Maybe that's why we fell into silat -- where speed and power aren't the primary focus. Some of the arts in which I trained as a young man, I couldn't much do as an older one.