Posted tagged ‘teaching martial arts’

Should assistant instructors be paid?

July 16, 2017

A colleague from South Africa asked this question in response to our post, The Role of Assistant Instructors:

I have a brown belt, whose father has, after I gave him one month free as gratitude for his assistance now asked that I actually pay him per week for his assistance. I have never heard of this and was quite shocked (as his dad was also an old regime karateka). How would you treat this and do you actually pay assistant instructors?

I have some opinions myself, which I will share, but I’d love to hear from others, so please comment!

I come from a traditional point of view in which students are required to do assistant instructing as a part of their training. It’s quite valuable for the student, and it can be quite helpful for me… but it can equally be of concern. These assistants, lacking the judgment and experience of a seasoned instructor, are frankly, at times, as likely to lose a student as to help them. To ensure one doesn’t lose students due to bad handling by inexperienced assistants, one must provide training, instruction and supervision to those assistants. Sometimes you must do this on the fly during class, when you see things going awry. One could easily make the case they should pay extra for the privilege, rather than being paid. In any case, I always hope my students will appreciate the gift of training and be humble about their own abilities and position.

On the other had we do want to appreciate our helpers. A colleague of mine lets his helpers earn scholarship points toward training camps and seminars. I’m sure others have creative ways of showing appreciation (please post!).

You must have appreciated your assistant’s help, in wanting to give him a free month. Now the father has put you in an awkward position. I suggest you go back in time (ha ha), and create an assistant instructor program in which you state clearly what is desired and expected from assistants, set learning goals for them, and make it clear that while they are helping, they are also students. Then perhaps set up a system of rewards that you feel are appropriate, which show appreciation, but which don’t promote the idea that every helper should be paid. Set this forward for all now-and-future helpers. And decline to pay this fellow, while stressing how much you do appreciate the help they provided. Offer to let them continue on your newly-defined program, and be prepared for the dad to be unhappy.

That would be my advice – but what say the rest of you out there?

Instructors Meet to Talk About Kids and Standards

May 29, 2014

Cuong Nhu IATC in Raleigh was a great opportunity for a group of instructors who teach kids to meet together to discuss common interests and concerns. At dinner on Saturday, a group got together, prompted by the following question, posed a few weeks earlier by Sensei Michael Hornback of Hero Academy in Longwood, FL:

“I have an eight year old student who cannot consistently keep her hands closed on punches and blocks (I know the various teaching methods to achieve this, but still, there is no consistency). How would she fare in a testing situation that you preside over? Would she pass? Fail? Get probation? Be berated [or, sternly corrected on this obvious, basic error] – even though you may not know her personal history and efforts as a student?”

For discussion purposes, we agreed to limit the topic to “testing standards for children,” and not stray into “teaching methods for kids.” As important as it is to share, discuss and revisit all the tips and tricks we can use to improve performance and cure specific bad habits (like loose fists), we know that children will remain imperfect in predictably unpredictable ways, and the question will arise, again and again, what to do when an imperfect child comes up for testing. Do we advance them, or bring them to a stop? How do we decide what to do?

Present for some or all of the discussion: Senseis Doug Storm and Shawn McElroy of Sung Ming Shu Dojo in Atlanta; Sensei Parnee Frederick of Revolution Dojo in Appleton, WI; Sensei Estela Atalay of Nei Ching Dojo, Miami; Sensei Ron Thomas of Tallest Tree dojo in Gainesville, FL; Sensei Lynne Correia of Blue Heron Dojo in San Diego; Sensei Tanner Critz of Unity Martial Arts, Little Rock; Sensei Kevin Cardoni of Northern Lights Dojo, Marquette, MI; Sensei Darius Jones of Crescent Moon Dojo in Pendleton, SC; Sensei Heidi Goldstein-Sidley of Concorde Martial Arts, White Plains, NY; Master Ricki Kay of Fairwood Martial Arts, Renton, WA; and Master Didi Goodman of Redwood Dojo in Oakland, CA.

The discussion ranged across several points of agreement, areas of interest, and matters for further discussion that we hope can be pursued in this and other blogs and venues. Among the points discussed – not necessarily in order:

– For developmental reasons, and reasons of individual difference (and sometimes disability), children cannot be expected to achieve perfection, nor consistently meet absolute standards for rank testing within Cuong Nhu.

– Instructors working with children and teens are in a constant process of evaluating, adjusting, and making individual decisions about what a student can or can’t master at the moment; things are not black and white, and this kind of flexibility is what good teaching is about.

– Even within a structured system like our children’s curriculum, this kind of flexibility also applies to testing: Instructors must decide which imperfections get a “temporary pass” and which ones constitute an absolute roadbloack to advancement.
– Instructors differ on which requirements they consider “roadblock” requirements. These may also differ case by case. For example, Sensei Tanner regards the basic push-up requiremment as an absolute after purple belt level, whereas many of us are flexible with weak push-ups in children, but are strict in other areas.

– Children’s testing, in general, requires much greater flexibility than adult testing.

– Different rank levels can be characterized by specific areas of concern (“what general qualities do you look for below purple belt? What do you look for from purple belt to blue belt?”), and these could form the basis for general agreement on testing roadblocks vs. passes. (This needs further discussion.)

– Instructors who do not work extensively with children and youth could benefit from some education and communication from those of us who do, in order to help them understand and handle testing situations more effectively/productively when kids and youth are involved.

– As instructors, we can help a student who has weak areas, but we can’t help a student who quits.


The concept of “growing into a rank”
was raised and of interest to many present. Master Ricki Kay stated that, in the children’s ranks through green belt, she considers a student ready for the next belt or stripe when they have reached an excellent level of performance on their current rank requirements, along with a basic knowledge of the next level requirements. For example, a two purple stripe is ready for purple belt when their two purple stripe techniques are excellent, and they have a basic knowledge of the purple belt techniques. Upon receiving purple belt, they have the opportunity to grow into the rank by raising their performance on the purple belt techniques.

This differs from the approach that would hold the student back from purple belt until the purple belt techniques were mastered to a level of excellence. In fact, it was noted, the purple belt techniques (including back stance and diagonal stance movements) are very difficult for young children to master, and the transition from 2 purple stripes to purple belt can take a very long time for those kids, leading in some cases to boredom and quitting. The “growing into rank” concept gives a different way to think about the problem.

Master Ricki also used the phrase “carrying our students.” When we advance students who have weak areas, with the expectation of helping them improve or grow into their rank, we are agreeing to “carry them” to some degree. Everyone who works with young kids agrees to carry them to a certain point. We have to be conscious of how far we are willing to carry them, and how we’re going to get them, in the end, to stand on their own.

Some instructors expressed concern about whether they were keeping children in rank for too long, or not testing kids often enough. The subject of realistic time-in-rank requirements needs further discussion.

Several of these same issues were covered in an older blog post, “How good is good enough?”, which is worth revisiting.

Also of interest is an older post on belt testing.

We invite instructors who were present to correct or add to these notes, and invite everyone to continue the discussion in the comments section, or propose other questions for discussion.

What to do about persistent talkers and goof-offs

February 5, 2013

bpostureA colleague has asked us to revisit the topic of misbehaving and “low-effort” students. The students they describe are ones we all have in our classes from time to time: Those whose effort is minimal (loose fists, weak stances, lazy posture) even though they are capable of good technique; who talk and goof off with whoever is around them, as often as they can get away with it; and who don’t improve their behavior in response to any of the standard approaches (ranging from “catch them doing something good” to “sit out the fun stuff” to whatever your most serious discipline happens to be).

Let’s add that, in spite of their exasperating behavior, these are not kids who “hate karate” and really just want to quit, nor are they malicious trouble-makers – they disrupt by socializing too much, not by being anti-social.

So, my colleague asks, are some kids just too immature to understand the required behavior – and we have to put up with it till they begin to grow up? What approaches have other instructors tried for handling and motivating these kids?

Attendance Cards and Taking Responsibility

July 10, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to get my young martial arts students to take more responsibility for themselves, for each other, for their training and their own progress. Of course I talk to them about these things, instruct them about doing so, urge them during class to be that kind of student. But words don’t always sink in; you just can’t assume they will get it. And this is doubly so with the younger kids.

There are always a few who seem born with the right attitude. They focus, they work hard; they practice with the intent to make progress.  These students are gems in the dojo; they would probably excel in any setting. Probably, too, their parents are reinforcing this ethos at home.

Then there are the students who attend class with enthusiasm, but when the hour ends, they drop it like a toy left in the middle of the floor and move on to the next activity. Come the next class, they don’t remember what they practiced. It’s as if they have to learn everything anew, every class. Some of these kids will happily tread water forever, if someone doesn’t come along to push or pull them toward their next rank. Yet they want that rank. They just don’t understand they have to earn it; they don’t get it that they aren’t earning it simply by showing up for class.

Practice with the intent to make progress. That’s what every student must learn to do, and what quite a few kids in my crowded younger-age classes have seemingly not been doing lately. So I did some thinking and decided, among other things, it was time once again to implement some form of Attendance Card/Test Card system to get them focused on what they need to do. I spent time on the recent holiday designing a new card to my liking, and more time over the weekend printing and cutting a set of color-coded, rank-specific cards. I’ll begin phasing in the new system today.

Mind you, I have used various forms of “test cards” and “rank checklists” over the years. These new cards combine familiar old components. But I’ve made an important mental shift. In the past, no matter how I might have described it, I was treating them as tools to help me keep track of all the kids, their attendance, and their progress toward rank. I was bearing full responsibility for tracking the students, then providing the necessary motivation as needed. The tools were helpful at times, but when I found they were more trouble than help, I dropped them, picking them up again only when I had a suitable (or troublesome) group in class.

This time around I realize the tools are for the students’ benefit, not mine. They are a visual representation of attendance and progress that can – and hopefully, will – begin to show even the youngest kids a connection between their own efforts and their progress toward rank. They’ll begin each class now, by getting & looking at their card, before bringing it to the instructor for use during class. It’s just one more component in an ongoing emphasis on taking responsibility for oneself.

I want to credit Kelly Muir’s attendance-card system, as described in her book Instructor Revolution, for sparking this mental shift for me. (Her student-run dojo is all about taking responsibility!) My review of her book can be found here

Instructors: What tools do you use to help kids learn to take responsibility for their training? Please post your thoughts and methods in the comments section.

Here’s a fictitious sample attendance card. The name and dates are made up, of course. A few things to note: The number of boxes in the attendance grid increases as rank increases (the first few levels have only 24 boxes). The number is higher than the minimum requirement for the rank. However, I’m not highlighting the minimum requirement, because it’s not important. Don’t focus on the minimum; rather, meet the minimum and keep training! On back, two levels of rank requirements are listed, and can be signed off by the instructor if desired.

Belt Tests/Gradings – What’s the Best Way?

June 3, 2012

Earning rank, in the form of belts and/or stripes, is an important part of the martial arts experience for many children who train. Instructors who test children for rank handle it in many different ways. Some offer tests on a set schedule, for any students deemed “ready;” others schedule a test only when there are students clearly ready. Some have special test-only days; others integrate testing into regular class time. Some tests are by invitation only; others permit students to make the choice. Some schools fail students on a regular basis, while others preclude failure by pre-selecting well-qualified candidates. Some schools I have heard of test and promote the whole student body every couple of months. Still others eschew testing and simply promote students when it seems right.

How is testing handled at your school? Why do you (or your instructors) do it that way? Tell us the pros and cons. Let us know, too, how big your classes are and how many students typically test or are promoted at a time.

Being Positive is Not About Being “Nice”

January 27, 2012

“Any eight-year-old can point out someone else’s mistakes.”

That’s a quote from my 1991 article, “Learning from Children: Five Easy Lessons for Teachers,” in the book Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching. And, as anyone who works with kids knows, they do it frequently, often calling other kids on mistakes they don’t realize they are also making themselves.

I went on to say, no offense to eight-year-olds, but that can’t be what good teaching is all about. I stressed that it takes more skill to discern what students are doing right, than what they are doing wrong. Mistakes are obvious; pointing out mistakes is shallow teaching.

A similar subject recently came up in my parallel life as a writer-slash-poet. I was discussing with some writer friends an approach used by a successful local workshop leader we know. When writers in his groups comment on each other’s work, he requires them to begin with those things they liked, before launching into weaknesses and negatives. Many assume our friendly workshop leader uses this approach in order to be nice – to make people feel good, so they’ll be more likely to keep coming to the workshops.

I disagree, and I link it back to what I said about those eight-year-olds, twenty-some years ago. Requiring a reader to say something positive is a way of ensuring the critic has taken more than a superficial look at the work, before going for the negative critique. Criticism (the negative kind) is all too easy – and all too satisfying for some people, given the human trait of feeling superior when putting something down. By requiring the positives, our workshop-leader friend is raising the quality of instruction, by requiring would-be instructors to examine the work more carefully before speaking.

And, yes, it is more pleasant for the writer to hear some good things before the bad. This may make them more receptive to criticism, but more importantly, the criticism that comes through this process will often be deeper, more honest, and more useful.

Now let’s get back to the topic of teaching martial arts. There are those who confuse positive instruction with being nice – catering to students feelings, lavishing praise while avoiding critique, never saying anything that might (supposedly) harm their self-esteem. This is a mistake.

Positive instruction is not about being nice. It’s very pragmatic. It works, for one thing: Thanks to years of research in coaching and human behavior, it’s well understood now that the mind more easily processes, and the body more easily acts upon, instructions framed in positive (“do this”) rather than negative (“don’t do that”) terms.

And it helps you be a better instructor. What, after all, is your job as instructor? It’s not to correct mistakes day after day (though admittedly, you will spend some time doing that). It’s to guide students on a path from where they are now, to where they could be at their best. The ability to see what they are doing right is essential to both those things: seeing where they are now, and understanding where they could be. You’ll use that knowledge to build upon and to mold. It’s essential, then, that you take the time to see it – and express it.

Being nice is something altogether different. It’s about demeanor, personality, maybe personal style. Martial arts instructors come in all varieties, and I must say some of the most successful, effective instructors I know – experts in positive instruction – are the most hard-nosed, demanding, no-nonsense personalities on the mat. And they are beloved, not because they are warm-fuzzy-nice, but because there’s no question they care deeply about their students’ progress. On the flip side, although I won’t make a blanket statement, some of the warm-fuzzy-nice guy instructors I’ve seen have also been some of the least effective. The students are smiling and having fun; they leave the mat happy, and eager to come back; but on the other hand, they don’t learn much of what I’d call martial arts.

Where do you fall on the scale, fellow instructors? Warm-fuzzy? Tough meanie? – And how do you integrate positive instruction into your style?

The “Deck of Cards Class” and Other Tricks for Making Hard Work Fun

July 3, 2011

"Six push-ups!"

Instructors: What tricks do you use to make the workout fun? I don’t mean “playing games” so much as making a regular workout seem like a game, or giving it an aspect that keeps kids engaged through many necessary repetitions.

The “Deck of Cards Class” is something I picked up years ago from a member of an adult class I was teaching. He got it from a Hapkido instructor he’d trained under in college. I stole the basic idea–which was to use the suits and numbers to determine the repetitions done in class–and adapted it to my tastes. It goes like this: I shuffle a deck of playing cards, and designate meanings for the four suits. Clubs mean ‘hand techniques,’ spades mean ‘kicks,’ hearts mean ‘exercises/calisthenics,’ and diamonds may mean different things, depending on the class and my whim– maybe partner work, rolls and drops, or performing in front of the group. Aces and twos of any suit usually mean ‘kata.’

Class proceeds by letting a student draw a card, and having the whole class perform the repetitions suggested by the card. For example, if the first card drawn is nine of spades, I’ll choose a kick, and we’ll do a count of nine (or perhaps, nine on each leg) with a kiai on number nine. Then the next student draws. In a class with older or more advanced students, I’ll let the kids choose the techniques, jumping in only if someone is taking too long to decide. (It’s important to keep things moving!) Even with the younger kids, I’ll let them choose for hearts – push-ups, frog jumps, jumping jacks, etc. When clubs are drawn, the technique might be a hand combination (as opposed to a single technique), as appropriate. If the card drawn is a low number, I might make the most of it by tripling the technique done on each count. The possibilities are endless, really.

In a good Deck of Cards Class, each student will get to draw twice or more. Even when they don’t get to choose the techniques, they feel a sense of excitement and control when they’re drawing from the deck. It’s fun!

Do you use any similar devices to keep things exciting? Please share.