Thursday, February 24, 2011

Setting the Stage

The first time I ever observed Maitre Crown teach a foil class, he did something that I found amazing, at the time.

It was one of an introductory series of classes, held in a gymnasium at the local recreation center.

There were somewhere between 20-30 children in the class. A large group.

The age range appeared to be from about 7 to maybe 12 or 13, as I recall.

At the beginning of the class, as they arrived, the children all went and sat in a line, and waited for the Fencing Master.

There may have been a little quiet conversation, but when the Master arrived, all conversation immediately stopped, and each child turned his or her focus to the beginning of the class.

Throughout the class, there was no side conversation. There was no fidgeting, fiddling or wiggling. Every person in the room stayed engaged and focused on the task at hand.

A gymnasium. Full of children. Quiet children. Focused. Not running around.

How does he DO that?!?

I had only three kids myself, and I couldn't get them to behave like that!!

I was amazed. Intrigued.

Little did I know, at the time, that the "secret" to this incredible situation was very, very simple.

Set the stage.

Most people, children especially, want to do what is expected of them, most of the time.

In order to do that, they need to know what it is.

In order to know what that is, what you say, what you do, and what happens in class all need to reinforce each other.

Say what you mean.

Mean what you say.

And make sure they know that you do.

The world is full of people who don't really mean what they say. The dominant culture in many places, and certainly in the United States, strongly encourages "little white lies" as a matter of course. Right from the ubiquitous "How are you?" being followed by "fine, thanks" no matter what the reality is. And on top of that, adults, or people in positions of authority, often seem to believe that they have no obligation to be honest with those in their charge, or under their care.

That is, I believe, to put it mildly: bullshit.

But it is, unfortunately, what most people have come to expect, much of the time.

So the biggest task I have, starting a new class, is to demonstrate that in this place, in our classes, the world is different. The standard of behavior is much higher than it might be elsewhere.

It starts with my preparation for the class. I make sure to have everything with me that I need, in an organized fashion. I arrive early and make sure the space is prepared. I meet the new students at the door, introduce myself, and ask for their name. I tell them exactly what I want them to do, where I want them to sit, and that they may converse quietly until class begins. I start the class precisely on time.

In the first class of a new series of classes, we take care to explain our rules. We also explain that we never make a rule we don't need, and never make a rule we don't enforce.

Our primary rules are simple:

1. Never aim a weapon at anyone who is not wearing a mask.

2. No talking during class, unless you are asking the instructor a question, or are answering one. There will be plenty of opportunities for questions.

3. Do what we ask you to do, when we ask you to do it, how we ask you to do it, and DON'T DO ANYTHING ELSE. We will be sure to be clear and specific about what, when and how we want you to do things.

After explaining these rules, we ask the students if they understand and agree to them. Often, we will ask each individual student to personally, verbally, agree to the rules, with a handshake.

We also specifically tell the students that they are expected to behave courteously at all times. I would hope that this would be unnecessary, but unfortunately, it seems not to be. Often, we have to explain what "courteously" means, with examples.

For the rest of that first class, we are especially observant for ANY infraction of the rules. There can't be any infraction of that first rule, as there won't be any weapons in students' hands, so we are looking for the first time someone talks to their neighbor, or the first time someone starts fidgeting or pretending to swordfight, or whatever extraneous movement there happens to be. There is always something. My job (or my assistant's job) is to catch it.

This is CRITICALLY important:

The FIRST time anyone breaks a rule, no matter how slight the infraction, they are corrected. Immediately. Sharply- although not harshly. They are reminded of the rule that they specifically agreed to. They may be asked to sit out to collect themselves, if the cause of the infraction is that they are unable to maintain their focus for some reason.

Then the class continues.

There is no continued sharpness towards the student- the expectation is that once corrected, they will understand that we weren't kidding, and they will strive to behave accordingly. If they have been asked to sit out, once they have a chance to refocus, they are invited back into the exercise. Usually, this will be after one set of repetitions of whatever we're working on.

In order to be most effective, it must be the FIRST infraction, no matter how small, with no "second chances." This may feel harsh, until you are accustomed to it, but it isn't. It's CLEAR.

Both halves of the correction are equally important: that it be immediate and sharp, and that there be NO continued sharpness from the instructor, no grudges. It isn't about punishment, it's about changing the behavior. Once a student's behavior is appropriate, they are in as good graces as they were before the infraction. It's not personal, at all. It's about safety, not about ego.

With most classes, that first correction is enough to get their attention, to convey that the environment in this class is different from elsewhere in their lives, and they have no trouble adjusting, since they understand and agree to the rules upfront. If the class has a high proportion of younger students, it may take another reminder or two- and that is what it is, a reminder. By the end of the first class the students understand what we expect of them. By the end of the second class, at the latest, they understand that we really mean it, and there are no more infractions.

At the close of every class, we always thank the students for being there, and for the hard work they have put into the class. If necessary, if a student who was corrected seems to have trouble, or feel embarrassed or otherwise traumatized, I might sometimes speak to him or her individually after the class, to tell them they did a great job in class. I want to reinforce that there are no hard feelings, that as soon as the incident is over, it's over.

We don't have "behavior problems" in our classes.

We simply don't allow it.

Before we can put weapons into the hands of a gymnasium full of students, often children, we must KNOW that they will behave appropriately and safely.

We have very rarely had to take the step of asking someone to leave.

We cannot allow a student in the class who will behave in unsafe ways and endanger themselves or the other students.

After the introductory series of classes, when students elect to continue studying with us, we are all able to be more relaxed, and less formal, since everyone already understands and follows the rules. I prefer to be less formal with my students, when possible. I occasionally need to remind them- and myself- not to get TOO relaxed when we're working, but for the most part, it's really not an issue after that first series of classes.

All of this, in my opinion, is very simple, and very obvious- now that I know it.

It is also very effective.

It is especially so once I learned to manage the hard/soft correction, of immediate and sharp, followed by no hard feelings, and when I learned how to be strong, clear and to the point WITHOUT being harsh, mean, or a drill sargeant. Too many people equate "discipline" with "punishment," and they are not only not the same, but not even related. On the flipside, people equate "permissiveness" with "friendly and likeable," and those are not related, either.

Perhaps you also find it obvious. So obvious that you are wondering why I bothered to write about it.

The thing is, I have taken many classes, in different subjects, in different places, taught by many different teachers.

Most classes I have been a student in have had frequent side conversations, or other instances of a lack of attention, and/or a lack of respect for the teacher. I hear stories all the time of classes where students have to be told not to use their cellphones, or where half the class is frustrated because the other half is being disruptive. I've observed classes full of children who run wild, where little learning takes place, and where students have been injured.

As obvious as it is that setting the stage from the first moment (by modeling the expected behavior, and by explaining the rules upfront) creates an environment where learning can take place safely and enjoyably, I have rarely had a teacher who actually does that effectively.


  1. Part of the thing, for me, is that I think MOST young people are still naturally honest (psychopaths notwithstanding).
    And once they give their word to follow the rules, the rules no longer belong to me; the rules belong to THEM.
    From the beginning, they are thus ACTIVE participants in the process.
    They are actors, not merely being acted upon.
    This is the difference between discipline (imposed from outside) and self-discipline (drawn from within.)

    It will continue to be important.
    As I provide them with opportunities to EXPERIENCE for themselves the truth of what I say, the truth will BELONG to them.
    They're no longer just borrowing it from me,
    They KNOW it to be true; they're not just taking my word for it.
    Once you know the truth, nobody can ever take that away from you.
    And once you know what it's like to really KNOW the truth, you're no longer satisfied to take someone else's word for it. You want to know the truth for yourself.

    I think -- I HOPE -- this will carry over to other things.
    Time alone will tell.

  2. Reading this, I am reminded of the proper way to train a horse.

    Or a dog.

    Or a child.

    Honestly, it's all pretty much the same. It's the best possible - most humane - way to instruct someone.

    The part of not being 'harsh' after the correction - not carrying a grudge, or anger - is probably the most difficult element for an inexperienced teacher/trainer to manage.

    Because that requires more self-discipline than most are comfortable exercising. It requires the understanding of the difference between the protective use of 'force' and 'violence' - which after all, is the key to mastering any martial art.

    And ourselves.


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